Slice of Heaven
It was a knee-jerk New Yorker's reflex that led me to Famous Pizza. Make that Famous Pizza #1. "The Original Famous Pizza," as spelled out on the front window and the menu. Opened by Gus Mavrocefalos in 1974, this joint has been operating out of its crooked storefront for thirty years, slinging pies and rolling calzones for drunks, neighbors and all manner of SoBo street creatures.
Over three decades, Famous has spawned multiple offspring, sold 'em or seen 'em go their own way -- and these satellite locations have gone on to flourish or close, or change names and spit out their own franchised babies. Right now, the yellow pages list five Famous Pizzas in metro Denver, but only one is the original, the progenitor, the paterfamilias, and that's this one, at 98 South Broadway, where I'd stopped without thinking, just because I was hungry and it was there.
I didn't come for history. I'd come for a slice. And as much as I'd like to attribute my discovery of Famous to good research or my finely tuned critical radar, it wasn't that at all. It was a gut thing, a moment of East Coast recidivism, thinking I was back in thin-crust wonderland, where finding a good slice requires nothing more than stopping in front of the first lit storefront you see and slapping down a couple of bucks.
In Denver, you can sometimes drive four, five, even six blocks without seeing a pizza place, and you might have to go ten miles to find a good one. But back home in the Tri-State -- in particular, Buffalo, Rochester, Philly proper, those parts of Jersey that are actually just Big Apple-Philly suburbs, and all of NYC, except Long Island -- there are often three or four pie joints on a single block, and all of them are excellent. My wife and I, both transplants from this slice of heaven, gone from the Coast now for years, still sometimes suffer crippling bouts of pizza-related agoraphobia when we realize that there's not a pie joint within walking distance of wherever we are at any given moment.
And even if there were one, it would probably be one of those hellish, backward, Bizzaro World west-of-the-Mississippi pizzerias with their squishy crusts and spicy sauces and designer toppings cemented in vulcanized cheese product. But still, you can find a good slice in Denver. You just have to look hard. Or, if you're lucky, like me, you might be driving blind on a Saturday night and stop in front of a place you've passed by for years, a place that does pizza right. It's rare, but it happens. That's how I found Famous.
It was beckoning, bright and fragrant on a hot night, and I could smell it from two doors down: the charred flour and percolating tomato sauce, the full-bodied, yeasty, humid stink that would say pizza to a blind man. I saw the tattered blue-and-white awning over the entrance, the warm light spilling out onto the street, and, on the big front windows, "New York Style" spelled out in chipped and fading red paint.
Inside, Famous was shellacked with an archaeological strata of grime. It looked like no one had given a single thought over the past thirty years to turning any of the shop's profits toward decoration. Or a thorough cleaning. The floor was tiled. So were some of the walls and part of the counter. None of the tile matched. The chairs were plastic, the dozen tables bare formica. It was a room without adjectives, a blank canvas with a kitchen in the middle -- red sauce on gleaming stainless, a bank of blackened ovens, upright coolers and not much else.
"Getcha sumpin'?" the man behind the counter asked, his hands full of dough, the hair on his arms dusted to the elbows with flour.
"Two cheese slices," I said. There were five or six pies stacked up behind the smeared glass separating the counter and kitchen from the spare dining room: cheese, cheese and pepperoni, cheese and sausage, another all gunked up with a bunch of vegetables, another with mushrooms. "No," I corrected myself. "One cheese, one mushroom."
"Small Coke." No beers at Famous. No liquor license.
The pizza man grunted, punched the register, took my money, went back about his business. Not much in the way of customer service, granted, but I wasn't expecting any and didn't want much. I didn't want a buddy, I wanted pizza -- and both of us seemed to understand that. Had the guy stepped up, shaken my hand, told me the night's specials or even acknowledged my presence as anything more than just another customer in a long string of them stretching back to the 1970s, it would have been too much. It would have been wrong. That he didn't poke me in the nose with the pizza stick for changing my mind at the register or boot my ass to the curb for being indecisive in the clutch was enough. I took a table in the back, slurped my Coke and waited.
