Cafe Society

The Pie's the Limit

In Italy, just try walking into a pizzeria and ordering a pie with, oh, say, ham and pineapple. They'll laugh you right into France. Black olives and green peppers? No way. Pepperoni and mushrooms? Fuggedaboutit.

At the source, there are specific, standardized types of pizza. You don't order a medium with fresh romas, basil and cheese; you get a margherita. You don't tell 'em you'd like one with onions, black olives and anchovies; you get it alla Liguria. And when Italian pizzerias venture into more exotic territory--and they do--they top their pies with an array of wonderful, flavorful items: mussels, stuffed olives, fennel-flecked snails, capers and figs, rather than the pathetic, trend-of-the-week ways we accessorize them here.

Here's the real kicker: In Italy, there's no such thing as what we call pepperoni. That was the creation of Italian immigrants, who perceived that Americans wanted something that sounded spicy--hence the "pepper" part--and also required meat on their pizzas. That is, if they were going to eat pizzas at all, which was the big question back in 1895, when the first pizzeria opened in this country at 53 1/2 Spring Street in New York. And so Italians set about modifying one of their great national treasures to our dull American tastes. The Italian word peperoni actually means "peppers," and when an Italian wants thin slices of air-dried sausage on his pizza, he orders one that contains salame.

Simone Parisi knows all of this, because he grew up in Florence, Italy, where he owned a grocery store and where his mama, Oretta, cooked up a storm. Simone's wife, Christine, a former Boulderite who met her future husband while studying art history in his hometown, convinced him that Denver really needed a good pizzeria, and after two years of nagging, he finally acquiesced. Not long after--a little over a year ago--they opened Parisi, an Italian market, pizzeria and deli in the old Italian neighborhood of northwest Denver. Their operation occupies a cheerful, bright storefront space that's mostly filled with imported goods from Italy and has a few tables set near the window.

They've been wowing folks from the Old Country ever since, although not without a bit of haggling. "It's been kind of hard convincing the older generation to buy our imported goods," Christine explains. "You know, they moved into this neighborhood decades ago, when everyone was Italian here--but they couldn't get the stuff from back home, and so they improvised. And now they can't understand why they'd pay so much money for foods they've been making for cheap themselves."

And so Simone finds himself occasionally lowering the price on a whole prosciutto or explaining the merits of fresh mozzarella to women who long ago learned to make do with the rubber balls from Safeway. But he never has to justify his homemade foods, particularly the pizzas. They're the real thing, made like his mother still makes--and she flies in periodically to check up on him. "We always call the regulars to tell them when Oretta is in town," Christine says. "She hides back in the kitchen and peers out every so often while she makes all kinds of special sauces and the most incredible food. And she has taught Simone everything he knows."

He must have been a good student, because Parisi's pizzas are nothing short of heaven. The goodness begins with the crust: medium-thick, the crunchy handles coated with just enough olive oil to keep them moist, but not so much as to mimic a Pizza Hut grease pit. Each pie is fired in Parisi's gas-powered bread oven, which the Parisis lined with stones from a Boulder quarry. As a result, the bottom becomes crisp, the shell sports irregular bubbles of dough that trap the sauce in crevices, the center cooks through and the toppings become one.

Central to the pie's success is that sauce, which--surprise!--isn't a sauce at all. Simone simply melts down fresh tomatoes until they liquefy and the acid mellows, leaving a few meaty pieces intact for texture and a couple of seeds for authenticity. On top of this non-sauce sit liberal amounts of excellent ingredients, which vary according to the type of pie ordered. (No matter what, however, all pizzas are fourteen inches around and cost $13.98 each.)

Our rustica mixed commercial mozzarella with Simone's fresh mozzarella--truly more like a fior di latte, since the real thing made from buffalo milk is hard to do here because the milk is always too old--along with smoked scamorza, a drier, chewier mozzarella made from cow's milk, and large, thin sheets of speck, what Germans call smoked prosciutto. The overall effect was intensely smoky, partly because of the copious amounts of ingredients and also because of their strong flavors.

Our three other pies displayed the same generosity and commitment to quality. The salamino piccante offered fresh mozzarella beneath rounds of soppressato, a spicy, oil-preserved, ginger-infused sausage with a rich texture and taste. The vegetariana included roasted red bell peppers, lightly oily eggplant slices, zucchini strips and fresh mushrooms. The best of the four, though, was the quatro stagioni, or "four seasons" of Italy, which placed olives, artichokes, mushrooms and prosciutto amid the fresh mozzarella and the non-sauce.

In addition to the pizzas--which Simone makes from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily except Sundays, when they're closed--Parisi serves sandwiches made with fresh focaccia, as well as meat-filled and vegetarian panini, soups and pastas; they also sell an assortment of frozen sauces and entrees. "Simone is kind of a whim cook," his wife explains. "Some days he doesn't make certain things, because then he'll get bored. He has to make the lasagne all the time, though, because the little old ladies get mad."

They also throw a fit if there are no polpette ($4.99 for six) in the freezer. Simone's version of meataballs incorporates potatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano; when paired with one of his sauces, look out. Eight sauces are available fresh each day, and the four I tried were amazing: the puttanesca, a meatless version with olives, capers and oregano, had a mellow tomato taste and a sharp olive tang; the amatriciana contained enough red pepper to make the sauce spicy but not overpowering and enough pancetta to give it depth; the creamy pesto was potent with basil and garlic; and the ultra-rich gorgonzola with walnuts was simply decadent.

Four types of pasta are available each day to be paired with the sauces--billed as "express pastas," they cost $5.95 and include a simple salad and bread. Although the Parisis don't make these noodles by hand, they're nonetheless the good, imported kind. "Simone's grandmother and aunt, they still make all the family's pasta by hand back in Bologna," says Christine. "And I'm not talking about with a machine, either. I'm talking about rolling it out on a table and cutting it. We did make our own ravioli for a while, but it got to be too labor-intensive."

The couple clearly recognizes quality--even when it comes from outside their own kitchen. For example, they get the boule for bread salads and Tuscan-style soups (see Mouthing Off for a recipe) from the Denver Bread Company; they import the baguettes for the panini from Trompeau Bakery. The sandwiches, which run $4.19 for a six-inch and $5.99 for a ten-inch, are filled with the same top-notch ingredients as the pizzas, and the combinations we tried worked well. The Firenze, with sauteed spinach and mushrooms, tomatoes, porchetta (slices of succulent roast pork) and provolone, was packed with flavor. And the Napoli, with spicy giardiniera (vegetables), ham, capicolla and provolone, had a bite that made biting into it irresistible.

"My tastebuds didn't wake up until I went to Italy," says Christine.
Parisi certainly reawakened mine.

Parisi, 4408 Lowell Boulevard, 303-561-0234. Hours: 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m Saturday.