Owner Greg Keenan proves that Papa Keno's slice is "as big as your face."
Owner Greg Keenan proves that Papa Keno's slice is "as big as your face."
Mark A. Manger

A Little Slice of Heaven

There isn't a foodie in the world who'd deny his appreciation of truffles or foie gras, caviar, Swiss chocolate or triple-cream cheese. But none of those delights begins to approximate the glory of the drippy, cheese-covered, orange-tinted triangle that is The Slice.

Like a bazillion other students, I lived on slices in college. Back then, they were 50 cents each, came with a Coke for another 79 (the tab was often paid in pennies) and were available 24 hours a day at the grimy little Pizza Palace near the dorms. Nothing, absolutely nothing, tasted better than a slice that had been tossed back into the oven so that the cheese re-melted and the bottom became extra-crispy; you washed down this delicacy with a caffeinated beverage so big there was no way you could fall asleep while studying, say, the five Ws of reporting.

The Where of the slice: Italy may have invented pizza, but New Yorkers took it to the next level. (When: The first pizzeria opened in the Big Apple in 1895.) Today in this country, pizza transcends all socioeconomic differences. You're as likely to see an Armani-clad broker bending over at the well-tailored waist to eat his grease-spurting slice as you are a gang member (the Who). Why? There's just something about a real New York slice that's purely bad and good at the same time.


Papa Keno's

Closed location

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday

The Slice: $2.50
Small plain pie: $9
Large plain pie: $12
Standard toppings: 65 cents-$1.50
Premium toppings: 70 cents-$1.60
The Sicilian: $12
Columbo (small): $13.60
BBQ (small): $13.60
Don Ho (large): $15
Italian sandwich: $5
Grinder: $5.25
Pesto turkey sandwich: $5.75

Sure, in Rome I had pizzas that were so delicious they made my heart beat faster, with sweet sauces and real mozzarella held in by a bubbly, crackly crust -- but I never did find a place that would let me get only one glorious slice of pizza. The Italian pies were too important to be savored piecemeal while slurping down some giant raspberry-syrup-infused soda.

There's no such elitism at Papa Keno's Pizzeria, where the granddaddy of all slices is "as big as your face." Or the face of the owner's father, whose caricature serves as the pizza joint's logo: Papa looks just like every T-shirt-wearing New Joisey palooka who eats slices with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.

Greg Keenan -- the family's nickname is "Keno" -- grew up in Jersey but went to college at the University of Kansas, where he, too, survived on slices. After he graduated, a decade ago, he opened the first Papa Keno's in Lawrence. Not long after, he started a second outlet in Kansas City. When he ventured out of the state a few years later, he chose Hollywood as his first non-Kansas location. That pizzeria was short-lived, however, and a friend convinced him that Denverites would be much more willing to come to Papa.

Since there are about "9,000 or so KU alum in this area," explains Paul Hresko, Papa Keno's manager, "Greg thought this could be a logical choice."

Papa Keno's debuted five months ago in a prime space across from the CU Health Sciences Center, which had previously been occupied by a scary sushi joint. (A second Papa Keno's is scheduled to open around the first of the year in the Golden Triangle.) Keenan had the spot faux-painted a pumpkin color and filled it with funky lighting and black-and-white photos of East Coast activities, including a guy riding an old Schwinn and people walking along the Hudson River. The setup is a little odd, with the soda fountain tucked away in a separate room with the napkins and utensils, but the place works as a sort of yuppified dive. And because of its locale, Papa Keno's gets more than its fair share of med students looking for a quick, cheap meal and some caffeine, as well as longtime Congress Park residents and transient apartment-dwellers who live along Colorado Boulevard. In other words, this eatery attracts exactly the mix you'd expect from a place that specializes in The Slice.

And what a slice it is. At $2.50, this monster is three times as big as a slice that might cost half as much. It's huge, humongous. And its flavor is big, too. Papa Keno's pies emphasize oregano, which gives them more of an Italian -American accent than some pies. The sauce, made on the premises from canned imported Italian tomatoes and plenty of tomato paste, has a dark, thick quality; it's also less sweet than many sauces, since the oregano lends a slightly bitter but pleasing edge. Most important, this pizzeria puts enough cheese on the pie to create a presence -- but not so much that the molten layer can't open up to release tiny geysers of orange-tinted grease.

Papa Keno's crust is on the crispier side -- ideal for straightforward eating, but tough if you want to fold the slice in half and eat it sideways. Still, the crust has a faint, yeasty sweetness that makes those last bites something to look forward to, and it's thick enough that you can load up on toppings without turning it into a Sicilian pie. But Papa Keno's offers that, too, a pizza with a pumped-up crust that starts out so thick that adding just a few toppings turns it into a well-balanced meal, as well as a 26-inch pie that feeds eight and looks like someone ran over an exercise ball with a semi.

Toppings can make or break any kind of pizza, and it's here that Papa knows best. The pizzeria offers two categories of toppings: standard, top-quality versions of such usual suspects as pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and pineapple; and the intriguing premium, including almonds, blue cheese, ricotta, roasted garlic and sunflower seeds. (Topping prices vary according to the size of the pie.) You can mix and match at will or try one of Papa Keno's savvy specialty combinations. We especially liked the Columbo, with roma bits, extra mozz and sauce, romano cheese and roasted garlic, which really pulled the pie together. The Don Ho sounded odd but proved a delicious mess of broccoli, pineapple, spinach, almonds and ricotta; it looked like the pie had been run through a salad bar. Our only disappointment was a too-thick barbecue sauce on the BBQ pie, which drowned out the flavors of the grilled chicken, red onion, mushrooms and provolone.

Like any self-respecting East Coast pizzeria, Papa Keno's also sells sandwiches, all served warm on housemade bread. The original is an oily, sub-style roll the thickness of shoe leather but oh, so much tastier, almost reminiscent of a torta shell; order that same bread studded with rosemary and you get an upscale standard Italian hoagie stuffed with salami, pepperoni, cappacola, mozzarella, pepperoncini and all the trimmings, wet down with a strong dousing of vinegar and oil. There's also a credible grinder, that East Coast shrine to meataballs, filled with spicy beef, a thick coating of red sauce, and the ideal amount of mozzarella to glue it all together.

Papa Keno's occasionally gets a little fancy. The pesto turkey sandwich is quite tasty, but even as you take that first delicious bite, you imagine the real Papa Keno spitting his ciggy butt across a parking lot. "Pineapple and basil," you can hear him saying in a falsetto voice. "Oh, that's so sweet."

Still, any way you slice it, Papa Keno's makes the cut.


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