Famous Pizza's hand-stretched, thin-crust pies are made fast, made fresh, layered with good-quality toppings and portioned generously, top to bottom. That's to be expected. Call yourself Famous Pizza, and pizza should be the least of the things you do right. Famous also offers chicken wings, salads -- piles of greens, black olives, feta and shredded mozzarella as undeserving of adjectives as the dining room -- and sandwiches, made on fresh-baked bread (according to the menu over the counter), which really means they're made with pizza dough and filled with retread pizza toppings, so that the ham sub contains sliced ham otherwise destined for the Hawaiian pizza, tomatoes that missed becoming sauce, and shredded mozzarella on half a folded crust. On Tuesday, there's a baked-spaghetti special, and at all times, one of the city's best soft calzones. Famous Pizza realizes that a calzone is really just a tiny pizza folded in half and cooked to absolute gooey perfection. The calzones here are heavy as bricks, baked so that the dough in the center is still cool and pillowy, just this side of raw, and the cheese melted but not yet lava, so you can actually pick the thing up and eat it with your hands. Still, at a place like this, the pie's the thing. Personally, I am a thin-crust, bare-bottom, small-bone-pizza kinda guy, a New York-style purist. Other people might feel differently about what makes a good pizza. But those other people would be wrong.
"Hey!" the pizza man yelled. He jerked his head toward the counter. "Yer ready."
I fetched my slices -- each one on a doubled-up paper plate, fresh from the oven -- and took them back to my table. Since the first bite of any slice should tell you all you need to know about the pie -- and, by extension, the pizza man responsible and the restaurant he's working for -- I approached that moment with due diligence and respect. I closed my eyes, inhaled a deep breath of midnight pizza-joint smell that was so good, so right, that it made me want a big to-go cup of air to take home with me, and then bit.
So far, so good. The crust on a perfect New York slice (which, by necessity, will have been through the oven twice -- once to cook through, once more to warm for service) should be flexible, the bone crisp so that it snaps in the middle when you fold it. Famous not only had that down, but the bottom of the crust was just a little burned from the sweet stone surface of the kitchen's ancient oven, giving it a crackly, slightly charred taste that will always speak to me of double-cooked slices grabbed hot at the counter and eaten on the run.
Once you fold the slice, the tip should droop just a little and hang there, waiting to be bitten off. No droop means a too-stiff crust or, worse, an inappropriately light load of cheese and sauce. Famous had the correct droop. Two out of four steps to perfection.
Cheese on a pizza hardly matters to me. Although I prefer the slightly funky whole-milk mozz, I won't raise a fuss over the mild, block-shredded stuff most places use. But sauce? That's important. It should be thin, tomatoey, a little sweet, a little sour. No crushed red-pepper flakes should be added. As a matter of fact, there should be no spices at all beyond that holy trinity of Italian red-sauce ingredients: garlic, salt and oregano. Even these ought to be used sparingly, and at Famous, they are. Three out of four.
Finally, there's the grease -- that magical orange effluent that sets a real New York slice above the legions of pale imitators. And only here did Famous fall flat. There was some grease on the cheese slice -- enough to soak through one of the two plates, but not enough to drool down the back of my hand or sufficiently lubricate the bone once I'd eaten my way back that far. And the mushroom slice suffered from an even worse grease deficiency, since what little it started with had been sucked up by the generous portion of sliced and double-cheesed fungus that had gone nice and crispy 'round the edges during the second trip through the oven.
Not that I was complaining. These were fine slices, as thoroughly Bronx street-corner as anything in the outer boroughs, and better by a long stretch than most of what Denver has to offer on any given Saturday night. I sat there and enjoyed them while the Olympics played on the TV hacked rudely into the back wall; watching men's gymnastics on a Saturday night with a table full of chain-smoking Greeks (friends of the house, one would presume, looking like they hadn't moved once from the table marked "reserved for employees" during all three decades of service) and another one full of grungy, multiple-pierced Broadway gutter punks in original-issue white-on-black Misfits T-shirts. All of us stared in not quite rapt amazement as a bunch of tiny Japanese men bounced around the floor like anti-gravity ninjas, sucking in a single collective breath when one of the American boys scrambled his huevos against the handle on the pommel horse. For a brief moment, we had the sort of little community going that Olympic advertisers love to show in tear-jerking ads for Kodak film or sports drinks. Four freaks, three Greeks and a restaurant critic all mesmerized by the pomp and circumstance of a sport no one cares about being beamed to us from half a world away. It lasted exactly as long as the space between commercial breaks. Which, frankly, is about as much community as I can take before I start to itch.
I finished my slices, grabbed a pie to go and got out of there -- back into the car and back on the road.
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