There’s a first time for everything, and this time it was dancing. Not by me after discovering Viàle Pizza & Kitchen (which would have been unseemly for an anonymous restaurant critic), but by servers in a scene straight out of La La Land. One server was running late, and when she finally arrived, the other server broke into a grin and twirled her in his arms. Improbable on the big screen, it seemed even more so in this Italian spot that opened five months ago and, despite flickering candles and vintage photos, still shows the bones of the burger chain that previously occupied the space. But then, Viàle always has a surprise up its sleeve.
Its very existence came as a surprise. I’d driven past this red-and-glass shopping center several times a day for months without realizing that Viàle had joined the lineup; at the start of the year, its name still hadn’t been added to the list of tenants. Even when you’re driving slowly, stuck in traffic on Colorado Boulevard, you can’t see the restaurant — named with the Italian word for “avenue,” appropriately enough — from the road.
But the neighbors who matter the most managed to find it (and one then tipped me off), and this night they were out in droves: moms in sweatpants, gray-haired men in cable-knit sweaters, women who see the inside of a salon regularly and have a favorite shade of lipstick in their purse. By 7:30 p.m., five small chalkboards bearing the word “Reserved” in flowing script had been propped on tables so that old friends could dive into the conversations only old friends can have, without the unpleasantness of having to wait for a spot. “Is she completely off the medication?” asked a woman with a vibrant scarf, sitting on a banquette. Later, between bites of gluten-free pizza, her friend unraveled a tale of how he (whoever “he” is) had left his wife and was dating so-and-so, making my son’s conversation about the NFL seem like, well, child’s play.
Owners Erica and Dan Dunne are the first to admit that they’re not chefs. But that didn’t stop the wife-and-husband duo from opening a restaurant that’s already beating projections, despite next-to-no advertising. Dan works the room, hair slightly mussed, shirttail hanging out beneath his sweater, laughing heartily when someone recognizes him from his longtime role as the owner of a cigar shop, which he sold last year. Meanwhile, Erica spent a decade as a server and banquet captain at Elway’s, a gig that gave her an eye for detail and a thorough understanding of service, plus gilded connections that have filled Viàle with Elway’s alumni. Opening chef Alex Sepulveda, former executive chef at Elway’s Cherry Creek, was one of them; although he left Viàle this fall, his fingerprints are all over the menu, from the short rib propped on rosettes of garlic mashed potatoes with a cup of au jus to the gooey, ice-cream-topped chocolate chip cookie. Now in charge of the kitchen are Felix Escobar and Oscar Hernandez, who also worked at Elway’s, as did the bar manager, three servers and the rest of the kitchen staff. “It almost feels like a bunch of friends got together and opened a restaurant,” says Erica.
Their camaraderie and easy competence are welcome in this chain-dominated stretch of Denver. So is the food, a familiar lineup that strikes a happy medium between what you might make at home and what you might order at a more chef-driven restaurant. Think of a cross between Elway’s and the authentic neighborhood spot that Olive Garden has spent decades trying to convince us it is, and you’ll get the idea.
Bruschetta makes a good start to any meal here. Fat slices of puffy Italian bread get a thick smear of goat cheese, artichoke hearts and zigzags of sweet balsamic reduction. Those slices are from the same loaf used for the garlic bread that will later land next to your ravioli, slathered with so much fragrant garlic oil that when people walk in to Viàle, they often say, “Wow, it smells good in here.” The burrata isn’t the creamiest you’ve ever had, but it’s a crowd-pleaser all the same, hidden under a cascade of tiny tomatoes in shades of red, yellow and green, with a scoop of pesto that bridges the gap to Caprese salad. For a proper green salad, share the generously sized Italian, with salami coils, pepperoni, Castelvetrano olives and crisp pancetta in a garlicky, ever-so-sweet vinaigrette.
For most of his life, Dan wanted to open a casual joint serving pizza by the slice. He even tried to open one next to his cigar shop ten years ago, but that project fell through. So it’s no wonder that pizzas steal the show at Viàle — even the gluten-free variety, with crust sourced from award-winning Gluten Free Explorer. Pizzas aren’t served by the slice — not even at lunch, which runs Monday to Friday — but with crisp edges brushed with garlic oil, plenty of cheese and a generous load of toppings, you’ll want more than one wedge anyway. Thin, twelve-inch specialties play up Viàle’s neighborhood appeal: the Virginia Village Veggie — pretty self-explanatory with lots of veggies — and the meat-heavy Bonnie Brae Bronx. But you’re rewarded for venturing further (past the wall that would keep out the bad hombres) and trying the Good Hombre, with pork green chile in place of red sauce, a thick layer of smoked mozzarella, wisps of red onion and sliced avocado. If only the green chile had more kick; Erica says that some customers were complaining (ah, the stereotypical perils of older palates), so the green chile — originally sourced from La Loma but now made in-house — has been heavily toned down. Also notable is the Denver Diavola, with red sauce flaming from cayenne and red-chile flakes, plus salami, sausage, jalapeños and mini-rounds of so-called cup and char pepperoni that blacken at the edges and curl up like Shrinky Dinks. Since this is an accommodating place, the kitchen welcomes custom-pie orders, too. The menu lists thirty toppings to choose from, ranging from sausage and mushrooms to holdouts from the California pizza craze of yesteryear, such as bacon and green olives.
The offerings don’t end with pizza, though: There are eight pasta options, all with possible add-ons of meatballs, sausage, chicken or shrimp. But don’t look for anything fancy like ricotta gnocchi or freshly extruded rigatoni. “We were going to make our own pastas, but we’re really not that kind of people,” Dan admits. But then, neither are many of the best cooks in Italy, where dried pasta is common. Here the noodles come not from Barilla boxes, but from Pappardelle’s Pasta, widely known around Denver thanks to its presence in local farmers’ markets. Traditional Bolognese brings a delightfully tomato-shy sauce of beef, pork, veal and pancetta clinging to long, wide strands of pappardelle; the kitchen makes a creamy white version, too, but it has too much cream and too little everything else. The jumbo bison ravioli are also tempting — the ravioli made by Pappardelle’s and then stuffed with braised Colorado bison in the Viàle kitchen — but the filling is dense and the marinara one shade away from straight-up San Marzano’s.
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But flaws — that ravioli, mushy Brussels sprouts, a cookie so raw it should’ve been sent back — are easy to forgive at Viàle, a find with an undercurrent of friendliness that starts with the owners and runs through the menu all the way to the helpful, never-rushed servers. “We wanted to make a laid-back place where you can come in sweats or shorts or whatever,” says Dan.
Come in whatever, then stay for a laid-back, neighborly meal full of welcome surprises. Care to dance?
Viàle Pizza & Kitchen
1390 South Colorado Boulevard
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Select menu items
Artichoke bruschetta $9
Italian salad $15
Blanco Bolognese $15
Good Hombre pizza $15
Denver Diavola pizza $14
Warm chocolate chip cookie $6.50