Denver's Pizza Scene is Evolving, Fast | Westword

Food & Drink News

Denver's Pizza Scene Is Evolving, Fast

Pizza party, anyone?
Crush Pizza + Tap has four styles of pizza including deep dish.
Crush Pizza + Tap has four styles of pizza including deep dish. Crush Pizza + Tap/Facebook
Share this:
"Pizza is like sex: Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good," says Jason McGovern, who opened Denver Deep Dish in the back of Bar Car in 2012, at a time when Denver's pizza scene was limited, if not downright bad. "It was literally just New York-style pizza places. It was Anthony's and Abo's and Sexy Pizza and a couple of other places with that style of quick places to get slices."

Over the past decade, a lot has changed in Denver — including McGovern's own business, which is now located at 1200 West 38th Avenue and was renamed Crush Pizza & Tap in 2018 in order to broaden its appeal. The name "was limiting our casual pizza consumers," McGovern explains. Today, Crush offers four types of pizza: hand-tossed (its current best seller), Sicilian, gluten-free, and the deep dish that was once its specialty. McGovern also just opened Crush Wings & Tap (which serves pizza, too) at 5001 East Colfax Avenue in the former home of the Elm.

McGovern isn't the only one offering Denver new types of pizza. He's tried nearly all of the options — and in December 2018 even embarked on a mission to eat pizza at least once a day for two months straight. While he acknowledges that Denver has never been known for pizza, he now sees potential for that to change. "I think it's becoming a pizza town," he says. "I'd like to see it become more of a pizza town."

If current trends continue, that's exactly what could happen.

"There are still a lot of crummy places," McGovern admits, pointing to some disappointing spots. But there are also exceptions that have been around for years, like Big Bill's in Centennial; Cosmo's, with locations in Denver and Boulder; Denver Biscuit Company's nighttime counterpart, Fat Sully's; Panhandler's in Fort Collins. Newcomers are stepping up in this category, too. After bringing New York-style bagels to Denver with Rosenberg's, in 2018 Josh Pollack opened Famous Original J's at 715 East 26th Avenue, where it serves up up both slices and square, Sicilian-style pies. And in October, Oak at Fourteenth's Steve Redzikowski opened New Yorkese at Avanti in Boulder.

But while a quality, no-frills slice will always satisfy the craving for a cheap fix that pairs well with a beer (or six), pizza has also been elevated to new culinary heights. In Denver, the 2014 opening of Cart-Driver at 2500 Larimer Street ushered in a new wave of pizza appreciation. Founded by award-winning Basta chef Kelly Whitaker, the small restaurant serves oysters alongside its wood-fired Neapolitan pies, and is cited as a favorite by McGovern and numerous other pizza-joint owners in town.

Cart-Driver's style of pie, defined by its pillowy, chewy crust, used to be hard to find in Denver, save for a few outposts of the fast-casual Pizzeria Locale created by the founders of award-winning restaurant Frasca, and Marco's Coal Fired, which is the only pizzeria certified by Italy's Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in the state of Colorado. Over the past year, though, Neapolitan pies have been popping up on menus all over town, everywhere from Italian eatery Benzina on East Colfax Avenue to Pindustry, the massive bowling/arcade/bar complex in Greenwood Village.
The thin crust, Chicago tavern-style pies at Grabowski's are cut into square slices.
Grabowski's Pizzeria/Facebook
Restaurateur Jared Leonard brought Neapolitan pies to Evergreen when he opened Campfire early this summer. "It's a very technique-driven food," he says of the style. "You need to have someone who knows how to do it. ... You have to love it. Pizza crust is so simple. It's flour, water, salt and yeast." But despite that simplicity, it can acquire incredible "depth of flavor" in the right hands, he notes.

While Campfire's wood-fired pies have that light, airy crust, Leonard offers just the opposite at his other pizza restaurant, Grabowski's at the Source in RiNo, which opened in 2019. There the focus is on the thin-crust, tavern-style pies he grew up eating in Chicago. "It's really just a chance for me to share something that I loved as a kid with the city of Denver that I didn't see existing here before," he explains.

