Less Is More
On our first visit to The Oven, the server working the short bar near the front door leaned across the counter and casually asked Laura and me where we lived.
It seemed a little creepy, and definitely forward. I mean, sure, we're an attractive couple (Laura's good-looking, anyway, and I clean up okay), and it's not like we're somehow morally opposed to a come-on by a member of the waitstaff. But this was just too Sex and the City for us.
So I smiled, told the waiter that we lived downtown and said thanks, but we were just looking for a pizza.
"Really?" he asked. "What brings you all the way out here?"
"Hungry," Laura said. Which was true, since we hadn't eaten all day and were famished.
The waiter pulled a couple of menus out of a rocks glass on the bar and handed them over. "I was just wondering if you guys were from the neighborhood," he explained. "We're trying to get to know the neighbors, you know? The people who work here or live here." And even though he now knew that we didn't live in Lakewood's sleek new Belmar development -- filled as it is with that new breed of moneyed suburban-loft pioneers that we, most decidedly, are not -- and we knew that he wasn't looking for a three-way, the waiter still introduced himself and asked us our names.
"Frankie," I said.
"Marianne," Laura said.
"All right," he said. "You guys just let me know when you're ready, okay? Can I get you something to drink while you're looking at the menu?"
One of the many cool things about the Oven is that it came right out of the gate with a beer-and-wine license, and it has been serving from the day it opened six months ago. And not from a kiddie list of house reds and whites and cheap bottles of yuppie-bait chardonnay, either, but from an adult board of two dozen mostly California labels running the gamut from $16 bottles of Stone Cellars pinot grigio and merlot (inexpensive, but drinkable) to Napa and Sonoma bottles cracking the $100 limit.
That lineup may sound uppity for a pizza place, but the Oven is no run-of-the-mill pie joint.
The brainchild of renowned chef/owner Mark Tarbell, the Oven is one of the best-planned restaurants I've ever seen. It may be surrounded by such winning enterprises as a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream stand (an overpriced and played-out cash magnet second only to a shopping-mall Häagen-Dazs franchise) and a Claire's boutique (because there's nothing hotter than a $2 belly-button ring on a chubby twelve-year-old), but the Oven, like its founder, is a class act all the way.
Tarbell was a nominee for the James Beard Award in the Best Chef Southwest category in 2001, getting the nod for Tarbell's, his joint in Phoenix. While the award that year went to Robert McGrath of the Roaring Fork (a restaurant just a few miles away from Tarbell's place), the fact that Tarbell had been nominated was proof that, at least once in a while, the folks at the Beard House actually look away from the coasts (or chefs from the coasts who flee to the American interior) long enough to spot a chef at a little place truly deserving of recognition.
Tarbell's is definitely a little place, a glorified pizza-and-pasta strip-mall joint done in the urban-modernism style of a Chipotle. I'd stopped there after a night of bowling and drinking maybe a year before the Beard nomination came down, but the food was so good that I still remember it. And since I stopped by, Tarbell's has probably had to build an addition just to hold all the awards it's won (like Best Restaurant from Food & Wine magazine in 2000, nine awards for excellence from Wine Spectator, a top-twenty nod from John Mariani at Esquire, and Mark Tarbell's own Grand Diplome d'Etudes Culinaires from L' Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, where he trained).
Spinning off the success of Tarbell's, Tarbell opened Barmouche, also in Phoenix. But he and general manager Brian Cauley closed that restaurant when Tarbell decided to open the Oven; he wanted to have enough time so that he could make sure everything here was up to his standards. At this point, he must be exhausted from jumping like a jackrabbit back and forth across the Colorado/Arizona border, since he also plans to open a second Belmar restaurant to be called, simply, Home.
Tarbell is one of those great chefs who understands that he's cooking dinner for friends every night. And when you're cooking for friends, you want to take care of them. You want to offer them something they actually want to eat, made with skill -- and only about one degree of pretension -- from the ground up, with the very best stuff available. This isn't comfort food so much as ordinary food done extraordinarily well, with all the chef's attention and talent given over to its preparation -- proof that there's no element of cuisine so small or unimportant that it doesn't deserve the best efforts of everyone involved.
