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Bite Me

Buffalo-style pizza is a small-scale, fiercely regional take on the thin-crust New Yorker that's the gold standard of the American pie-maker's art. At Luciano's Pizza and Wings (see review), Kris Ferreri offers a pizza that isn't just a good copy, but borders on the kind of uncompromising reconstruction more commonly done by model-train fanatics or people who spend their lives building one-to-one scale reproductions of the Spruce Goose out of Popsicle sticks.

The Rocky Mountain West has its own pie. Two, really -- both gimpy spinoffs of extant styles unique to our area. The first isn't so much a "style" of pizza as a terrible, focus-group-driven fixing of something that was never broken in the first place: the sauce. The culprit behind this misguided fix could be Southwest drift -- that misguided impulse among those isolated from the actual demographic landscape of New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona who still believe that everyone living here is either an illegal Mexican immigrant stuffing his face all day with burritos and carnitas, or some bull-riding, shit-kicking leather-tongued latter-day cowboy whose diet consists of only two food groups: steak and chiles. New York and California ad execs, marketing gurus and tastemakers can't imagine that any of their fellow Coasters might actually move to the West voluntarily, bringing with them a taste for real pizza dressed with real sauce. To these Coast-centric folks, the Southwest (like the Midwest and the Upper Midwest, which begins in Buffalo and doesn't end until the plane is safely on the runway at LAX) is like a game preserve -- nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there -- where natives still wear sombreros and serapes, fuck the livestock, and can't taste anything that isn't drenched in Tabasco or festooned with jalapeños. Their essential belief in this fallacy is so strong that it's driven them to create entire product lines that supposedly cater to this mythic group. In other words, us.

Now, everyone knows that Frito-Lay ships slightly different Doritos products to Mexico than get stocked on the shelves in, say, Cleveland or Branson. Everyone knows that Mexican Coke (the kind you drink) is sweeter and thicker. What they don't know is that major-brand chains like Domino's and Papa John's spike their pizza sauce with chile powder or red-pepper flakes to crank up the spice for us poor, benighted savages in the West, who obviously could never appreciate the subtle sweetness of a proper red.

And while Domino's can do whatever the hell it wants to its sauce -- spice it up, tone it down, lace it with crack or stud it with nuggets of gold, for all I care -- because I'm not eating its awful pizzas anyhow, this trend of deliberately corrupting perfectly good red sauce has been picked up by nearly every independent operator in the Southwest. In these parts, it's a rare pie that doesn't come with a bite, and -- in case you can't tell -- that really pisses me off. One reason I'm perhaps a little over-fond of the pizzas at Luciano's is that its sauce tastes like tomatoes, not like some Heinz ketchup variety spiked with poblano juice.

The second pizza style native to the Mountain Time Zone is the kind of mile-high, huge-crust, deep-dish pie done by places like Beau Jo's and Woody's. This style is far less offensive to me than the hot-sauce variety because it actually tastes good. True, it's essentially a counterfeit, shrunken Chicago-style import, but if nothing else, it has a proven provenance and regional purity that I can't help but respect. Plus, the guy who thought of serving these with a side of honey for dipping the bones deserves a Nobel Prize. That's genius on a stick.

For a true Chicago-style pie, stop by Beniamino's Chicago Pizzeria, at 1 Broadway. This address has swallowed about a half-dozen operations in as many years, a record challenged only by the havoc wreaked by 250 Steele Street on the former Jack's on Steele/Agave Underground/ Bistro 250/Bistro Adde Brewster. But owner Ben Guest knew what he was getting into when he moved in last November. He understood (from reading one of my columns, actually) that the spot might be cursed, that it had a history of failed concepts. And although he was nervous, a killer deal on the space and equipment convinced him to sign on the dotted line.

Make that a killer deal and the fact that he'd been talking about opening a pizza joint for the past fourteen years, ever since he moved to Denver from Chicago's South Side. And his friends were getting kinda sick of hearing about it.

"When I finally did it, when I pulled the trigger, no one believed me," Guest says. "I called up my friends and said, ŒI'm jumpin' in.' And they had to come down here and see before they'd believe it."

 

Guest recognized that one of the many things missing from the SoBo neighborhood (and the Denver pizza scene in general) was an authentic Chicago-style pizzeria being run by a guy really from Chicago. At Beniamino's, Guest is offering "famous Chicago stuffed pizza" -- not deep-dish, but stuffed, a difference that's very important to Windy City natives who want to know whether they're going to get something along the lines of a Lou Malnati's or a Giordano's pie. Guest may be a rookie to the restaurant business (he's been in sales until now), but he's a dedicated connoisseur of South Side pies. He knows what separates a good one from a bad one, and he's invested a lot of time in producing a great imitation of the pizzas of his youth. The pies here are beautiful: high-walled and golden-brown, filled with quality ingredients, sealed with a layer of soft dough, then topped with an herb-heavy sauce. Every one is a candidate for a Food Arts centerfold and tastes as good as it looks.