Unlike Denver, Leonard's hometown of Chicago is known for its pizza. "You'll find a lot of good pizza that's not famous pizza" there, he says. "It's delicious and it's made with good ingredients in an independent pizzeria, and I just didn't find a lot of that in Denver." Four years after he moved to town, he's still skeptical of  Denver's potential to become a pizza destination. "Will Denver ever be known as a place to travel to for pizza? I doubt it," he says. "Does that mean if you're traveling here and you eat pizza, you can't think it's the best you've ever had? No." Besides his own, Leonard's go-to is Blue Pan. "That's some of my favorite pizza in Denver," he says. And he's not alone.

But in 2015, when Blue Pan opened its first location, at 3930 West 32nd Avenue, "there was a lot of sarcasm at the time around the concept of Detroit-style pizza," recalls co-founder Giles Flanagin of the square pie with cheese scattered all the way to the edge and a light but crunchy, caramelized crust. "We'd get mocked about, 'Oh, does it have motor oil in it?' or 'Does that come with a bullet?'"

Another early pain point was Blue Pan's price point. "When we opened up on 32nd Avenue, it was the third or fourth week in business," Flanagin remembers. "I was sweeping our stoop on a Saturday morning and this kid drives by and sticks his head out the window and goes, 'You're too expensive!' My heart sank."

But Blue Pan stuck with its mission. Flanagin and co-founder Jeff Smokevitch, an award-winning pizzaiolo, had opted to specialize in Detroit-style pies because that's what they grew up with, and they committed to using only the highest-quality ingredients. They also perfected a dough that Flanagin describes as "laborious," requiring a three-day process. As a result of their efforts, Blue Pan's pies are among the most beloved in Denver, backed by multiple Westword Best of Denver accolades.

As it turned out, Blue Pan was just a few years ahead of Detroit-style becoming a national trend — even Old Chicago and Pizza Hut have released their own takes on it. Detroit chain Jet's Pizza now has six Colorado locations, with two more on the way; in 2022, Austin-based VIA 313 plans to open its first outpost in the state at 2801 Walnut Street. Blue Pan has expanded, too, with a second location in Congress Park that opened in 2017. And in late 2021 or early 2022, its first location will move to a larger space next door around the same time it launches a food truck to bring Detroit-style pizza to new markets, including Wheat Ridge, Golden and Boulder.

And Flanagin doesn't want to stop there. "One of our goals, and it's very lofty, but we want to win a James Beard award for our pizza," he says. "And one of the things I've always kicked around in my head is, 'What would a pizzeria have to do to win a James Beard award?' Gourmet pizza is not easy, fast or cheap to make."

Or to define. "Since I moved here in 2011, I've seen a pretty neat diversification of the pizza world in Denver," Flanagin concludes. "I think what you've seen is pizza get elevated from this perception as a cheap comfort food that you might eat when you're drunk or in a rush to, 'Wow, this is actually a cuisine.'"

It's not just transplants bringing pizza styles from their hometowns who are shifting the way Denver eats pizza. Pizzeria Lui in Lakewood, which opened in 2017, took a note from the city's fine-dining scene by incorporating seasonal and locally sourced ingredients for its pies, as well as using organic flour for the dough. The result: pies that don't fit the mold of a particular region, referred to by some as neo-Neapolitan pizza.
click to enlarge
The Chilis N Pep at Joy Hill is drizzled with honey.
Molly Martin
In 2020, just days before the pandemic led to restaurants shutting down for indoor dining, Joy Hill opened at 1229 South Broadway. Co-owners Julia Duncan Roitman and Andy Templar originally intended for the spot to be beverage-focused — "a bar and lounge that just happened to serve well-thought-out pizza," Duncan Roitman says. "We just looked at it as an opportunity to be able to use local products like heirloom wheat from Dry Storage and seasonal produce and the local bison that we use...and it's also just a casual food that you can enjoy with a glass of wine and catch up with a friend."

Joy Hill even makes its own hand-stretched mozzarella, and pies are made on a sourdough crust. "It's more digestible; it's more flavorful," Duncan Roitman adds.

But once dining rooms closed, Joy Hill was forced to reconsider its plans. "It's funny — we weren't going to do takeout. Like we literally were just not going to do it — which is really naive in hindsight," Duncan Roitman admits. "But we had to pivot very violently to strictly takeout. ... We ended up permanently changing our business model as a result of it, because now we're more known for our pizza than for our bar."

In fact, a lot of places depended on pizza to get through the past year and a half. French eatery Brasserie Brixton temporarily turned into Le Brix in early 2021 and just sold pies in order to survive the winter. This past summer, as bakeries popped up all over town, many of them, like Good Bread and Funky Flame, added pizza to the lineup in order to bolster business. Other new ventures, like Limbo Pizza, started slinging pies from home.

