Giant Statue of Liberty sculpture in the corner? Check.
Blinged-up, chunky NY necklace covered in fake diamonds around said statue's neck? Check.
Sopranos memorabilia? Check.
Brooklyn M.C.'s Pizzeria
8086 West Bowles Avenue, Littleton
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
NY Calzone: $7.99
Chicken parm: $7.75
14" cheese: $11.50
14" Soprano: $16
Shelf full of New York tchotchkes? Check.
FDNY keepsakes on shelf? Check.
Overtly patriotic pictures of the New York skyline, sans Twin Towers but full of screaming eagles and waving flags and majestically rendered beams of sky-reaching light; subway signs, completely indecipherable to anyone not intimately acquainted with New York public transit (but obviously fake because they're not marker-tagged, covered in spit, boogers or worse); photos of Giuliani, photos of Brooklyn subway stops, photos of street-side hot-dog carts, in artful black and white; and license plates — lots of license plates — in New York blue and white?
The place has everything. It hits all the requisite marks, setting itself up as one of those straight-outta-the-boroughs New York pizza joints the minute you walk through the door, and even before that, the minute you hear the name: Brooklyn M.C.'s Pizzeria. Like a fat kid picked on his whole life, suddenly coming back, junior year of high school, wrapped in a puffy coat and pants hanging off his ass, aching to look gangster enough to be left alone, M.C.'s has got the look: studied, practiced, dime-a-dozen. You've seen the place before. You've seen it a hundred times. Every pizza joint trying to get a little of that New York magic to rub off on it (including about half of those operating in the Big Apple itself) goes for exactly the same costume, which could have been picked up at some massive clearinghouse for last year's Big City souvenirs: 9/11 tribute posters in aisle three, artfully distressed photos of the Empire State Building at night on clearance, three for a dollar. The look is like a little piece of New York right here in Colorado. Or Boise, San Francisco, Little Rock. If not for the fact that M.C.'s lives in a strip mall in Littleton, next to a used-computer store and a Honey Baked Ham Company, you could walk out the door and right into Times Square, right onto Union Street, Brooklyn. That's the illusion.
And it's bullshit, a gimmick I recognize the second I duck in on a Saturday afternoon. I instantly dismiss Brooklyn M.C.'s as just another strip-mall joint in a long line of strip-mall joints shooting for that flavor-of-the-old-neighborhood shtick, copycatting a style that's a real style, but feels instantly false the minute it's mimicked on the wrong side of the bridges and tunnels.
And then, almost as quickly, I'm second-guessing my dismissal.
Sure, M.C.'s has the pictures, the shlock, the skyline painted huge along one wall, an impossible view of the city that exists only to someone standing on the docks down by where the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel hits Cobble Hill — in Brooklyn, sure, but not somewhere anyone would go looking for pizza. But there, on a wire rack by the register, are the chips. Wise potato chips, with the little owl eye logo on the bag. And it occurs to me that, even in this day and age of everything being everywhere, when I can get TastyKakes through the mail and Japanese fish market bonito on South Pearl Street, I haven't seen a bag of Wise potato chips in, like, forever.
"Wise chips," I say, mostly to myself. "Jesus, I haven't seen a bag of these in forever."
"Yeah," says the guy behind the counter — young guy, wearing a goofily oversized Southie hat in the colors of the Italian flag. "We been trying to get the barbecue, but they're sold out."
Everyone who knows anything about Wise chips knows that the barbecue is the best.
The pizzas under the glass, laid out on the flour-dusted expanse of the counter, look right, too — thin as a dream and with cheese that has melted unevenly, curdled with tiny bubbles like real mozzarella will do and the awful, cheap stuff shredded off the block will not, looped with swirls of red sauce. And the smell is definitely right: charred flour, slightly yeasty like a whiff of spilled beer smelled from behind a bar, sour tang of hot tomatoes and baked air on a hot, still afternoon. All of a sudden, I am really, really hungry.
I take a seat. There's only one other occupied table (couple of kids, him in a tracksuit, her in significantly less) so service is fast, casual, incredibly friendly. The two guys working the place look like brothers — like figures included with the New York Pizzeria Action Playset — and while one handles the floor, the other jockeys with the pizza stick, shifting this, turning that. The music playing is some kind of generic Italian playlist: bouncy and full of accordions, a little light opera.
