Down at the far end of the bar, next to the open garage door leading to a wrap-around patio, a twenty-something has posted up with a beer and her computer, the wind tousling her hair as she hacks away intently. Behind me, at the long, high center table, a group is conducting some sort of event-planning meeting, passing possible favors and a sheath of papers back and forth over a tray of pizza, letting the ice melt in glittering pink, yellow and lime-green cocktails.
Families laugh over appetizers. Solo diners squint into the bright-orange backlights of the bar, raising their voices over the booming electronic tracks of bands like Phoenix and Passion Pit to joke with the bartenders. Couples split a salad. Though none of these groups seems to know each other, they've all come to the same party, using their neighborhood restaurant for everything from a heated game of Skee-Ball with a first date to a respite from that home office. And even if you've never been here before, you're likely to feel the same sense of comfort that comes from making a restaurant your own.
Ernie's Bar & Pizza opened last year in a spot where another Ernie's served pizza and beer to this northwest Denver neighborhood as early as 1943. That Ernie's closed long ago; more recently, the building housed Three Sons, which moved out a couple of years ago in order to build a restaurant in Arvada. Then Larimer Associates bought the building, re-establishing the Ernie's name and concept but taking it much further. The group wanted to create a next-generation neighborhood joint, building off the successes it had enjoyed outside its home base of Larimer Square: at Billy's Inn, Sloans Bar & Grill and LoHi SteakBar, where chef Sean Kelly wowed patrons with his version of high-quality bar food when it opened last year (see story, right).
"This is a neighborhood bar," says Joe Vostrejs, COO of the Larimer Associates. "We want people to use it however they want. The communal table is important to us, because it brings people together in a shared space. And we leave the tables blank, because we want people to feel like they can come to this restaurant for anything they want."
That calculation extends to service. Hosts don't seat parties here, preferring to let groups feel at home by choosing their own tables. And servers clad in street clothes, rather than uniforms, take drink orders, bringing menus only if people indicate that they're dining. "We have people who come here three, four, five times a week," notes Vostrejs. "We want them to feel like this place is theirs."
That attention to detail pays off with a setting so welcoming that all you need to want to keep returning to the party is one menu item on which you can depend. And since Larimer Associates partnered with Kelly at this spot, too, finding that dish isn't hard.
For Ernie's, Kelly crafted a roster of gourmet pizzas, pastas and bar snacks to pair with a thirty-deep beer list, including several local tap-line offerings available by the pitcher, and a handful of Italian-influenced cocktails. Kelly's got a history with pizza; one of his first restaurant jobs was making pies in a New Jersey parlor when he was a teenager. He applied that experience here, turning out East Coast-style, thin-crust pies in ten-inch and twenty-inch sizes.
The crust, though not yet perfect, is the best part of the pizzas at Ernie's, the common base for fifteen tomato-sauce-based varieties and four white pies. Topping combinations include tried-and-true flavor mixtures as well as more unusual mixes. Bacon, goat cheese and caramelized onion top a salty but satisfying pie. Prosciutto hides under oven-roasted tomatoes and arugula on another; I would have liked more meat — or none at all, since the smoky, blistered, in-season tomatoes needed no help (or detraction) from the pork. A couple of pizzas feature sausages and meatballs from Polidori, a local sausage-maker that's been grinding pork since 1925. I liked those sausages on the pies, but I liked them better when they were more prominent in otherwise dull pasta dishes, like ziti and spaghetti. Also dull: the margherita pizza. I'm a traditionalist, and I like my margheritas with bufala mozzarella (or at least slices of the hand-stretched stuff), crushed raw tomato sauce and fresh leaves of basil. The Ernie's version employed grated mozzarella and slices of tomato; I would have been better off just ordering the basic three-cheese pizza.
My favorite pizza was also the strangest: rock shrimp, red onion, capers, olives and arugula. Though I've managed to unlearn the years-long conditioning that once had me turning up my nose at any combination of shellfish and cheese, I'm always amazed when it works this well; the tiny prawns added plump, springy texture to the cheese and tomato sauce, the salt of the capers and olives took away the fishy bite, and the earthy arugula gave the whole pie a fresh, mellow essence. The balance was remarkable.
Kelly put his pizza dough to good use in other ways: stretching it to encapsulate the ingredients of a calzone and frying it up in airy, pillow-shaped puffs for an appetizer served with silky slices of prosciutto, creamily dressed greens and a tangy, creamy taleggio. A side of tomato sauce, like the one that came with the calzone, would have worked better with the app; after the rich dairy, fatty meat and oil-infused dough, my palate was crying for some acid — and the greens weren't up to the job.
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More pizza dough appears on the dessert roster, this time fried as zeppole, tossed with cinnamon and powdered sugar (to your taste) and served with three dipping sauces. The strawberry mascarpone and frosting-like chocolate chip cannoli cream were a good match, but the best was the chocolate-hazelnut banana mousse. It reminded me of chocolate pudding and scratched a nostalgic itch I didn't even know I had. The tiramisu scratched another itch, holding a perfect equilibrium between fluffy custard and espresso-soaked ladyfingers, neither too rich nor too starchy.
The same neighborly spirit that influences the atmosphere and service at Ernie's is reflected in the portion sizes; many items on the menu are specifically designated to feed two or, in the case of the family-style salads and large pizzas, groups. Which helps explain why there's usually at least one huge party haunting a banquette or the patio, taking turns at the pool table and sucking down pitchers of beer. I'd throw a party like that here, but I'd also come alone or in a small group for a reunion of a couple of friends.
Some restaurants are on my go-to list because they're my best in show, the places where I celebrate special occasions or take out-of-town guests. Other restaurants are there because they're the best in certain neighborhoods, the spots where I go when I want to hang out in a specific part of town with a cold beer and a few friends. And then there's Ernie's, which stretches the definition of neighborhood to cover the same city.
This is a restaurant where I could go every day — especially when there's no occasion.