Guest is in Beniamino's tiny, cramped kitchen (the exact opposite of Luciano's sprawling acres of stainless-steel real estate) every day -- training staff, cutting pies, making sure every pizza that comes out of the oven is up to his exacting standards. "I had three days off in the first four months," he says, sounding exasperated, surprised and overwhelmed. "One day you can get slammed all day. Then two days later, you don't make a dime. The restaurant business isn't like any other business out there."

Welcome to the industry, Ben. It only gets weirder from here.

Both the recipes and the pans Guest uses date from the '50s, from some secret connection back in Chicago he won't discuss except to say that once he'd made it clear he was serious about becoming a pizza man, he was shown how to make his pies the proper way, then loaned forty well-seasoned steel pans. "They don't even make these pans anymore," Guest says. "But my friends back in Chicago, they loaned them to me. The ones you get today? They're all made in China. They're just not the same."

Today -- four months out from his opening -- Guest seems to have overcome the curse of 1 Broadway. He says he's barely had time to look at the books, but he's pretty sure they moved into the black after three months. What's more, he's in good company. Spicy Basil, which opened last year in the space that had held Sweet B.O.B.S. , is doing some business -- not as much as it deserves, but I haven't seen a "for rent" sign there yet. Across the street, Deluxe ("Californication," March 3) is filling tables as fast as the kitchen can turn them. And opening soon between Beniamino's and Spicy Basil will be Michelangelo's, a restaurant and wine bar that took the paper down off its windows just last week; a new liquor license hangs on the door.

Big hungry boy: For regional authenticity, you can't beat Spam sushi. Specifically, Spam musubi, a Hawaiian delicacy that consists of everyone's favorite canned meat product rolled in sushi rice and wrapped in nori seaweed, like a sushi bar handroll.

That's what you'll find at Colorado's one and only outpost of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, now open at 14221 East Cedar Avenue in Aurora. L&L is a Big Island phenomenon, a highly successful operation that began in the late '50s with a single dairy/burgers-n-dogs operation in Honolulu, struggled through twenty years as a locals-only place, then suddenly exploded in the late '80s when it introduced plate lunches -- a combo meal involving huge amounts of meat, rice, macaroni salad, fries, gravy and what-have-you mounded up on one plate that had been the province of lunch wagons working the beaches -- and a plan for franchise-world domination.

Today there are nearly ninety L&L locations scattered around ten states, all of them serving the type of Hawaiian specialties that made the original L&L famous. So in Aurora, you'll find Hawaiian barbecued beef, five varieties of musubi, roast Kalua pig with cabbage, Portuguese sausage-and-egg sandwiches, and Spam (which I've been told isn't so much a staple in Hawaii as a culinary necessity, like tomatoes in Italy and snails in France) available in more forms and preparations than could possibly be good for you. Spam soup? That's just freaky. L&L serves it, and I take comfort in knowing that if I ever crave a grilled Spam-and-egg sandwich (a delicacy my father occasionally devoured), I now know where to get one.

Twenty plate lunches round out the menu, everything from beef curry to an excellent Japanese-style chicken katsu that appeared to include an entire chicken -- beaten flat, sliced, breaded with panko and served with a sweet BBQ sauce -- as well as a scoop of backyard-picnic macaroni salad and a huge mound of excellent, sticky sushi rice. The plate must have weighed five pounds.

 

Service at L&L is quick and friendly (if you get one of the ladies behind the counter talking), but the prices are the real draw. The menu tops out at $7.75, and that's for breaded shrimp, garlic shrimp, a filet of mahi mahi, two scoops of sushi rice and a side of mac salad. Or you could have a Spam, eggs and rice plate (several pounds of food and roughly a zillion calories) and a bottle of Hawaiian Sun guava juice for about five bucks.

Mahalo.

Leftovers: The talent leak continues with last week's announcement that Brian Klinginsmith -- wine guy and partner at Solera -- is pulling the rip cord and bailing out for northern California. And he's not just bailing out of Denver, but the restaurant business as a whole. According to former partner and now 100 percent Solera owner Goose Sorenson, Klinginsmith has signed on with his wife's brother-in-law to be head of operations for a company that refurbishes retirement communities along the West Coast.

Why the sudden career change? The usual reason: family. Klinginsmith has a two-year-old and another rugrat on the way, and the restaurant business doesn't make for the most stable home life. It was time for a change: "He's just burnt," Sorenson says.

Goose himself was just back from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (courtesy of his connections at the Wisconsin Cheese Board), where he got chummy with all the celebrity heavy hitters while pimping cheese and talking up the hometown scene. He's already signed up Tim Daughter, a Fourth Story vet, to handle front-of-the-house duties and Solera's wine cellar. And when Sorenson's out of town doing his super-chef thing, Mark Teffenhart, late of Boston's Radius (one of Beantown's best), will be on the burners as chef de cuisine.

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