I order a pizza, served, and a box for whatever I can't finish. Plain cheese, no bells and whistles, the classic New York red-and-white. The crust is thin and crisp, flashed fast and hot in the stone oven. I pick up a slice, and the bone snaps where I fold it with a sound like breaking a wrist. Almost immediately, I am swearing under my breath: grease burn, running in a track over the fat pad of muscle between my thumb and first finger, all the way back to my watch band.
The pizza tastes as good as it looked and smelled on display. The sauce is sweet and bright, having retained much of the fruitiness and dull vegetable savor of the tomatoes that gave their lives in its construction, with no hint of can metal or food-grade wax or cardboard. It's fresh, like biting into a sun-warmed tomato straight off the vine. And the cheese is wonderful, real and alive; clumped up and gooey, slightly sour on the tongue, clenching under the heat to release that magical grease. For a few minutes, I'm pissed because the server never brought me a box like I'd asked. Then I'm not, because I know I'm not going to need one. Maybe he knew, too.
In the invisible datebook in my head, I make plans to come back in a couple of weeks, give the place another try. But instead, I return for dinner the next day.
The owners of M.C.'s, Mike and Esther Colella, are on hand. They come from Brooklyn, and they know what the real thing — the honest, boroughs-bred pizza — is supposed to taste like. That's half the battle right there. Getting in the bull, that's the other half. And the Colellas do it the hard way, by using only the right ingredients, by hand-making everything else. They make a nice strip-mall manicotti in red sauce every morning. Why does it taste better than all the other strip-mall manicottis (and most of the white-tablecloth manicottis, too)? They have the manicotti shells shipped in from New Jersey. A sign behind the counter says they use fresh buffalo mozzarella on all their pies. I ask if that's why M.C.'s cheese tastes different than the cheese on other pizzas out there. Esther says she doesn't know, because she doesn't eat those other pizzas. But that's all they use, she explains, because that's the right way to do it. Just like the chips are the right things to stock. Esther gives my wife a couple of bags just because she expressed an interest, waving off Laura's thanks like it's nothing.
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Laura and I order the "New York Style" calzone with ham, ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Then we order a stromboli. And a chicken parm sandwich to go. The calzone and the stromboli come rolled — long and skinny, pointed at either end, the middles slashed before baking and rolled out so thin that they almost form a filigree lace over the ingredients. The dough is homemade, carefully roughhoused, toughened by human hands rolling, turning, pulling and stretching; the filling is good ricotta, that same mozzarella, meats brought in from back East. These are knife-and-fork meals, so far from those ridiculous half-moon things they serve at Pizza Hut and Pizzeria Uno that the chains might as well be making fat dough pillows crammed with artificially tomato-flavored stuffing. We finish off both, then split the sandwich for the drive. The bread is pizza dough, baked into an approximation of a hoagie roll, which I'd dislike if not for the fact that M.C.'s makes really good dough (I'd watched the guys working from trays of turned and risen pizza dough, settled into balls on a proofing tray); the breaded chicken has been fried, touched with sauce and slabs of mozz, melted in the oven. The sandwich is fantastic. We eat our halves half-wrapped in foil to keep from burning our fingers and, because Littleton is a long way to go for pizza, they're gone before we get home.
Littleton is a long way to go for pizza, but we're back again a few days later. On a weeknight, peak of dinner rush, the place is jumping. Lots of kids, lots of families. Although I'd never heard of the place before the day I stepped in, M.C.'s has been around for eleven years, and has found its crowd of regulars. I order a Soprano pizza (check!) and, thinking one might not be enough, ask for advice. Without hesitating, the girl behind the counter suggests the Sinatra. She's writing before I even say okay. "And a cannoli," I add. "Just one?" she asks.
The Soprano is excellent. Mozz, ham, fresh tomatoes, shredded basil, olive oil and a swirl of savory pesto — each element in perfect balance. The Sinatra is like getting punched in the mouth by Old Blue Eyes holding a fistful of garlic cloves. Behind that punch is the same chicken as is in the chicken parm sandwich, breaded and fried, which isn't the way I'd have gone, but it works for the house. M.C.'s sells a lot of Sinatras. And even I eat half of the thing before deciding that I'd just as soon stick with something plainer, more basic, next time through.
Still, I think as I step outside, at least I don't have to worry about vampires. And to scrub the taste of raw garlic off my teeth, I'm holding a box of homemade cannoli. Three of them, because the girl was right: One just won't be enough.