There are a lot of guys who think being a chef is the best job in the world -- except for all those annoying people who hang around demanding dinner and asking that Mister Big-Shot White Jacket sully his hands by actually cooking something. Tarbell is on the other end of that scale, single-handedly counterbalancing any ten of those chefs with his awareness that cooking and serving people is a privilege, and that sending them home full and satisfied is one of the more decent things a man can do with his working life. He and the brilliant obsessives in his kitchen make pizza because people like pizza, because eating pizza makes people happy. And they make it the best pizza they can because that's the job. If a cook can't handle the job, he should do everyone a favor and go sell used cars.
At the Oven, Tarbell's obsession translates to handmade pizza dough, artisan sauces, ricotta smoked over custom-made pizza ovens that he helped design (the wood for the ovens is stacked in a tower just to the side of the open line, a design feature carried over from Tarbell's) and mozzarella so fresh it arrives just this side of liquid and can be spread like the soft milk cheese it actually is. The kitchen uses organic ingredients when possible, and all-natural and locally sourced stock when it can. The sausage is from Marczyk's market in Denver, the goat cheese from Haystack Mountain right up the hill in Niwot, and the vegetables offered with the salads, on the antipasto plate and as pizza toppings are all seasonal. There's not a can of anything anywhere in the house. Matter of fact, when the kitchen got a few tins of anchovies in a couple of weeks ago, one of the cooks had to go out and buy a can opener: It was the first time the Oven had ever needed one.
Over several lazy afternoons and long nights, Laura and I tripped our way back and forth across the Oven's menu, relaxing on the patio (smartly equipped with a pass window that leads straight to the bar for quick pizza pickups and the uninterrupted delivery of drinks) or in the stark dining room, with its cafeteria-style, communal tables and view of the two huge barrel ovens that fill the place (and the surrounding block) with the perfume of wood smoke. Beyond the ovens, the interior is dominated by a black-and-white photo of a smiling woman eating that's been blown up large enough to cover an entire wall. From the bar, it looks like the woman in the picture is leaning over to eat the head of the person sitting at the table directly below.
And each time, almost without fail, the moment we were seated our servers wanted to know if we were locals, what our names were and if we wanted something to drink before we looked at the menu. Each time it happened, it became less creepy, less like a "Hey, baby, what's your sign" come-on and more clearly an honest desire on the part of the staff to get to know their regulars.
We ate pizza -- all thin-crust, just millimeters from being a cracker crust, and always beautifully lumpy and malformed and rustic -- and drank cold pints in the sun. We had a simple margherite with perfectly toothless and sweet marinara, lightly applied, smooth mozzarella and fresh basil leaves; a goat-cheese-and-fresh-tomato pie that was heavy on the garlic and studded with green olives; and a three-cheese white that focused attention on the house's addictive smoked ricotta.
The Oven features Italian sopressa and wisps of prosciutto sliced right off the shank that can be added to any pizza, as well as slices of smoked portobello mushrooms, shredded chicken breast and sweet, brown caramelized onion. Because of the ovens at the Oven, everything comes out tasting smoky -- the pizzas, the salads, the customers. And far from being oppressive, the extra strata of flavor lent by the cooking method is worked into each dish, with the kitchen intelligently balancing the earthy smolder with sweet organic tomatoes, with bitter olives, with fresh-stemmed rosemary or charred scallions. Between bites, every breath has a summer-campfire bouquet.
The menu lists one soup, an Italian version of a classic French onion gratinée with some pulled chicken, mirepoix, mushrooms, veggies and fresh herbs all mixed up in a parmesan broth, the whole thing capped with a round of pizza bread and baked mozzarella. It was wonderful. I burned my fingers trying to pick up the bowl in order to drink the dregs. There's also an antipasto that serves as a catch-all plate for everything good that's knocking around the coolers: roasted red peppers, sliced prosciutto and sopressa and pepperoni, a scattering of olives, bread, a special herbed ricotta, hard Grana Padano cheese. And to balance this, a simple bowl of mozzarella -- made to order and served naked but for a pinch of sea salt. From now until the day I die, this is the only way I want to eat mozzarella.
On top of all this, the Oven offers apple pie -- baked in-house, of course -- served à la mode, as well as root beer floats made with craft-brewed Thomas Kemper root beer that's damn near the best root beer in the world.
Dinner doesn't get much simpler -- or better -- than this.
When this is a perfect world, every neighborhood will have a neighborhood pizza place as good as the Oven, bossed by a chef as great as Mark Tarbell. But until that day arrives, I'm willing to go the distance --because now that I know how wonderful something so simple can be, I can't imagine wasting my time with anything more.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.