Pity the poor Italian restaurant. Through a twist of fate stranger than Miley Cyrus vying against the Pope for Time's Person of the Year, independently owned trattorias have found themselves walking in Olive Garden's shadow, as if endless salad bowls and warm breadsticks were the most effective yardstick of a kitchen's mettle. That's a position that George Eder, founder of Pizza Republica, knows all too well. "I'm there to show them there's so much more than the Olive Garden," he says. "There doesn't have to be pasta out of a box, dough from a commissary and cheese out of a catalogue."
See also: A closer look at Pizza Republica
But the shadow feels longer at Republica's second outpost, which opened last spring in a new buildout attached to the Colorado Convention Center and caters as much to meeting-goers exploring life beyond the Big Blue Bear as folks popping in for drinks and a bite before the ballet. Business is more transient here than at the original restaurant in Greenwood Village, creating a vibe that's more "Welcome to town" than "Welcome back." Given the clientele and this location's size — it holds 180 inside and another 100 on the sprawling patio — you begin to understand why visions of Olive Garden dance in guests' heads here in a way that they never would at the smaller Row 14 across the street. So Eder fights to escape the shadow the only way he knows how: with friendly service and a kitchen that strives to "win people one dish at a time."
He's certainly winning on the first account. A Detroit native of Italian descent, Eder wants to re-create the "genuine hospitality at an old Italian grandmother's house, where you got pinched on the cheek, sat down and were fed." No one's pinching any cheeks at Pizza Republica, thank goodness, but everyone — from manager to hostess to busboy — seems so happy to see you, you feel like you've made their day just by showing up. (If only it were always so easy to make people happy.) While friendly, the service wasn't perfect: Mistakes were made, with servers putting in an order for the wrong dish and twice neglecting to tell us about happy hour and a buy-one-get-one pizza special. But these oversights were handled with grace, not to mention complimentary tiramisu, and that's a better indication of where a restaurant's heart is than perfection.
Which is good, because perfection isn't always coming out of the kitchen, either. A fat ball of burrata, so rich and creamy on the inside it reminded me of a soft-boiled egg, was spoiled by a flood of garlic-studded oil, which was billed as extra-virgin but lacked the telltale fruitiness. Nona's shells, so named because the recipe came from Eder's grandmother, also arrived in their own spill. We did our best to rescue them from the oil-slicked spicy pomodoro, but the effort left the ricotta-, basil- and mascarpone-stuffed pasta a little worse for wear. Butternut ravioli (not made in-house) were tough, with a filling stickier than peanut butter and a sage cream sauce that proved too rich to be eaten bite after bite, and the stuffed steak known as braciole came out overcooked and unadorned, without the crispy parsnips and basil chiffonade that would've made the dry beef more appetizing.
Could this be the same detail-oriented kitchen that, along with the original location, turns out some 250 pounds of fresh mozzarella every day? That slicks pizzas with San Marzanos and cooks them in a 1,000-degree wood-fired oven? That boasts pizzaioli trained under Peppe Miele, president of the organization that safeguards pure Neapolitan pie? Much as Pizza Republica wants to be a full-service restaurant, with 150 bottles of Italian wine and an array of pasta- and protein-centric entrees, it's at its most appealing when the pizza-makers get involved.
As at any Neapolitan pizzeria, the surest barometer of quality is the margherita, and Pizza Republica puts out a pie worthy of the name. Dotted with slices of lightly salted fresh mozzarella, with plenty of saucy red spots in between, the pizza achieved the proper balance of charred crust, tomato, basil and cheese. I'd prefer for the bottom to be slightly wetter, with less crackle and more doughy flavor, but that's not how customers have historically liked it, so pizza-makers here leave pizzas in the oven for about two minutes, up from the traditional ninety seconds. Despite that crisper crust, other pizzas were just as tasty — especially the Georgio, a white pizza with sausage, fried garlic slivers and caramelized onions. And in spite of too much truffle oil, the duck-fig was good, too, with chewy sections of figs in place of overly sweet fig jam, which a chain like Olive Garden would no doubt use. If Olive Garden made Neapolitan pie, that is.
Good as the pizzas are, though, they're not the best dish on the menu. That honor goes to pastuccia, a reinterpretation of a baked polenta pie that features creamy, Parmesan-spiked polenta nestled between slices of fennel sausage and raisin relish. The relish tastes infinitely better than it sounds, with pancetta and golden raisins plumped in chicken stock and sherry vinegar. It's a mystery why servers recommend the burrata over this knockout dish, which speaks of winter comfort food and serves as a far better anchor for a satisfying meal than that oil-drowned cheese. Provided you know what to follow it with: a pizza, of course, a glass of wine and a salad — perhaps the retro wedge with Gorgonzola, or the arugula with sliced pears, goat cheese and a whisper of three-citrus vinaigrette.
Throw in a piece of classic tiramisu and you'll see Pizza Republica for what it is: not a locally owned Olive Garden knockoff, but a comfortable, friendly place for a bite before or after the show, whether you come solo, with young kids (who aren't always welcome downtown) or with a group. Eder's got the "grandma's hospitality" thing nailed. Now he just needs to work on a few of those recipes.