Review: After a Kitchen Nightmares wake-up call, change is good at Pantaleone's

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Pantaleone's 2120 South Holly Street 303-757-3456 Pete Fafalios is passionate, stubborn -- and no longer stuck in the past. Nor is Pantaleone's, the pizzeria on South Holly Street that he founded in 1985 with his wife, Paulette, which survived not just Denver's downturn in the '80s, but the recent recession, as well. When business failed to really bounce back -- the dining room sometimes turned only one or two tables a night -- they turned to Kitchen Nightmares and were contacted by the show's producers the next day. And last month, when the episode devoted to last summer's remake of his restaurant finally aired, it followed a segment on the owners of Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale, who handled criticism by screaming and branding naysayers as "trolls."

Fafalios couldn't have scripted a better lead-in to his story.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Pantaleone's

A native of Greece who got his start in the food industry at his cousin's pizzeria on Long Island, this gray-haired grandfather initially fought Gordon Ramsay's renovation plans. He refused to listen when the celebrity chef called his meatball hero a "zero" and said that his pizza was not Denver's best (as it proclaims on the restaurant's green awning) -- and in fact might be the worst. He didn't even respond when Ramsay told him that in a blind taste test, Denverites preferred a frozen, store-bought pie to one from Pantaleone's. "Am I willing to change?" asked Fafalios, in a moment of much suspense on the show. "No." But he later recanted, and when everything was said and done, he came away looking like an old softie -- at least in comparison with the Amy's Baking Company crew.

Were Fafalios and his family right to change? Were they wise to let Ramsay turn their restaurant inside out, swapping out paint colors, wall decorations, recipes and nearly everything else that Pete and Paulette had done over nearly three decades? In a word: yes.

The decor is now in keeping with the times, with stylish black-and-white walls accented by collages of red-and-white Pantaleone's pizza boxes and photographs of the restaurant's beginnings. Gone are the yellowing, twenty-year-old reviews and the scary green hologram of a clown. The food is better, too, much fresher, lighter and more responsibly portioned than I remember it being years ago, when I used to trek to this aging shopping center in Holly Hills for dinner. The learning curve was steep, but Fafalios shrugs it off. "Don't forget," he says in his signature no-nonsense manner, "I've been cooking for 37 years."

Aside from pasta imported from Italy and fresh mozzarella, nearly everything is now made in-house, from pesto to meatballs to chocolate budino. As a result, labor costs have gone up -- but Fafalios isn't complaining, even though he and his son and grandson (both of whom help in the kitchen) are doing "three or four times more work," he says. Then again, why complain given the bump in business -- an increase of nearly 70 percent -- since the Kitchen Nightmares episode aired in April?

I made my review visits to Pantaleone's before I saw that segment, so I didn't know to do a comparison test of the sausage pizza -- which Ramsay had held up to the camera to show how the grease dripped off in slick, orange drops. But I did try many others, and the observations I scrawled on a sheet of paper in the car specifically noted that none of the pizzas required the old blot-with-a-napkin trick -- and no grease marred those notes. Although Ramsay did not tinker with the dough recipe, large, New York-style pies are now fourteen inches, compared to the previously gargantuan eighteen, and the crust, while still crisp and thick-edged, is no longer mountainous. This is an improvement not only because we've learned over the years that we should limit white-flour carbs, but because the kitchen now manages to cook these crusts all the way through, which wasn't always the case in the past. I'd also noted that the crust -- with a guaranteed air bubble or two and a golden, never charred exterior -- tasted crisp on the outside but pillowy on the inside, much like a baguette, a term Ramsay later used on the show. The pies had just enough shredded mozzarella to balance the substantial crust, but not so much that the grease puddled.

Keep reading for the rest of our review of Pantaleone's. I did get the meatball sandwich, which turned out to have been the focus of another Ramsay makeover. Made in-house with a blend of pork and beef, relatively few breadcrumbs and plenty of fresh parsley, the golf-ball-sized meatballs rolled about on a toasted torpedo roll; the hero was finished with strips of melted fresh mozzarella and a slather of red sauce that softened the bread without making it droop. While it could have used another meatball or two, the sandwich was tasty -- largely because of that red sauce, the same sauce used on the pizzas. At Ramsay's urging, Pantaleone's eliminated tomato paste and sugar from its sauce, and the result reminded me of the version I make at home, with sautéed garlic and broken-up whole tomatoes. Not all pizzas come with red sauce, but the best were the ones that did, whether it was the straightforward cheese; the margherita, with stepping stones of fresh mozzarella over swaths of sauce; or the Pantaleone's Feast, with housemade sausage, pepperoni, olives, peppers, onions and mushrooms.

I also liked the wild-mushroom specialty pie, with a crust stained green from the basil and extra-virgin olive oil in the housemade pesto; I would have liked it even more with a heartier helping of cremini, trumpet and oyster mushrooms sprinkled over the ricotta. The Greek pizza, with spinach, feta and oregano, was good, too, but given Ramsay's influence (not to mention the steep $16 price), I was hoping for something innovative: perhaps fresh spinach mounded salad-style on the top, rather than a tangle of chopped, cooked spinach. Turns out that Ramsay had taken the Greek off the menu, but Fafalios resurrected it, along with the romaine-heavy Greek salad. I wasn't pleased with the latter, and I'm not sure Ramsay would be, either. Like the meatball hero and the mushroom pizza, the salad could have used more toppings; maybe Fafalios has gone too far in correcting what his wife calls his "more is better" personality. Sometimes, more really is better.

(My hunch is that Ramsay would also be disappointed to hear that delivery service, which Kitchen Nightmares initiated with the donation of a van, has been suspended and that the restaurant is still closed on Sundays.)

When Ramsay reinvented the menu, he also did away with the calzones and Sicilian crust that Pantaleone's previously offered -- and those have stayed off the menu. New items include an updated spaghetti and meatballs with that same delightful red sauce; the polenta-and-sausage classic known as pastuccia; linguine alla vodka, with peas, pancetta and a creamy tomato sauce; and a fantastic eggplant parmesan hand-breaded in panko. But it's the capellini with sautéed kale, tomatoes and sausage that I can't stop thinking about. Olive oil-based sauces often taste bitter from overly-browned garlic, but the one in this dish balanced a hint of garlic with lemon and white wine for an incredibly tempting combination.

While the desserts were also reimagined, they could still use some TLC. The chocolate budino tasted rich and dark, but was marred by specks of bittersweet chocolate that hadn't fully melted over the double boiler. Lemon olive-oil cake was bright and lemony from ample zest, but was adorned with mushy berries that seemed like ice cream toppings. But those are easy fixes, especially considering how many changes Fafalios has already made -- once he admitted it was time to make them.

Select menu items at Pantaleone's Greek salad $10 Pastuccia $11 Meatball sub $10 Cheese pizza $10 Margherita pizza $11 Pantaleone's Feast $17 Greek pizza $16 Wild-mushroom pizza $14 Eggplant parmesan $12 Linguini alla vodka $14 Capellini and sausage $15 Chocolate budino $6 Lemon olive-oil cake $7

Pantaleone's is open from 11 a.m to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reach the restaurant at pantaleones.net.

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