A World of Discovery
Not every country under the sun deserves its own pizza, but don't tell that to John Pool. In his mind, there's no land too far-flung, no cuisine too unusual, no food tradition that can't be boiled down to three or four or five key ingredients, blanketed with melted cheese and slapped on a crust.
At Pizzeria Mundo, Pool has 21 specialty international pizzas covering the map from Coney Island to Kathmandu. He's got monthly pizza specials and make-your-own pizzas and mini-pizza rolls (strombolini) served deep-fried with sausage and pepperoni, with olive paste and habanero chile, with hot dogs and mozzarella. He's got calzones, which are more or less pizzas folded in half and baked -- though since they're stuffed with insane dessert combinations like sweet potato, brown sugar and pecans or melted chocolate and marshmallow fluff, I'd say they're somewhat less like pizza. Actually, I'd say they're nothing like pizza at all, but Pool also has a crust smeared with housemade pear butter, blue cheese and walnuts that he calls a pizza. He's got a peach melba pizza and a bananas Foster pizza with sweetened cream cheese and sugar-glazed bananas topped with caramel sauce -- and if he's going to call those things pizzas, then he can call a s'more baked inside a pizza crust a calzone. It's his place, so I guess he can call pretty much anything pretty much anything he wants.
To sit down for a meal at Pizzeria Mundo is to abandon all common rules of geography and taxonomy. Turn a slice of sweet potato pie into a calzone? Of course. Dump an order of Chinese takeout on a crust, bake it and serve it as a pizza? Absolutely. Eating here just requires a certain suspension of disbelief, an acceptance that things can be different. As on the rides at Disney World, you simply have to ignore the painted-on smiles and the sparks shooting out of the neck of the animatronic penguin and just accept that it truly is a small world after all.
So small, in fact, that it can fit on a pizza crust. So small that John Pool can show it to you on a sixteen-inch round for $18.99 a pop, no passport required.
And that's not bad for a guy who's really a software developer, not a pizza man. Pool owns Maverick Systems here in Denver, a computer company that does work for the government. When he opened Pizzeria Mundo at the edge of LoDo at the end of October (in the former home of Uptown Pizza, which he bought and operated briefly before turning it into Mundo), there was a part of him that thought it was going to be a kind of hobby. He wanted to do something that didn't involve sitting in front of a monitor all day, that would give him a creative outlet and allow him to work with his brother Patrick, who really is a pizza guy (ex of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, where the Pools' sister, Susan, is engaged to owner Chris Bianco). Problem was, he wanted something that wouldn't compete with Pizzeria Bianco -- but at the same time, he wanted something that Patrick could help him with. The idea for the international menu, the pizza-with-anything concept, the world-traveler theme, seemed a way to reconcile these issues. Pizzeria Bianco is a very authentic, very successful Italian pizza joint. So Pool decided he'd do an incredibly inauthentic, incredibly bizarre international pizza joint and, in the process, lose money every single day.
Okay, he didn't set out to lose money; that's just the way things turned out. But he also didn't set out to become a full-time restaurateur. Apparently no one told him there's no such thing as a part-time restaurant owner: There are just committed, full-time, obsessive, workaholic restaurant owners, and then people who used to own restaurants and are now selling used cars between AA meetings. This is not an industry for dabblers. Pool learned that lesson very quickly.
If he hadn't learned it, Pizzeria Mundo wouldn't still be here. Pool's concept is a tough sell to an audience born and raised on standard Italian pies with cheese and pepperoni and the occasional Chicago deep-dish or freaky Colorado diversion. And though Pizzeria Mundo is still losing money, it's losing less money every day. It's slowly building a base of lunchtime customers, corporate delivery business and late-night fans (it's open until 3 a.m. on weekends). People are getting used to seeing Pool's delivery drivers on their custom scooters zipping around downtown, bringing marshmallow calzones and Jamaican pizzas with jerk sauce, sweet potato and roasted chicken to the faithful. The dinner trade is still awful, and sales are much lower than Pool would like them to be, but they're improving. The wine-and-beer license coming next month will probably help. The brunch menu that will soon feature sake cocktails and a Bellini bar alongside Mundo's breakfast and lunch fare will definitely help.
"This restaurant has consumed me for a year," Pool says when I get him on the phone after I've already visited his place a few times. "I'm here more than I probably should be."
But he's here as much as he needs to be, because if Pool isn't going to be out on the floor stumping for the Oaxacan pizza with mole poblano sauce, chicken, corn, nopalitos and mozzarella made in-house every day, who is? Who but the man responsible could convince people that they really want to eat a pizza with alfredo sauce, capers, fresh tomato and hot salmon (the Oslo) or one featuring rattlesnake and rabbit sausage with nopalitos and habanero pepper sauce (the Death Valley)?
I went to Bangkok on Saturday night courtesy of Pool and Pizzeria Mundo, but to be safe, I traveled through New York first. The kitchen offers any of the international pies in a personal, eight-inch size for just $7.99 -- a bargain that encourages sampling. But of all the impressive innovations Pool has introduced at Pizzeria Mundo -- including special heating tiles that he designed himself to keep the pies at just the right temperature for the lunch and late-night buffet (all the pizza you can eat for eight bucks), and the dozen-odd super-cool mini-flat screens mounted in the wall by the front door that show a constantly shifting photo album of postcard-style snapshots from around the world -- his best one is the money-back guarantee on the pizzas. If you order something weird and don't like it, the house will make a new pizza of your choice. For free.
