What is the future of pizza? Will it be rehydrated from tiny pucks, as in Back to the Future? Made available in pill form, like little pepperoni-flavored aspirin capsules, or delivered via pizza drone? These post-space-age pie ponderings are certainly amusing to consider, because here in the present there are more dine-in, carryout and delivery choices than you could take advantage of in ten lifetimes. With so many options, what really makes one pizzeria stand out from the pie pack?
How about creating a pizza that is five feet in diameter and offering free dig-ins to customers just for showing up? That's what Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom , the new name for a 37-year-old Colorado institution, is offering this morning.
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The chain got its start when the first Old Chicago opened in Boulder in 1976; over the past 37 years, it has grown to a chain of 25 Colorado stores and 96 locations total across 22 states. The company was founded by Frank Day, who went on to found Rock Bottom and the ChopHouse, too; after selling those restaurants in 2010, he stayed on as chair of CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, Inc., a multi-brand restaurant operator headquartered in both Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Broomfield, Colorado, with195 restaurants in its portfolio, including Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants, Rock Bottom and Old Chicago. (Day is also taking over the former home of Strings, so he has plenty on his plate.)
Old Chicago is now in the midst of a national brand redesign that includes a new look and revamped menu featuring forty offerings focused on fresh, made-from-scratch ingredients. I decided to take a look at what's new at Old Chicago, and stopped by the store at 1280 South Colorado Boulevard -- where the changes start with new signage that now reads "Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom." But they don't end there.
Old Chicago has excellent street cred for supporting local craft beers (each restaurant now offers 36 craft beers on tap, with a rotating schedule featuring local microbrews). I started with a Stone IPA (16 oz. for $4.85), followed by a Hoegaarden white (20 oz. for $5.70). To make sure I didn't drink my entire lunch, I also ordered the Chi-town trio appetizer ($11.50), the lunch calzone special with a Chicago 7 ($7.95) and, of course, a lunch pizza special: the Meat Me combo ($7.95).
The name might have changed a bit, but the decor at this Old Chicago is still fairly generic, right down to the plasma TVs. It's airier and brighter than it was before, though, with lots of windows. The service was attentive but not rushed, and the atmosphere seemed good for a leisurely lunch.
And peaceful enough for me to really enjoy a tasty local craft beer like Stone IPA, which has a nice golden hue and super-citrusy flavor. I liked the Hoegaarden, too: It's a light, slightly sweet wheat beer with a gorgeous, soft foamy head and a very light flavor and aroma of orange, with just a hint of coriander. The server pronounced it "ho-garden," which made me snicker; when I asked a Dutch friend about the pronunciation later, he told me it was actually "hoo-gaarten," and didn't get the funny part.
The Chi-town trio was a large plate of Italian nachos, melted mozzarella bruschetta and Sicilian pepperoni rolls. I've never been impressed by the concept of Italian nachos, and I wasn't this time, either: The crispy won ton chips were fine, but the shredded mozzarella went from melted to a chilly glob when it hit the table, and the pepperoncini rings did nothing but paint little neon yellow spots on the cheese clump. For the bruschetta, lightly toasted bread had been topped with a smear of pesto under a thin blanket of melted mozzarella and some charming slices of cherry tomatoes (glad I'm not the guy who had to cut those). The Sicilian pepperoni rolls were the breakout favorite of the apps: buttered swirls of tender pizza dough infused with mozzarella and pepperoni nibbets. Think of a really good cinnamon roll, only squash the sweet and substitute pizza toppings. (Even if you're just grabbing a few pizzas to take home, get an order of the pepperoni rolls. Your loved ones will thank you for it.)
The salad that came with the calzone lunch was straight-up boring, with hunks of iceberg lettuce (ew) and nothing interesting on top of that, but the cup of green-chili chicken soup was heat-spicy and hearty, and rivaled what I make at home. And the main courses were worth the price, for sure.
The lunch-sized pizzas have only the thin-crust option (Old Chicago also offers a thick crust at night), but this thin crust is thicker than most pie shops' hand-tossed. The crust was beautifully buttery underneath, evenly baked, and had that winning combo of crisp outside and chewy inside. The kitchen had loaded up my Meat Me with piles of pepperoni, ham, spicy crumbled sausage and thick slices of Italian sausage flecked with rosemary and oregano; green olives baked into the top gave the pie a nice touch of vinegar and salt.
The Chicago 7 calzone was stuffed with pepperoni, Italian sausage, red onions, black olives, green peppers and sliced mushrooms; it came with a dipping side of the signature house pizza sauce that was surprisingly fresh-tasting and well-balanced, with equal amounts of tangy, sweet and savory.
After my lunch, I spoke to Old Chicago media rep Nancy Shloss about the new menu, which she described as "getting back to the dough basics." Over the past 37 years, she said, the menu had become "wide open" (meaning straying a bit from where it started); narrowing the focus seems to work well -- especially since those pepperoni rolls have been added.
You can get a taste of the new-Old Chicago: The first 400 guests in the door of the South Colorado Boulevard store between 10 and 11:30 a.m. get to sample that five-feet-in-diameter pie, covered with eighty ounces each of pepperoni and sausage.
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The make-a-giant-thing gimmick has been done, but for obvious reasons, it never gets old. Next time, though, Old Chicago should really think about creating a five-foot pepperoni roll.