Redeemer Pizza, from the team behind fast-casual pasta spot Dio Mio, was actually in the works before the pandemic, but finally opened in July at 2705 Larimer Street. "We've been working on the concept for a couple of years," says co-owner Spencer White. "We just love bread, and we wanted to get some big deck ovens. But we did figure out that a pizza concept is a better business model than a bakery, which is what we wanted for a long time."

At Redeemer, White and co-owner Alex Figura now have the equipment and space to produce plenty of ciabatta and sourdough bread for their restaurants, and they've applied their passion for baking to the pies they're serving. "We do the sourdough pizza, the long ferment and stuff like that because we're kind of just bread nerds," White explains. That approach is also inspired by the city itself. "Denver in general doesn't have a big food identity," he adds. "But I do think people in Denver are just generally more I think the emphasis on sourdough and healthier-made bread products with nice organic flour, that's more Denver to me than any of these other food identities that are ingrained in other cities."

Redeemer does both triangular and square "New York 2.0" pies, as White calls them, which you order at the slice window accessible through the back alley, or in the front dining room. "We like the highbrow, lowbrow aspect," White notes. "There's something very nostalgic about using the ooey gooey sticky low-moisture mozzarella...but we also use fresh milled flour and the sourdough starter and the three-day ferment, so our pizza definitely is very artisanal as far as the dough goes. But you can't deny pizza being a good drunk food even if it is artisanal."

That word — "artisanal" — started getting trendy a decade ago, but White thinks it has more meaning now. "People really educated themselves about food over the pandemic — bread, specifically, being one of the subjects that people learned a lot about," he says. "I think people will continue to pay attention to that."
click to enlarge
The mortadella, pistachio pesto and burrata pie at the Greenwich
Molly Martin
They do at the Greenwich. After co-founding Work & Class in 2014 with Tony Maciag and James Beard-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez, Delores Tronco left Denver in 2017 to open a restaurant in New York City. The Banty Rooster opened just a couple of months before the pandemic; eventually Tronco shuttered it and moved back to Denver, bringing with her NYC's love of carbs, "whether you're talking about great bread, bagels or pizza dough, or just baked goods in general — whether you're in an Italian bakery and the cookies are piled high, or a Jewish bakery, where the challah is there."

Last month Tronco opened the Greenwich, her ode to NYC, at 3258 Larimer Street. While pizza is on the menu, it's not the focus. "When I was a kid growing up, often when you were eating pizza, that was the main event," Tronco notes. "What we wanted to do was introduce pizza as part of a shared meal."

"You can really be fun and playful with [pizza]," says Justin Freeman, the Greenwich's executive chef, who relocated from NYC. All over the world, "people have all different types of pizzas," he continues. "In the Middle East, there's the flatbread naan that has za'atar on it that you would put toppings on. In Georgia, there's [khachapuri], the boat-shaped one with egg and cheese. It's all cooked within the same realm of something high heat, on fresh bread, that has toppings on it. ... It's something that everybody knows."

Like White and Figura at Redeemer, Freeman uses a sourdough crust for his pizzas, made using a starter that he drove to Denver from New York in his lap, between his knees to keep it safe. As a result, the pizzas at the Greenwich have a crust that eats more like a great piece of sourdough bread than a traditional pizza. And as White notes, that also makes the pies easier on the digestive system. "With the breakdown from the yeast and the natural fermentation, it actually helps your body fully absorb the nutrients inside of it since we're using whole wheat and we're using higher grains," he says. "And you don't feel so crappy and can go for that next slice."

Not that anyone's trying to make pizza too healthy. The Greenwich's menu has four options: margherita with fresh mozzarella and basil; a three-cheese white pie with housemade hot sauce; the pepper with peperonata, anchovy and crescenza; and the mortadella with pistachio pesto, burrata and fennel pollen — toppings that veer fancy, especially compared to the pepperoni, sausage and veggies found at big pizza chains. But no matter how elevated a pizza gets, nostalgia for it remains very basic.

"That smell of walking past a pizzeria or being a kid and having a pizza party brings back so many memories for everyone," Freeman says. "Why don't more people do it the right way?"

In Denver these days, plenty of people are. Pizza party, anyone? 
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.