A Pizza the Action

Chefs and restaurant owners are competitive animals by nature and disposition. Not Iron Chef, cooking-contest competitive -- not just lighted-stage, rule-book and panel-of-judges competitive -- but seriously, almost compulsively, knock-down, drag-out Thunderdome bloodthirsty.

In a successful restaurant, there's no room for sentiment or surrender (except on the menu). And in a failing house? I've seen better behavior and more decorous conduct in old newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster. On any given day, in addition to paying bills and seeing to the troops, any industry lifer in an above-the-line position is bending a few neurons toward bettering his house, checking on the quality of his fish and, if possible, sending someone on a covert mission to see if the fish down the street is better. If it is, he's figuring out why the fish down the street is better. He's on the phone with his supplier, using a few choice four-letter words and paying through the nose (or through anatomy of a more southerly geography) to make sure it never happens again. And on any given night, he's again turning his gaze outward, thinking about how he can poach that hostess from across the way, how he can squeeze a couple more nickels out of his menu to compete with the new guy at the end of the block, what kink he can throw into his top-selling entree so that it remains his top-selling entree even when some other jerk across town is doing the same thing, only cheaper.

This is a great business, and the best guys in it -- the survivors, the hard-core elite -- are one half P.T. Barnum, one half Patton. Do you think Emeril wants to be some catchphrase-spouting monkey, performing for an audience full of quivering Midwestern farm wives? No. Monkeyboy is a cook. A good one, too. But every time he yells "Bam!" he makes, like, a million dollars. And once he saw that this kind of embarrassing japery could fill his restaurants and move bottles of Emeril's Signature Sauce like there was crack in 'em, Emeril became the best "Bam!"-shouter in the business. If you're gonna be a monkey, be the best monkey. If you're gonna have a fish restaurant, have the best fish restaurant. And if you're gonna make pizza, you make sure everyone knows it's the best pizza in the entire goddamn world.

Even if it's not.

Here in Denver, we argue over the best cheesesteaks in a city so far removed from the home of the cheesesteak that you'd think the discussion would be pointless. We slap each other around over sushi and have one (maybe as many as three) of the best sushi restaurants in the country, even though we're a thousand friggin' miles from the nearest ocean and many more from Tokyo. We -- eaters and industry alike -- battle with sectarian fervor over chile and cheeseburgers the way the Irish once did over which color God liked better, orange or green, and I'm frankly amazed that some of these disputes haven't been settled with rifles and car bombs. But the weirdest thing we fight over is pizza. Whose is the best, whose is the worst, whose is even pizza at all.

I'm not very good at math, but I've done some calculating, and I estimate that since moving into the Mountain Time Zone from the East Coast, I've eaten probably eight million slices of pizza. None have been the best, but I realized that fact even before I bit into my first Denver slice, because the best pizza in the country, possibly the best in the world, was made at Ferrara's Pizza, a small family shop in my home town of Rochester, New York. Angelo Ferrara, who owned the place along with his wife, Natalie, was about 600 years old and had spent 599 of those years doing nothing but making pizzas and listening to the absolute worst accordion-driven Italian music ever created by man. Usually he did both at once. And because of this dedication, the food gods had granted unto him some wicked pie-making skills: His crust was better, his cheese stretchier, his sauce sweeter and more subtle than any other. I know all this, because I worked with Angelo for a year or so when I was fifteen.

Actually, "with" is an overstatement. I worked near Ange, spending my days shredding his cheese and washing his dishes and assembling the boxes into which his perfect pizzas would soon be slipped. Wisely, the man never let me within five feet of one of his pies, and grew almost radiantly nervous whenever I dared open one of the massive oven doors behind which his product did not so much cook as bloom.

Although Ferrara's pies were without a doubt the best pizzas in the world, I've tried many in this town that strive to reach that perfection, fighting for a slot in the top five or ten. And this month, I decided to check out the pies at two of the city's most vocal competitors.  

Bene Gourmet Pizza has been open for almost a year in Cherry Creek, one of the Oregon-based mini-chain's five outlets (there's another in Greenwood Village). Like most pizza joints in this day and age, Bene has a shtick, a couple of gimmicks meant to raise its profile. First there are the gourmet pies, with seven kinds of chicken pizzas alone, everything from a Thai/teriyaki with bean sprouts, shredded carrot, sesame seeds and peanut sauce (ugh) to a lime chicken with green chiles and tomatillo. And then, owing to its Out West heritage and recent founding, Bene has also jumped on the local-and-organic bandwagon, promising -- on its website, menu, walls, wherever -- that every handmade pizza has been constructed from "fresh, quality ingredients" farmed organically and bought locally whenever possible.

