Cafe Society

Pizza Mind

Weary of wearing a suit and fed up with Denver's lousy pizza, Charlie Puma stopped selling commercial real estate and traveled to Italy to learn how to make a good pie.

Hey, if you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself.
So now Puma's doing Enzo's End, named for a buddy who was with Puma when they lost their speedboat on Lake Powell. In August Enzo's took over the divey space previously occupied by P.S. Pizza (the name echoed the initials of the guy who still owns the attached P.S. Lounge), but the tidy dining room filled with checkered tablecloths and used books is all Puma's doing. So are the incredible pizzas.

When Puma opened his place, he wanted to keep things simple. He had to: For the first six months, it was entirely a one-man operation. But recently he's found good help, which has made a big difference. "I don't have to close up on a powder day to go skiing," he says. "No, seriously, it's been great having people here who are really into making pizza and doing it right."

But Puma did have to change one thing about his operation when he added employees: He had to write down his recipes. "I know what three tablespoons looks like in my hand," he says. "But not everybody does. So I write very detailed explanations, and they do a good job of following it to the letter."

Of course, Puma first had to come up with those winning formulas. "I delivered pizzas to work my way through college," says Puma, who's lived in Denver since he was seven. "So I guess I knew something about pizza. But I really hadn't known pizza until I went to Napoli." That's where he got most of his recipes, except the one responsible for Enzo's exceptional crust, which Puma describes as being "a real simple dough formula, with no additives or anything, which we make up fresh."

The resulting crust--Neapolitan-thin and crackly-crunchy, with lightly oiled, chewy handles--serves as the foundation for truly great pizza, the kind I've been looking for in Denver for years. For my first Enzo pie ($7.95 for a twelve-inch small, with an additional 75 cents per standard topping), I covered that sublime crust with fresh basil and fresh tomatoes on one half, and roasted eggplant and roasted red peppers on the other. Puma roasts the peppers himself, which is why they retain the full punch of their flavor and don't leak oil all over the place (and which could account for their $1.50 price tag); in fact, they're so flavorful, they outdid the excellent eggplant. (The problem lay in our choice of topping combinations, though, not Puma's cooking.) The other half was even better: The tomatoes had also been slightly roasted, which imparted a sweet, sharp bite that went well with tons of basil, just the right amount of cheese and Enzo's excellent pizza sauce.

That red sauce is what made the menu's suggested matchup of pepperoni, pineapple and fresh garlic ($10.20 for the small) work surprisingly well. Since the sauce isn't overly spiced or heavily herbed, it's a perfect vehicle for delivering the flavor of other, sometimes odd, ingredients. But Enzo's white pie is also worthy, as we learned when we tried one with artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers ($10.95 for the small). This time olive oil moistened the crust, and the nippy hearts did a better job of holding their own against those marvelous peppers than the eggplant had.

Although pizza is the focus, Enzo's small menu offers other items, most of them derived from dishes Puma sampled in Italy. I tried the pesto-packed "tricolore" sandwich ($5.45), which was thick with roasted red peppers and mozzarella, as well as the eggplant veggie mix ($4.75) that arrived on a soft, wheat hoagie-style roll. Unfortunately, the slices of banana pepper in the veggie overpowered the rest of the components: roasted eggplant, red onions, green peppers, black olives, mushrooms and mozzarella, along with a slathering of marinara. And it's tough to overpower green peppers. "Yeah, I just got this machine to dice the banana peppers," Puma said, when I called him after eating at Enzo's and mentioned the sandwich. "I thought they were too much, too." The sandwiches all come with chips or pasta salad; the latter is the better choice (unless you're allergic to vinegar). It was tangy, tart and tasty, with a house vinaigrette and bits of carrots and green pepper sparking the tri-color spirals.

Enzo's gives my other favorite pizza, the pie served at Papa's Pizza, a run for its dough. But then, Papa's has been experiencing some growing pains lately. Gabriela Watts opened the original Papa's--named to honor her father, though "he gets all the credit while we do all the work," she laughs --fifteen years ago at Pearl and Alameda, but recent expansions have left her short of good help. "Sometimes I feel like I'm babysitting these adults," she admits. "It's like, I have my own kids to handle, and then I come in and have to watch over everyone to make sure they're doing things right."

Done right, Papa's thin pizzas contain an avalanche of cheese and just enough mildly spicy sauce to wet the fist-sized handles of crust that hold everything in. The recipe is Watts's creation. She married (and later divorced) an Italian she met while visiting Italy, but that country wasn't the source of her pizza inspiration. "I was raised in the food industry," she explains. "And one day my mom said, 'Why don't we make pizza?' In the first month we were buying the dough, but when we ran out we'd have to close the place, even if we ran out at noon. So I thought there had to be a better way."

There was, but she had to fly to Brooklyn to find out what it was. "There was this class at a small school--I can't even remember what the name of it was, but they had advertised nationally that they were offering this class on how to make the perfect pizza dough," Watts recalls. "I went there and learned how to make sauce, too."

Now she just needs to find people who can follow her instructions, because lately Papa's pizzas have been incredibly inconsistent. One weekend I ordered a large plain ($9.75), and it came out tasting just as wonderful as the pies that have earned Papa's several Best of Denver awards; the following week, though, a large with sausage, Canadian bacon and onions ($12 for the basic pie, with each topping 75 cents) had almost no cheese, disappointingly bland sauce and a small, dry outer crust.

I next stopped by Papa's sister location in north Denver--Watts opened the second spot over a year ago--and enjoyed another flawless plain-pizza specimen. Two days later, however, my plain pie from Papa's northern outpost suffered from the same too-little-cheese/lackluster-sauce problem I'd encountered at the original.

Non-pizza items can also be hit-or-miss. At the Alameda Papa's, a calzone ($4.75) with mozzarella, sausage, Canadian bacon, green peppers, mushrooms and onions arrived burned black on the bottom. And the pasta al verde ($7.50) tasted of none of the promised ingredients--fresh spinach and fresh basil, garlic, olive oil and cream cheese. When I later shared my observations with Watts, she asked what day I'd been in.

"I was in Las Vegas that week," she said, sighing. "That's why I like to make my own stuff. I come in in the morning and make everything myself, so all anyone has to do is put it together. But since everything's made fresh, I have to let them do it when I go out of town. Fortunately, that's rare."

Soon she'll be spreading herself even thinner: Watts plans to open another restaurant, the 32nd Avenue Grill, in northwest Denver. "It's gonna be more of a sit-down place," she explains, "with a full bar, everything grilled. We'll be open by summer."

But with Watts dividing her attention among three places, she's going to have to rely more on her staff. And like I said, if you want something done right...

Enzo's End, 3424 East Colfax Avenue, 355-4700.

Papa's Pizza, 540 East Alameda Avenue, 722-4723.

Papa's Pizza, 3212 Wyandot Street, 455-5861.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner