He was talking about Antonio Race, the native Italian who founded Pulcinella Ristorante in Fort Collins back in 1991; Whitaker got his kitchen start there. Over the years, Race's empire grew to include a half-dozen pizzerias and restaurants. But the original Fort Collins store closed a couple of years ago, as did one in LoDo and another in Lafayette. That left just a handful of pizzerias and the thirty-seat Pulcinella Pizzeria and Wine Bar, which opened in March 2010 with Cherry Hills Village's second-ever liquor license. (The third will go to Vino Vino, a wine shop connected to the restaurant via a punched-out section of one wall.)
Race is frequently behind the stoves of that south suburban outpost, visible from the marble bar and every seat in the dining room as he works dough into flat disks, washes them with tomato sauce and tops them with slices of imported mozzarella. He was there last week when I stopped in for lunch and a glass of Nero d'Avola, wandering out during momentary lulls to greet diners he knew or to carry a pie to a table. He may be the only pizza maker in the area who actually grew up by Naples, working in pizzerias and restaurants in Miliscola, his home town. And maybe because of that, he's not trying to re-create an exact replica of a Napolitano pizzeria in Cherry Hills Village.
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"I think making true pizza Napolitana is impossible in Colorado," Race explains on his website. "You know why? You'd always miss one crucial ingredient -- the city itself!!!" So his ingredients are a combination of domestic finds and imported staples, and he long ago abandoned the wood-fired oven because he was dissatisfied with the results, declaring futile any attempt to create an authentic Neopolitan crust here. And he'll defend that position with passion.
His margherita pizza was another winning argument. The crust was thin and crispy, the tomato sauce -- which Race makes from domestic tomatoes -- tangy, savory and show-stealing. Topped with bubbling mozzarella, thin strips of fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil, it was a delicious hybrid of several pizza styles: Neopolitan ingredients on a crust reminiscent of New York pies that was sliced for an American audience rather than left whole to be eaten with a fork and knife, as in Italy.
Pulcinella's pizzas are definitely unique. But you can see why Whitaker can draw in regulars with his zeal as well as his food: He learned it from his first boss.