Pizzeria Locale: Will Frasca's dough boys get a pizza the fast-casual action?
At Denver’s Pizzeria Locale, you can find American standards or Neapolitan classics like this maiale, with red sauce, arugula and prosciutto crudo.
At the risk of sounding crass, I'm going to start this review in a place that gets no air time in 99.9 percent of food coverage: the bathroom. (I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.)
I bring up the bathroom in Denver's Pizzeria Locale not just because it's spotless, as bathrooms should be, or because that's where you'll end up if you've had a few glasses of house red with your pie. I do so because there, enlarged to cover the ceiling, is a picture of an old stone wall in Naples with flower-filled window boxes and a portrait of a long-haired, smiling man who can only be Jesus. Now, I'm no expert in these matters, but it's got to be a sin — at least in Naples, the birthplace of floppy, thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza — to do your business under the son of God.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Pizzeria Locale
If so, that isn't the only sin that owners Lachlan Patterson and Bobby Stuckey have committed here. Not that anyone, at least anyone who's never held a rosary, would mind, given the high-quality, ridiculously affordable pizza that hits your table in two minutes flat.
You know the saying about how you've got to know the rules to break them? Patterson and Stuckey, who put Boulder on the national food map with their flagship restaurant, Frasca Food and Wine, certainly know the rules of classic pizza-making. Both have been to Naples several times, and the Denver restaurant's opening team of operations director Chris Donato and culinary director Jordan Wallace spent time in Italy before helping launch the original Pizzeria Locale in Boulder in 2011.
This is a crew that knows the time-honored way to mix dough, adding caputo flour at certain intervals but never in the final five minutes. They know how to let the dough rest, how to shape it into tight balls so that the dough doesn't stick to the tray as it proofs, and how to slap — not toss — it into shape. And they know how to heat the oven to a searing 1,000 degrees. But as businessmen, they also know that consistency comes from machines, not men. And for purists, that's where the second sin comes in.
In Naples as well as in the original Boulder location of Locale, you can follow all the above rules and still burn, undercook or otherwise ruin a pie. It takes months of training, not to mention much "struggling and crying," Patterson told me — only half-jokingly — to train a pizzaiolo, the guy with the long-handled pizza peel moving pies around the oven. So for their Denver restaurant, he and Stuckey broke with tradition and worked with engineers to design a rotational hearth oven powered by gas and infrared, the only one of its kind in the world. All a pizzaiolo has to do is put it on the moving track and voila! Artisanal pizza, two minutes later, with a little human wiggle room to measure speckling and doneness of fully loaded pies. Why go to all the expense? Because unlike the original Pizzeria Locale, which is Frasca's friend-with-benefits given its next-door location, this Pizzeria Locale is built with potential replication in mind.
That's a good thing and a bad thing. If you're one of the many who braved traffic on U.S. 36 to eat at Pizzeria Locale on Pearl Street and come to Broadway looking for the same wine list, attentive host, table service and frutti de mare to go along with your charred-crust pies, you'll be disappointed. This is Pizzeria Locale, Steve Ells-style, where you order at the counter and watch a line of white-shirted, red-hatted employees spoon toppings from metal containers onto dough that's loaded onto the spinning oven floor. The menu here is abbreviated, with a handful of ten-inch "Neapolitan classics," plus several American favorites like pepperoni and supreme and a build-your-own option with 26 toppings to choose from. The atmosphere is edgy, not elegant, with louder music, white-tiled walls and floors, black metal lighting fixtures and more graffiti in the same series of David Woody photographs that hang on both restaurants' walls.
But if you forget all that and just eat, or if you drop by not knowing this restaurant's lineage, you'll come across the finest iteration of fast-casual that the city — dare I say the country? — has ever seen. My favorites cluster in the Neapolitan classics: the mais, with corn kernels, ham and crème fraîche; the Bianca, with sausage, broccolini and chile flakes; and the maiale, with red sauce, arugula and prosciutto crudo. The margherita, my normal go-to, is identical to the cheese in the "American classics" section, except for the game-changing addition of large leaves of basil. I wish it had a little less cheese, in order to let those tomatoes really shine — but that puts me in the minority, since most Americans like lots of mozzarella. While not dumped on as they would be at Pizza Hut, ingredients aren't stingily placed, either, so there's no need to scramble for the first slice with all the good stuff.
As a long-time fan of Neapolitan pie, and someone who's been known to search out pizza temples in cities I visit at the expense of higher-end fare, I admit I was skeptical of whether I'd like my friend's supreme, with mushrooms, long coils of green pepper, pepperoni, sausage and red onions — but I did. Yes, the millimeters-thick crust sagged under all those toppings, but no more than it did with the simpler basil and cheese. (This is pizza to support with both hands.) And the build-your-own option, the one you'd never see in Naples? That worked out well, too, but it's hard to go wrong with choices such as capers, pork meatballs (which can also be ordered sauced as a side) and grape tomatoes. Too bad I couldn't craft a cipollini and speck and replicate my favorite pie from the Boulder location; cipollini isn't offered here, nor are ricotta, mozzarella di bufala or squash blossoms.
Another seemingly small difference is that pizza is sliced at the Denver restaurant, while it's not in Boulder. Traditionally, hot pies head straight from oven to plate to guest, trapping the steam escaping out the bottom and exaggerating the dampness of the crust. This texture is one of the reasons I love Neapolitan pie, but apparently enough diners disagree that an intermediate step was added in Denver: a perforated steam tray, where the pizza lands after it comes out of the oven. There steam escapes so that the pizza is slightly less moist and can be cut without tearing. "In Denver," Patterson explained, part of the mission is to "teach people how to eat Neapolitan pizza." Hence the tray, which he calls "teeny training wheels."
Denver may not be Boulder, but there are lots of foodniks in town who don't need those wheels. I like sitting down to use a knife and fork with my pie, and I prefer crusts that are less evenly tan, with the char and bubbles that are more likely to develop when a man, not a machine, moves my pizza around the flame. So do I wish the Denver Locale were identical to the original? Yes. But I'll take what I can get, which is a reliably delicious, affordable way to get my Neapolitan fix. And I'm not the only one who thinks so, judging by the grandmothers, young dads rocking infants, and groups of friends who crowd the place both day and night.
Besides, it's hard not to be happy when you can end a meal with budino, a rich butterscotch pudding layered with caramel and chocolate. In Boulder, where the portion is six ounces, the dessert costs more than an entire Denver pie. But in Denver, two ounces are more than enough — and seem almost free at $1.50. (Pizzas in Denver are less expensive, if slightly smaller, too.)
Sinful it might be, but the concept behind Denver's Pizzeria Locale sure has its strong points. How far can Patterson, Stuckey and crew take it? God only knows.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.