On another afternoon at Brooklyn M.C.'s Pizzeria (see review), I was sitting in the dining room waiting on a pizza, listening to the two cooks talk. An Andrea Bocelli song was playing, the blind tenor singing something pretty in Italian. Although the cooks seemed friendly enough, they hadn't struck me as the sort of guys who'd talk much about their feelings, but I was wrong. First one said something along the lines of "I hear this song and I could almost piss myself" — though it was obvious he meant that it made him sad. Then the other nodded, agreeing: "Yeah, and that song at the end of Gladiator? I gotta turn it off when it comes on. Makes me want to cry."
My pizza came shortly after and I lost track of their conversation. But as it turns out, one of those guys was Mike Colella Jr., son of Mike and Esther, who own the joint. Mike Jr. is in town for the summer, helping out the old man (whose back isn't as good as it once was). I got Mike Jr. on the blower last week, and when I told him I'd just wrapped up a review of the place, he didn't sound nervous at all, just grateful. "My dad's gonna be so happy," he said. "He's gonna be thrilled."
The Colellas have lived in Denver for fourteen years, after leaving Brooklyn so that Mike and Esther could provide a better life for their kids. And while the Colellas weren't involved directly in the restaurant business before they moved to the Mile High, members of their extended family have been in the industry in Colorado for years; according to Mike, there's a family tie to Rico's Pizzeria at 3500 South Broadway in Englewood, which has been up and running for more than three decades. Soon after they arrived here, Mike and Esther (along with a bunch of cousins) opened New York, New York at Wadsworth and Mississippi, but that restaurant was short-lived. "The family couldn't get along in the kitchen," Mike Jr. explained — but the fights were all over food. One wanted the sauce to be this way, one thought it should be that way. One thought the dough needed this, another thought it needed that. So the gaggle of partners split, and Mike and Esther opened an original Brooklyn M.C.'s in Lakewood. Seven years later, they moved M.C.'s to its current location in Littleton, where it's been for four years.
Brooklyn M.C.'s Pizzeria
The Colellas have done pretty well for eleven years, mostly by sticking to what they know: authentic streetside New York food. Every day, family members make their own dough, their own sauce, their own everything. What they can't make with their own hands, they order like they were still living in Brooklyn, with consignments coming in from New Jersey and New York: meats from one place, pasta from another, but all of it from the old country, so to speak.
Mike had been living in Manhattan's Chinatown with his girlfriend, Natalie, when they got the call to come help the family. "And you know what? I couldn't wait to get back to this store to get some real pizza," he told me. "It's funny, I'm living in New York, surrounded by New York pizza, and this is what I want. The difference is, so many of these other places, they're just cooking to get paid. To get people out the door. My dad would say that what's lacking is pride, you know? Everything he does, he wants it should be perfect." Or at least, as perfect as a New York pizza can be when being cooked 2,000 miles from home.
And the crew at M.C.'s — Mike Jr. and Natalie, Mike and Esther, that other guy in the kitchen who was talking about Bocelli ("We've been working together so long I just call him my brother," Mike Jr. says), have come as close as anyone here is going to get. I told Mike Jr. that I grew up in New York (state, not city), that I've had plenty of New York pizzas (in the city and the state, in Brooklyn and Jersey and Philadelphia, where the strip-mall Italian thing is done even better than it is in Manhattan) and cooked thousands of them myself — and M.C.'s has got the magic, no doubt.
He thanked me for that, told me that he would pass the message along to his dad. "We're not the richest people in the world," he said, "but hearing that, I know that at least if we're putting some good food in people's stomachs, we're doing okay."
No pride lacking there at all.
In the neighborhood: Speaking of soundtracks, it wasn't exactly Bocelli rattling the pipes at the new and improved Mel's Anti-Bistro at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, but headman Charlie Master is definitely trying to shake things up now that he's claimed the space. Gone is the California theme and gentle New-American menu. The place is slowly morphing into a kind of Brix 2.0 with rock and roll on the stereo (everything from rap to the Rolling Stones), graffiti on the walls (mostly in the form of scribbled double-entendres and Sharpie marker signatures, though there are a few Banksy prints wallpapered over the plaster) and a design re-boot that currently suspends the look of the room somewhere between funky Sonoma/Mendocino wine bar and the bedroom of a wine-obsessed fourteen-year-old boy, with nice upholstery and white tablecloths in the dining room and the bar covered with pictures and advertisements torn from the pages of Bon Appetit and Wine Spectator.
It's a work in progress, according to Master (all three of them, actually — Charlie and his parents, Mel and Jane), but a good start. With their space bracketed by Table 6 (609 Corona Street) and Fruition (1313 East Sixth Avenue), which are both doing the same sort of New American/French technique/Western States cuisine, Mel's has to do something to set itself apart. There was a time last year when, after having dinners, drinks and snacks at all three places over the course of two weeks, I couldn't remember which place had done the flatiron steak, which offered the tagliatelle a là Harry's Bar, which was serving the roasted chicken and new potatoes. New American cuisine may grant a chef a lot of latitude for playing with flavors and ingredients, but it also offers a ready temptation for copy-catting. And really, does Denver need another place doing beef carpaccio or sliders? No, it does not.
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Fortunately, Charlie already has chef Carla Berent in the kitchen — ex of Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's, more recently of Agave Grill, where she was sous to chef Chad Clevenger (who might or might not wind up owning Mel's Greenwood Village). Berent was steeped in the American regional/Southwestern fusion scene of her former kitchens, and she brings that — along with a healthy dose of her own ideas about American cookery, ingredients and procurement of supplies — to the Anti-Bistro's board, currently a conglomeration of Mel's Continental classics cut with a feisty streak of Americana. I had a great plate of calamari there last week, tuned high and spicy with an Asian/Southwestern note of singing spice, and one of the better tapenades I've tasted in a long time. And while Berent's still young in her post and in the throes of menu/concept/management changes, she seems to be riding the curl pretty well: She even managed to muscle Charlie into going to the farmer's market with her on the morning after my dinner there, with a detour to Alameda Square for a little dim sum at Super Star and a visit to Pacific Ocean Marketplace. Lucky him.
Leftovers: Last week, Brasserie Felix (3901 Tennyson Street) opened after successfully making it through a series of friends-and-family dinners without any significant disasters. Felix is setting itself up as a solidly 2/3 brasserie, offering two meals a day plus brunches on the weekends. And while the version of the menu that I saw over the weekend was not the most thrilling document in the world (a fairly standard board of soup l'oignon, croque monsieur and steak frites), it was exactly what owners Danielle Diller and Gilles Fabre promised it would be — a straight-up neighborhood brasserie of the Parisian model. I can't wait to check it out.
But there's sad news in northwest Denver, too. On July 31, North Star Brewing Company, at 3200 Tejon Street, pulled its last pint. As of Friday, Kyle Carstens's beer-and-tater-tot joint was dark, the shades pulled on all the windows, the neon off. I'd called the place twice in the previous week, trying to track down the rumor that the place was shutting down, and both times I got quote/unquote employees on the phone who were so hammered they could barely speak — beyond claiming that they had no idea what I was talking about. But a sign on the door now proclaims, "Closed 4 Good. Gone Fishin'."