Cafe Society

Mouthing Off

Homegrown advantage: No one ever talks about "Denver-style pizza," but after eating a few not-so-humble pies from local pizzerias recently, I'm convinced we have a few originals.

Of course, everyone knows about Beau Jo's (I ate at the original Beau Jo's, the cavernous space at 1517 Miner Street in Idaho Springs). This 24-year-old Colorado chain, started by two guys named Beau and Jo who sold it to Chip Bair in its inaugural year, now counts nine links in the state, with one more scheduled to open in Buckingham Square this month. Beau Jo's calls its pies "Colorado Style Mountain Pizza" and proceeds to make each one look like a mountain by piling on a whole range of toppings. We wolfed down a two-pounder--the weights are loosely based on the thickness of the pie and the amount of cheese--with two ingredients ($12.99), Canadian bacon and pineapple. But our decisions did not end there: We opted for thick, white crust (there are four crust types and four thicknesses from which to choose) and Beau Jo's "regular" pizza sauce (seven more possibilities), along with a blend of cheeses (out of eight total, including no-fat and no-cholesterol mozzarella).

We liked that pizza so much we went back a week later and ordered the ten-inch BBQ pie ($12.99) with chicken, bacon, mushrooms, onions and cheddar. Even though this pie, like our previous one, carried an impressive amount of bacon, there were no little ponds of grease to be seen; the rest of the toppings were also of good quality. Underneath all those toppings was Beau Jo's unique crust: Made with honey, it has the texture of water crackers and usually seems a little on the dry side to me. The restaurant encourages diners to smear honey on the leftover crust for dessert, which is delicious (although some dieting members of our party sneered at the added calories). Frankly, I'd rather slather on more sauce--Beau Jo's best feature, as far as I'm concerned. Both the regular and the barbecue versions were incredibly good, full of concentrated flavors and fresh-tasting herbs.

The sauce is also key at Pudge Bros. Pizza. Started in 1991 at 2213 South Peoria in Aurora by the Miller and Fink families--both fourth-generation Coloradans--Pudge Bros. has since grown to fifteen locations in the Denver area. Part-owner Chris Miller says the chain now extends out of state, too, into such cities as Dallas and Albuquerque. But the Pudge Bros. outlets around here, he adds, are "mostly owned by high school kids who started out working for us and then later bought a franchise."

Miller describes his pizzas as "New York-style," but the sauce is much spicier than any I've spilled on myself in the Big Apple. In fact, that heat is what sets Pudge Bros. apart--and Miller admits it's also what often turns off first-time customers. "Some people just don't like it that hot," he says. Well, I do. And Pudge Bros.'s eighteen-inch Monster ($10.99) was a great deal, with tons of that sauce and plenty of cheese poured onto a hand-tossed dough that baked into a chewy crust.

The last pie I scarfed came from a pizzeria that didn't start in Colorado but has been so thoroughly embraced by Coloradans that it feels like a local. Nick-N-Willy's was born after skier Brad Schneider, who had a restaurant in California, was killed in an accident in the mid-Eighties; his friends kept the restaurant and renamed it Nick-N-Willy's after Schneider's sons. Although there are now many locations across the country, Colorado has the most of any state--fifteen. And Denverites certainly eat up the concept: Buy a nicely wrapped raw pie and cook it at home. Or serve a slew of them at your wedding, as two friends did recently, which gave me the opportunity to sample an incredible sun-dried-tomato-feta-spinach-garlic pizza. Normally Nick-N-Willy's pies go for between $8.99 and $15.95, but this one cost me a couple of bottles of wine as a wedding gift.

It was worth it.