Potato pizza. Barbecued-chicken pizza. Organic spinach and wood-ear-mushroom pizza on a hand-tossed artisan crust. The occasional sushi pizza or nightmare of salmon, caper and crème fraîche notwithstanding, the World of Pie has benefited from such innovations — from the brave (and occasionally terribly misguided) adventuring of American pizza-makers unwilling to be limited by the historical correctness of the standard red-and-white New York archetype.
And while, yes, there is a curmudgeonly and harrumphing old classicist inside me who still thinks that all this newfangled flummery is a bunch of frou-frou hippie bunk and would gladly step on the necks of a hundred Crocs-wearing, microgreen-slinging, duck-on-my-pizza dipshits if that's what it takes to bring some place like Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn or John's on Bleecker Street to Denver, there is also still something of the young turk inside, too — the guy who once insisted on serving Japanese squid salad with black-tip shark tacos in a Mexican restaurant because the combination was just so good, who made his owners a small fortune serving covered focaccia pies stuffed with a cheater's confit of duck, melted goat cheese and port-wine reduction.
But here in Denver, even our destitute get to eat pizzas inspired by LaDou. Last week, while finishing up Sazza's redemption story (see review), I happened to get my monthly newsletter from SAME Cafe at 2023 East Colfax Avenue. That's Brad and Libby Birky's place where there are no prices on the menu, no cash registers, just a donation box where folks pay whatever they can for a hot lunch (or dinner on Saturday) and friendly, sit-down service. It's the place that I, coldly, presumed would last maybe a month when it opened back in October of 2006 (because I am a cynic and couldn't see how a spot that wasn't charging for its food could possibly survive in an industry that regularly closes, cripples and kills restaurants that charge a fucking fortune) and has consistently made a fool out of me by not only surviving, but thriving on the strength of the Birkys' do-gooder commitment and the generosity of the community.
The newsletter included the Cafe's new weekly menu, and guess what was all over it? That's right: pizzas. Two a day, including chicken and artichoke on Tuesday, apple and brie on Wednesday, Southwestern veggie on Friday, a classic tomato-and-basil margherita on Saturday. This, in addition to the regular board of cioppino, potato-poblano soup, chickpea salad, red beans and rice, and pan bagnat.
I called Brad late last week just to shoot the breeze. He told me that things have been going well. For example, for the past few months they'd really needed a truck, and they recently got one: a donation from the Margret P. Stewart Foundation. And although he and Libby just saw one of their volunteers — Keba, who came to them through Work Options for Women — move on and are currently a bit short-handed in the galley, they have two interns from Skyland Community High School who help out on Tuesdays and Thursdays in exchange for getting a taste of the restaurant world. And while their experience is certainly bound to be far more warm and fuzzy than I found the industry when I was in still in high school and working nights at a very different kind of pizza joint, I still love seeing kids getting a feel for the business that doesn't come from inside a classroom at J&W.
Brad also told me that SAME's building had been sold, but that the new owner — again, in a total reversal of how the restaurant world traditionally goes — was happy to see them stay on, even going so far as to do some work on the exterior of the place to give it a bit more "curb appeal." The way things are looking now, the Birkys will be picking up the option on SAME's lease come June and signing on for another three years.
Which means more potato and chicken pizzas for everyone.
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Leftovers: Over at 2223 South Monaco Parkway, Bruno's Italian Bistro is back in business. Ages ago, this space was a failing operation named Marvin Gardens that was bought by Mel and Jane Master. They turned it into the first iteration of Bruno's, a classical, casual Italian joint with a menu full of pastas and pizzas and a reputation for some wicked good cooking — because their chef was none other than Frank Bonanno. But during a spate of restaurant sell-offs a decade ago, Mel and Jane sold Bruno's to CIA-trained chef Tom Mirabito. They kept Bonanno, though, and installed him at the original Mel's in Cherry Creek as (get this...) sous chef — third in line below Tyler Wiard, who was then standing as C de C, and Ben Davis (ex of the Cypress Club in San Francisco, currently an owner and instructor at the Passionate Palette cooking school in Englewood), who was on the books as exec.
Mirabito held Bruno's for a decade, serving up authentic regional cuisine for neighbors and a dedicated crowd of regulars until he finally shut the place last year. In December, both the space and the name were bought by Nick Mujaj — new to the Denver restaurant scene, but a ten-year veteran of New York Italian restaurants. Mujaj's brother-in-law, Getmir Zymeri, is a partner at the Lure, where Bistro Vendôme veteran Eric Roeder consults on the menu (he does the same at Table Mesa Grill, in the former Kyoto Asian Fusion space at 7301 South Santa Fe Drive). And now Roeder is also working at Bruno's.
"I had an in," Mujaj explained. And not only did Roeder design the new, very Italian menu at Bruno's — full of osso bucco, carbonara and bucatini puttanesca — but "he's cooking," Mujaj said, "training the guys. He brought his own crew on, guys he's been working with for years."
Like the man says, it's a small world after all.