In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
To some, Denver seems well on its way to being overwhelmed by mediocre pizza joints, none of which churn out the perfect pie -- whether in the style of New York, Naples, Chicago or someplace in between. Somewhere lost in time, the ideal slice was folded, forked or two-fisted into the impressionable gullet of youthful wonder, and every pizza has since been a shadow, a disappointment, a reminder of something good gone sadly wrong. Fortunately, I carry no pizza baggage. My parents are Canadian; I grew up mostly in Texas. Pizza was something that came in a box from the grocery store or on rare occasions was served under the auspices of the big red roof. I don't think I even experienced a pizza delivery until my freshman year of college. The pizza peel of my mind is a blank expanse with no single signature style stained into its grain. My expectations upon walking into Illegal Pizza were thus not of a seamless, uncut wheel of crust lightly smeared with San Marzanos and blasted in an oven blessed by the Pontiff or of massive floppy wedges anointed in pepperoni grease -- just enough to tint the scant mozzarella a spicy orange. I was simply hoping it wouldn't suck.
Over the past two years, the building at 3109 Federal Boulevard started -- and then just as suddenly stopped -- churning out pies under the Pizza Public banner. But ownership and name changes didn't affect the menu much; the place still offers topping combinations named for neighborhood streets and landmarks: Highland, 38th, Zuni, Viking (after North High School's mascot), and even Hooker (a tarted up Margherita, if you will). Some oddball combos, like the apple and brie Lowell or the cheeseburger-inspired Grove, certainly lit up my pizza-abomination warning lights, so of course those ended up on our table, along with a simple pepperoni-bedecked number and a buffalo chicken and bleu cheese Speer. With the exception of the Lowell (which was ordered on a gluten-free crust), all the pies sported a chewy crust, blistered on the edges and lightly crisped underneath. So far, so good. Jill, the traditionalist of the group and someone whose pizza meter goes from good to great (with no room for mediocre, much less horrible), spotted the pepperoni version high marks. My Speer, featuring a homely slurry of buffalo sauce, shredded chicken and studs of blue-veined cheese, was surprisingly well-balanced and tasty. The danger of this kind of pizza -- aside from becoming a complete disaster of clashing flavors and textures -- is that the sauces, cheeses and meats can simply become overwhelming: too much salt, too much tangy wallop from a double dose of sharp cheese and vinegar-based hot sauce. In this case, the chicken and the crust itself countered any harshness from the remaining ingredients. A light touch with the stronger ingredients also helped.
Michael's Grove tasted uncannily like a cheeseburger, due in part to a "secret sauce" mentioned on the menu, but also owing to properly seasoned and cooked ground beef -- crumbly and tender, rather than soggy and wallowing in fat. Despite the flavorless cubes of winter tomatoes, the Grove succeeded in both nailing its stated purpose and being surprisingly edible in the process.
Gluten-free crusts at Denver pizza places have become much more consistent and acceptable in recent months. I suspect many kitchens get their crusts pre-made from the same source, which is not a bad thing for those hoping for even a reasonable simulacrum of the real deal. Illegal's gluten-free version worked well with the brie, bleu cheese and raw green apple of its Lowell combo; the cracker-like texture of the crust was a good vehicle for the mild toppings.
Between swapping slices of each other's pizzas and sampling a late-arriving appetizer (dough-wrapped sausage "canoli" -- as listed on the menu), we sipped beers and marveled at what must be the biggest pours of red wine in town.
Pizza, like beer, is a food of the people. I respect the traditions of the pizza world's focal centers, but pompous attitudes and pretentious fussing don't serve it well, whereas flights of fancy and well-intentioned cultural mash-ups can sometimes yield wondrous results, as long as the foundation is solid.
Some people are pizza purists; I don't count myself among them. Even though I spent a better part of my twenties making pizza dough from scratch and working with my hands buried in it every day to the point where I can now make dough just by the feel of it, without recipes or measuring cups, my love for pizza is egalitarian, whether it's a well-made, sloppy, Chicago-style pizza with a flaky crust and a lake of tangy sauce, a hand-tossed puck kissed with fire and not much else, or something in between like the blistered, chewy rounds with odd and incongruous toppings at Illegal Pizza.
I'm happy to see new ovens proliferating across the Front Range and especially on Federal, where Illegal fits right in with a fun and unpretentious menu in a dining room that, like its neighboring Mexican and Vietnamese joints to the south, seems most comfortable as a continuous work in progress.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.