Chef and Tell with Virgilio Urbano of Virgilio's
Virgilio Urbano and Gabriel Monge
Virgilio Urbano, the pie-slinger behind his namesake pizzeria in Lakewood, tosses his hands up in the air -- an automatic reflex, no doubt, from spinning pizza dough for the past four years -- and shakes his head. "Look, I can't make everyone happy. God knows I try, but some people? Some people won't be happy no matter what I do. We all work incredibly hard here, but we're small, you know? And we're busy at peak times, so not everyone is going to get the table they want when they want it. All we can do is try to accommodate people the best we can," says the Italy-born Connecticut transplant and cheese-pizza purist.
Urbano made waves (and plenty of fans) last year when he publicly denounced his pizzeria's exclusion from the yearly Festival Italiano at Belmar, a move that motivated him to create his own Italian celebration, one that raised more than $15,000 for Children's Hospital. He's renowned -- and often criticized -- for his brashness, even while his pizzas are revered by a vocal majority. "I'm working on being nicer, but honestly, compared to everyone else on the East Coast, I'm nicer than most," Urbano insists. And the compliments, he says, far outweigh the criticisms. "The satisfaction of people telling me that I make some of the best pizza in Denver makes me the happiest guy in the world," he adds. "The compliments keep me motivated, they keep me going, they make me smile, and they make us continue to strive to be better at what we do.
"This is my first restaurant," he reveals, leaning forward. "I'm not sure a lot of people know that about me." Before Urbano saw the for-sale sign on the building that is now Virgilio's, he was working for United Airlines as a mechanic, but after 9/ll, he took some time off to re-evaluate the forks in the road. He dabbled in the mortgage business for a while, and when that dried up, he made the decision to follow his passion: cooking. "My mom taught me how to cook when I was really young," he recalls, "and the whole time I was working for United, I'd make soups, Italian sausage sandwiches, calzones and Philly cheesesteaks for my co-workers, and then I started making pizzas for my son's baseball team." By then, he says, cooking had become a ritual, and opening a pizzeria was the next logical step, a small place where "we could make our own mozzarella and our own dough and use the best ingredients we could find."
In this interview, Urbano talks about his love for Italy and Italian ingredients, his disenchantment with superstar Italian chef Mario Batali, and his insistence that New Haven, Connecticut is the culinary capital of America.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, old-world, scrumptious, yummy and authentic.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, tough, demanding, driven, caring, proud, crabby, uptight, genuine and, of course, Italian.
Proudest moment as a chef: After being denied acceptance into the Italian Festival at Belmar last year, we decided to have an Italian festival of our own, to benefit the Children's Hospital of Denver. My excellent staff and chef, Gabriel Monge, worked so hard, and to see 3,000 people come out to support our cause was incredible, but it was handing over a check for $15,020 to Children's Hospital that made it truly one of the proudest and most rewarding moments of my life.
Favorite ingredient: Garlic. Every Italian knows that garlic makes everything taste better.
Best food city in America: New Haven, Connecticut. Pizza is the best food in the world, and the best place in the world to get it is at the world-famous, original Pepe's Pizzeria in New Haven. The pizzas come out charred from the coal-fired oven, greasy with olive oil and cheese, and they use the best ingredients available. I love that place, right along with nearby Sally's Apizza, Modern Apizza place, Roseland Apizza and Bar Pizza.
Favorite New York restaurant: Lombardi's Pizza. It's the original New York pizza place, born in 1897. They have great pies -- crispy and charred with that amazing coal-fired taste. I haven't been there in a long time, but when I go, I always get a cheese pizza with fresh garlic.
One food you detest : Sea urchin. I just don't have the palate for that mushy, pasty consistency. I can eat just about anything, but that creature does not belong in any mouth.
One food you can't live without: Pasta. It's in my blood. After eating fresh spaghetti every Wednesday, fish on Friday and traditional pasta on Sunday, which is what real Italians still do, it's impossible for me to live without.
What's never in your kitchen? Anything processed.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: When I first opened, I was working in the kitchen, and a woman paid me a very flattering compliment -- something about my eyes. I was so rattled and embarrassed that I apparently forgot to cut her pizzas, which I was oblivious to until a week later, when she came in and ordered another pizza.
Favorite cookbooks: The Sopranos Family Cookbook, which sits on the counter at the restaurant. This is actually the first and only cookbook I've ever owned. I just don't have a need for cookbooks, but do I call my mama when I need a little authentic inspiration.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Casu marzu, which I ate as a child in Italy. It's a Sardinian sheep's-milk cheese that's infested with insect larvae. Casu marzu means "rotten cheese" and is often referred to as "maggot cheese." I know...don't ask.
Weirdest customer request: A pizza with no cheese or sauce -- just olive oil. That would be nothing more than a cooked piece of dough. I also had someone order an eleven-topping Sicilian pizza.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Always use fresh garlic and keep tasting your food as you cook. I don't understand cooks who don't taste their food as they go. What's the point of serving your food if you're not going to taste it to make sure that it's seasoned properly?
After-work hangout: Lala's Wine Bar. They have a great late-night wine happy hour and menu. I love the chicken and Fontina cheese panino and the peppadew peppers.
Favorite celebrity chef: Giada de Laurentiis. She has so much passion when she cooks, and she uses lots of garlic...almost as much as I do. She's like a bobblehead doll, though: Her head is too big for her body.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Mario Batali. Something about him really bothers me. His appearance is just so sloppy, and he acts like we should all be grateful that he's showing us his skills.
What's your favorite knife? A JA Henckels Twin Select eight-inch carving knife. It always stays sharp, and you can do almost anything with it.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Even when you're wrong, always make the customer feel like they're right. When I first opened, I had that typical East Coast mentality -- if you don't like it, get out. Now, I do everything possible to make the situation right without copping an attitude. Back in New York, you throw problem customers out on the street, but not so much in Denver. I'm working on being nicer.
What's next for you? I'm thisclose to buying a new building, which I'm going to open as Virgilio's Pizzeria and Wine Bar sometime in July. It'll be the same great food as here, just on a bigger scale -- more pastas, more specials, some antipasto, a lot more seats, and forty or so excellent wines by the glass.
To read the rest of the interview with Virgilio Urbano, click here.
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