Brothers Jason and Kris Wallenta started talking about opening a restaurant together before they were of legal drinking age. For a long time, they imagined that their eatery would be a pizzeria: They’d grown up among New Haven’s storied pie parlors and have been lamenting Denver’s lack of that particular style of pizza since they moved here to finish high school in the mid-’90s. But in the intervening years, Kris spent a decade and a half in Cozumel, eventually convincing Jason to move there, too, to open their first joint restaurant. It did not serve pizza.
In 2012, they decided it was time to move forward with a place in Denver, and Jason moved back here to relearn the market. They signed a lease on a 17th Avenue space, but instead of devoting it to pizza, they launched Dos Santos, specializing in tacos and tequila. Now that Kris has returned to the Mile High, though, the brothers are finally going forward with a pizza parlor, White Pie, right around the corner from Dos Santos. Before that spot opens next month, we sat down with the brothers to talk about how a detour in plans led to Dos Santos, why opening a restaurant is a quick education, and why New Haven-style pizza is some of the best in the world.
Westword: So you both wound up in the food business, which seems somewhat remarkable. Do you have a strong familial food history?
Kris Wallenta: Our dad was always a great cook. He’s vegetarian now, but he came from an Italian family; his mother’s side of the family is from Italy. He tells a story about his grandmother making giant ravioli in the kitchen. One raviolo was the size of a plate. There was always something on the stove cooking. Then he turned vegetarian, but he was still always cooking for us. Things like oatmeal.
Jason Wallenta: Pancakes.
Kris: Eggplant parmesan.
Kris: He would lie to us. He’d serve us tofu sticks and tell us it was fish. When we were seven or eight, we were like, oh, great — fish. Years later, he told us it was tofu. On holidays, though, he’d make pork sausage in the Italian way, and meatballs.
Jason: He always comments how amazing the sausage smells. We tease him and say, “You should taste it.”
Kris, you spent a lot of your formative cooking years in Mexico. Could you talk a bit about that?
Kris: My aunt and uncle owned a place in Cozumel. That was my first kitchen job; I went down there for a summer. I would chop, peel, cut, clean. I’d helped my dad make eggplant before, but this was my first real kitchen experience. At the end, I talked to my aunt and uncle and said, “I would love to come on.” They said, “Well, you should go to culinary school.” So I went to the French Culinary Institute. It was a phenomenal experience, living, eating and seeing different cultures in New York. I opened my first restaurant in Mexico in 2008. Jason was constantly asking when I’d come back to Denver, but I needed more time to discover what I wanted to do and how I wanted to cook. I convinced him to move to Mexico and open a second restaurant in 2010. It was a huge experience to run a restaurant like that. It was an amazing education.
Jason: It was like going to four-year business school in one year. I thought I knew how to run a restaurant, but I had no idea. It was the best place at the time to get that learning curve.
When you came back to Denver, did you leap straight into Dos Santos?
Kris: Our first concept was an Italian pizzeria. We just have wanted to do pizza forever.
So how did Dos Santos happen?
Jason: When we were looking for spaces, we found the Dos Santos space. We met with the landlord, who told us the lease would be ready in a year and a half. We thought, okay, cool. In that time, Patxi’s Pizza opened across the street. We weren’t ready to take on corporate competition, so we went to our second favorite thing, tacos.
Kris: We wanted something fast-casual with really warm hospitality, so this seemed like a natural fit. It was a good way for us to get our foot in the door.
Jason: I don’t think anyone is making tacos the way we make tacos. This is our style, our culture and our interpretation.
I’d agree that you guys are doing something fairly unique here. But could you try to define a bit further what your style is when it comes to tacos?
Kris: I like to focus on an inspiration and then create within that. For instance, we serve a traditional chicken tinga, but with a roasted-red-pepper sauce, which is not a Mexican sauce. Our cochinita taco uses traditional Mexican flavors, but Mexicans would never do it with pork belly. And I added pickled jalapeños, which is not traditional. We try to find something that makes us a little bit different without straying too far.
Jason: I also think that if you look at our food, it’s beautiful. My brother is an artist. It’s easy to make a good dish taste good; it’s harder to make it taste and look good.
Okay, so let’s talk about the pizzeria. You’re coming full circle.
Jason: Yeah, it finally came together twenty years later.
Kris: Thirty years later.
And you’re going to offer New Haven-style pizza, which is almost religiously obsessed over on the East Coast. Talk a little about the style and its appeal.
Kris: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, you had millions of Italians moving to the East Coast, and you had a huge Italian community working in coal factories. These guys were probably not cooking and baking much in Italy, but they started doing simple stuff to make extra money. They’d bake at night and sell bread and pastries by bicycle, going door to door. In 1915 or 1920, the first pizzeria opened in New Haven. The pizza was totally different than New York-style pizza. It’s rustic and free-form. The pies are not round, and they look charred on the outside. If it’s your first time eating one, you’re like, yo, the crust is burned. But close your eyes and taste it, and you get these notes of smoke, coal, soot — it’s not burned. It’s a thin, crispy but chewy crust that’s not too salty, with sweet sauce. You have to ask for mutz (mozzarella) or you just get sauce and toppings. It’s not heavily topped…. When we were kids, we used to go to Sally’s in New Haven every week. It had this line you had to get in, but we’d walk right past the line. People would get really nasty when they saw you just walk right in.
Jason: But we’d just go up to the owner and give her a kiss.
Kris: For three of us, we would order six pizzas, which was too much, but you could easily eat a pizza and a half each. From 1938 to the present, the only people who ever made a pizza at Sally’s were Sal and his sons Ricky and Bobby. There’s so much craft; it’s simple, but everything comes together. It’s unctuous, but it doesn’t make you feel so bloated. You have to live it. Sally’s was covered in cobwebs, there were photos on the wall that hadn’t been dusted in thirty years, and the kitchen was a disaster — but the pizza was intense.
So that’s what you’re channeling here?
Jason: People love neighborhood joints. Denver is becoming a big city, and people don’t want to leave their ’hoods. We want a place that brings the community together better, like Brooklyn or New Haven, in Denver. Ours will be the first family pizzeria that I can think of in Denver. Our dad’s going to be making sauces. My brother will be there, my wife will be in the front of the house.
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SHOW ME HOW
Kris: It’s about quality without the frills. It’s simple Italian; it doesn’t have to have all the garnishes and accoutrements. Italian food is simple and rustic. That’s what it’s going to be.
Jason: It’ll be like you’re coming to our house, and I’m going to make you the best lasagna you’ve ever had. I want you to wake up in the middle of the night sort of hungry and eat the leftovers out of the fridge at 2 a.m.
And what about the name? You’re paying homage to a dish?
Kris: When I was a kid, my favorite was the white pie. You could get a pie with clam — it had olive oil, herbs, garlic and clams. But I was young and I didn’t want seafood, so I would get the bianca, with mozzarella, pecorino, herbs, olive oil and garlic — that was my go-to. Those pies were the inspiration for this place. Those and the plain, which was tomato sauce and a tiny sprinkling of pecorino-romano.
Jason: I don’t know of a place in town where you can get the bianca pie like that. I’m excited to start eating my youth again.
Dos Santos is located at 1475 East 17th Avenue; reach the restaurant at 303-386-3509 or dossantosdenver.com. Hours: 11 a.m-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, 3-9 p.m. Monday.