I have no reason to doubt this claim. Unlike at so many nouveau-hippie-industrial enterprises where a claim of organic freshness is made on the menu but disappears on the plate, everything at Bene smelled and tasted incredibly fresh. The Roma tomatoes on the margherita pizza were blood-red and juicy, the schiffonade basil still bruised from the knife and smelling of life and licorice. The Mediterranean pie held woody artichoke hearts, fresh spinach and feta, their weight cut by the astringent bite of red onions, capers and a red-pepper sauce. I know that the star ingredient in the pear-and-gorgonzola salad was both fresh and organic, because I saw D'anjou pears sitting in a tub beside the cutting board, and only something grown organically could be quite as ugly, bumpy and mottled as an untreated pear.

Still, I'm guessing that one of the main reasons everything at Bene seemed so fresh and so obviously handcrafted was that I was the only person in the place on two separate visits. It's easy to do custom work when you have only one customer. It's easy to offer excellent service when there's nothing else taking up your attention but watching the empty ovens warp the air above them. And while I may simply have shown up on slow days (as the staff insisted), Bene's location cannot be held harmless.

The worst possible spot for a restaurant is above a Chinese restaurant and next door to a methadone clinic. But second-worst locations are everywhere, and a subterranean basement in Cherry Creek, underneath a Village Inn and sandwiched between an also-suffering fresh-n-organic salad place and a nail salon, is one of them.

Emerging from this molehole, I headed west to Lakewood, where Virgilio's Pizzeria has reportedly been sending diners into paroxysms of pizza-related bliss for a year. How do I know this? Because people keep reporting it to me.

When two readers tell me about good experiences at the same place in the same week, I think I should keep an eye on it. When three all say good things, I know I should go soon. Four or five, and I know I must go immediately. But when ten or twenty write, all praising a place in suspiciously similar language? Well, I recognize it's a competitive world. There are hundreds of pizza joints in and around Denver, all of them doing essentially the same thing: baking a crust topped with sauce and cheese and flora and fauna, all of them aiming to be the best version of something that's already been done better elsewhere (Brooklyn, Chicago, Naples, what have you). So I had to credit Virgilio's for trying.

And as it turns out, Virgilio's owner, Virgilio Urbano, does have a few things going for him. First, he's actually from Naples -- and that's a nice pedigree if you're a pizza man. (To prove it, his passport is nailed to the wall in the dining room.) Second, he moved from Naples to New Haven, Connecticut, where the best pies outside of New York City are made in ancient, coal-fired stone ovens -- a method of cooking stolen most notably by Pizza Hut. And third, he now uses only gas-fired, brick-lined ovens to cook his pizzas, which is the only way to do it if you don't want all your pizza crusts tasting like the mesquite char on the outside of a good order of ribs.

Heritage and equipment don't seal the deal, though. You've got to be able to use these natural advantages of heat and bloodline to turn out a superior pizza -- even if you're working in a very small, narrow strip-mall space shoved in next door to a King Soopers. So not only does Urbano know his way around an oven, but his guys do, too, and they brook no bullshit. Orders are taken fast -- you might even say brusquely -- and fired fast. They're delivered fast, the entire crew moving, even in the quietest moments, as if keyed for some massive onslaught of customers that could descend at any moment. I like that; it's proof of a blooded staff. And frankly, when I'm out to eat pizza, I don't want to be coddled, told about the specials or have the entire history of Italian pizza-making explained to me by some bored, gum-popping waitress. Just take my order, bring the grub, and watch out for your fingers.  

The menu at Virgilio's is both complex and simple. The offerings here are more along the lines of those at a proper Italian restaurant -- pastas and salads, hot heroes, stromboli, chicken parm, calzone and a wine list -- but all blessedly straightforward. The strangest things get is a Hawaiian pizza, and setting that aside (as should be done at every pizza place that's not on a volcanic island), the rest of the pies are nothing more complicated than some combination of crust, sauce, meat and cheese. The margherita was lovely, dressed with a murderous amount of slivered garlic, sliced tomatoes and a scant cover of fresh mozzarella, all over a really nice crust, blistered but still pliable, taking full benefit from the blasting heat of those bricks and touched with olive oil; the basil saved to the side so as not to die in the fire. The plain cheese-and-pepperoni thin-crust was a workmanlike reproduction of the classic 'za. And the molto carne was an unashamed orgy of pepperoni, Italian sausage, meatballs, ham and chicken, all mounded on that same good crust.

But the real killer at Virgilio's -- the real reason to rave about the place, and the reason I'll return -- are the garlic knots. They're nothing more than a twist of pizza dough, daubed with garlic butter and baked, but that's enough. While Virgilio's piles garlic on the pizzas and uses it as a base for almost all the other flavors represented on the menu, it takes a subtle approach here, adding just a hint, a touch that makes you want to keep eating more and more and more. While everyone's still fighting over who's got the best pizza, these garlic knots are clear winners.

Everyone needs a trick these days. International pizzas, healthy pizzas, organic pizzas, pizzas covered with fruit or served by naked ladies (as far as I know, no one does that yet -- but I'm patient). Everyone needs something. So while Bene might be taking the high ground with its healthy slant and friendly service, I'm a classicist. I'll take surliness and speed. And a double order of garlic knots to go.

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