The New York is Mundo's standard pie: pepperoni, sausage and mozzarella on a thin crust with a simple tomato sauce that started out spicy but has since been mellowed out to plain sweetness, because no New Yorker in his right mind wants a spicy sauce on his pie. The toppings were quality and the crust excellent -- slightly sweet and delicately yeasty, slightly thicker than a traditional New York thin. Because Mundo loads up the pizzas, Pool designed a compromise crust: light, chewy and marginally more muscular than standard, baked hot and fast, with a crisp bone, a stiff bottom and a perfect ratio of dough to stuff for most of the varieties here.
Sometimes less stuff might do more. Thailand is one of those countries that simply may not need its own pizza. It has a wonderful culinary tradition stretching back generations, a lovely canon of recipes and a profusion of delicious ingredients, resulting in food that bridges the gap between Asian peasant foods and the royal eats of Southern China. But Thailand doesn't have anything that tastes very good on a pizza. This, of course, did not stop Pool from attempting a Bangkok-style 'za, with satay sauce, roasted chicken, carrots, cilantro, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts held tight to the crust by a web of smooth, melted mozzarella. The combination was so odd that I couldn't ignore what this purported pizza really tasted like: pad thai, minus the noodles, and half an order of chicken satay dumped on top of a crust and tortured in an oven until all the disparate ingredients agreed to play nice together. It was messy, confused, jarring, bizarre and had only one redeeming characteristic: It taught me that cold pizza crust dipped in peanut sauce is delicious. Where else would I have learned that?
The Sichuan with hoisin sauce, shiitake mushrooms, cheddar, scrambled eggs and tofu was another wrong turn. If I want Chinese food, I'll get it in a waxy cardboard takeout box and eat it with chopsticks, like a normal person. Although I think Pool is a very brave man for even trying, I'd trade this model in for a Campania with olives and pine nuts and white anchovies, thanks. And no matter how many times I try the Kennebunkport which looks like such a great idea on paper -- like a Maine lobster boil of sausage, boiled red potato, white corn, roasted red pepper, mozzarella and, of course, lobster with an alfredo sauce base -- I am less in love with it than I feel I ought to be. What gets me every time is the smell. When baked, lobster (and particularly the frozen blocks of ground lobster that Mundo uses) smells dimly of fish left out in the sun all day, and when I lift up a slice of this pie, that's always the odor I get -- like a distant low tide, like a pizza full of cheese and fish.
But most of Pizzeria Mundo's pizzas are great -- like the Genoa, with fat slices of incredibly fresh tomato and homemade basil pesto; the Napa, with roasted onion, goat cheese and bacon; and the excellent Marakesh, which comes piled with slices of roasted chicken, feta cheese, roasted eggplant and an astringent olive tapenade all offset by a fantastic red sauce rich with Moroccan spices. Now, if more people would just sign on for this culinary trip, the place might seem less lonely.
I've been to Pizzeria Mundo on Friday nights that were so slow, no one had to ask me which takeout order was mine because mine was the only one; on Saturday afternoons when the girl working the counter was watching travel documentaries about sharks and monkeys on the hanging TVs while I shared the small, ultra-modern dining room with a rangy cowboy in a snap-button shirt and hat, daintily eating his Colorado pizza (green-chile sauce, ham, bacon, scrambled eggs, cheddar and mozzarella -- like a breakfast burrito opened up onto a crust) with a knife and fork.
Pizzeria Mundo may not be for everyone, but it's definitely for people like that cowboy and me and John Pool: people who want something different, who aren't afraid to take a few chances, who are willing to risk the occasional disappointment for the payoff of a pizza as delicious and original as the Marakesh, as surprising as the discordant flavors of sweet potato and jerk sauce or a pie slathered in tikka masala sauce. And there are many more discoveries to be made. The do-it-yourself board of ingredients might be longer and stranger than that at any other pizzeria in the country: seventeen different sauces (at least half of them good, and a quarter shockingly excellent), eight kinds of cheese, thirty standard toppings (from nopalitos to pulled pork to hot dogs to pepperoni) and more than a half-dozen premium toppings. Tens of thousands of combinations are already possible, and Pool has barely started.
He says he's thinking about Chinese cloud ear mushrooms; a Vietnamese pho pizza with squeaky little Vietnamese meatballs, fresh mint and basil; a Spanish-style with fresh clams and chorizo. He's worried that he's spending too much time tinkering with things in the kitchen and too much time on the floor, worried that everything he's doing isn't going to be enough.
Welcome to the industry, my friend. There are no amateurs here, just veterans and failures. It's still up in the air which side Pool will come down on, but he's headed in the right direction: not backing off, not doing less, but working harder and doing more. Always more.
He believes. Visit Pizzeria Mundo and you might, too. It's a small world, after all.
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