My grandma Judy discovered Big Bill's New York Pizza by sheer dumb luck. She was on an errand in the County Line strip mall that houses the pizza parlor and decided to take my mother a carry-out lunchtime calzone. This single act of generosity forever changed our family's dining-out habits. In the sea of chain restaurants that were just about the only options in the southern suburbs in the late '90s, Big Bill's was a real catch, and it became the default spot for our nights out.
Bill Ficke, a former assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, had opened the joint in November 1995, after he sold the shoe store he'd owned for two decades. At the start, it was under the banner of Lil' Ricci's New York Pizzeria, a slice shop already popular on East Hampden Avenue. But Ficke, a native of Long Island, had definite ideas about pizza, and he imported Pete Tutrone, a pizza maker on Long Island, to make the thin-crust New York pies he remembered from back home. When the deal with Lil' Ricci's soured the next year, Ficke bought out his partner and renamed the spot Big Bill's. My family discovered the place soon after, and while we recognized that the pizzas — crispy and dripping with grease — were much better than any of the Sysco product-laden pies in the neighborhood, we didn't have the palates or experience to really know why.
Fast-forward ten years, when, like every other recent liberal-arts-school graduate I knew, I renounced my uncouth upbringing and moved to cultured New York City, where I developed a taste for food snobbery — and pizza in particular. I learned the ins and outs of what makes a good pie while stuffing my face with slices from restaurants and counters across this dining mecca, analyzing crust-to-cheese ratios and generally becoming unbearable when anyone brought up the topic in casual conversation. So when I returned to Denver, utterly convinced that decent pizzas didn't exist west of the Hudson River, it took me a while to give in to my family's pleas that we return to our old favorite. I didn't want to be disappointed. I didn't want my childhood memories of greatness reduced to youthful naiveté.
Finally I relented — and immediately experienced an array of confusing emotions ranging from shock to wistful nostalgia to chest-swelling pride. Turns out that fifteen years ago, my silly suburban family had accidentally stumbled into loving a mini-mall pizzeria that does New York-style pies exactly right. And now that I'm back from the Big Apple, Big Bill's is again my go-to place when I want great pizza. But not just great pizza: This is also my comfort spot when I'm missing my childhood — or a perfect spot for melancholy reminiscence related to my former life in the Empire State. Such pensive longing hits me like a truck during the first days of fall, when my spirits drop with the temperatures, so one night a few weeks ago, I drove an hour from Boulder to Centennial for a fix.
Big Bill's restaurant hasn't changed much since I was a kid. It's always been a frill-less dark space with little lighting and bare wooden tables in a dining room always full of families, waited on by high-schoolers and old-schoolers — servers who've been around forever — wearing T-shirts displaying clichés like "Fuhgeddaboutit." I've never seen a single patron sitting at the bar in the back corner, but the area by the open kitchen along the back wall is still a popular gathering place, teeming with kids who pull themselves up on the counter with grubby hands to watch the pizza-makers toss balls of dough and create flat, wide discs. The walls are still adorned with murals of the New York City skyline, although hearts were painted around the Twin Towers after 9/11.
Big Bill's expanded right before I went to college, probably more to mitigate the half-hour wait times than to make room for more of Ficke's sports paraphernalia. Still, it seems like the owner is proudly displaying an autographed token from every athlete who's ever graced a college or professional team over the past decade and a half. And Ficke himself is frequently visible at a table along the wall, watching those athletes duke it out on one of the many TVs in the joint, occasionally getting up to stroll through his restaurant, a towering presence joking with the hordes of regulars.
But I'm more interested in looking at what's on my table than the view around the restaurant. I started my emergency nostalgic dinner with a crisp Fuhgeddaboutit golden ale, made especially for Big Bill's by Rockyard Brewery. It went perfectly with a childhood favorite: garlic knots, fluffy balls of Italian bread baked until golden brown and crisp on the outside, then rolled in garlic and parmesan and served with hot, chunky housemade tomato sauce for dipping. (Occasionally, I've opted instead for the Sticks & Stones — knots combined with breadsticks, eight-inch rectangles dusted with garlic, parmesan and red-chili flakes — and regretted it. The knots alone are better.)
When I ate here as a kid, my parents would force me to order a dinner salad: a basic mix of crisp, watery iceberg lettuce, pulpy tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers and shredded mozzarella. Dining on my own as a nostalgic grownup, I went with the antipasto, which adds disks of peppery salami, triangles of provolone cheese, spicy pepperoni and juicy pepperoncinis to the rest of the dinner salad ingredients. Big Bill's makes its own ranch and bleu-cheese dressings, but I've been ordering Italian, which comes in a bowl big enough to hold a scoop of ice cream, since I was twelve, and I am loath to change now. Neither salad is a breathtaking display of seasonal produce, but they're fine as placeholders, meant to appease the army of health-conscious suburbanites like my parents who believe it's important to serve vegetables with starch and cheese.
Also negligible are the pasta dishes at Big Bill's, American-Italian classics that come coated in that housemade tomato sauce as well as a liberal portion of stringy, melted mozzarella, baked until golden-brown bubbles dot the surface. The long list of pasta entrees include al dente spaghetti, ravioli stuffed with ricotta, lasagna stuffed with ricotta and layers of ground beef. I've ordered them all on occasion, because with the exception of the lasagna, the pastas all come with your choice of a pungent, dense, housemade meatball or spicy link of sausage — and those meaty accoutrements almost justify the order.
Almost. Because as at any really good New York-style pizza place, the only thing on the menu at Big Bill's that's not superfluous to the pizza is the beer.
Really good New York-style pizza has a few rules. The crust has to be thin but not cracker-like, crispy along the edges but with some give in the center to allow for folding of the slices. That crust is mounted with tomato sauce, with just enough spread across the base to cover it but still leave the white of the dough visible beneath. The sauce is then topped with just enough mozzarella to cover it completely, but never in excess; one layer of cheese suffices. The true test: All of the ingredients have to be employed with enough restraint that you can easily eat a massive slice — or an entire pie.
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Big Bill's large New York-style pies easily pass the test, with an excellent crispness-to-give proportion in the crust; a zippy, smooth tomato sauce with plenty of oregano; and a fine layer of freshly shredded mozzarella. If you order toppings (I rarely do, though I'll occasionally succumb to those housemade meatballs and sausages, and maybe a smattering of caramelized onions), a little extra cheese seals on the additions. And when the pizza arrives at the table, hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth, there's often a lake of grease pooling in the middle — which is how you know the kitchen here is doing things right.
During my recent meal, I ordered a large, classic New York pie (the smaller versions are too thick in the center), which gave me plenty to take home. Particularly since I decided to move beyond nostalgia and try a white pizza, which trades the tomato sauce for sweet ricotta, sharp parmigiana and a generous dose of garlic. White pizza aficionados will love it, but I kept staring longingly at the tomato-sauce version.
I usually don't order dessert at Big Bill's, but I finished my meal that night with a lemon Italian ice, a dessert that Ficke imports from the Ice King of Corona, an Italian-ice maker in Queens that's famous for its snow-textured sweets flavored with fruit. Ficke also brings in Drake's Cakes from a New York bakery and sells Yodels and Devil Dogs and Ring Dings by the box. Details like these are what seal the authenticity of this spot — but they also provide me with unending amusement.
I moved to New York City to escape the suburbs, but it turns out that I always had a way to get a taste of the Big Apple: It was just five minutes away from my childhood home.