A friend once quipped that sports is the only thing that unites Americans. But all the divisive controversy over kneeling/standing during the national anthem got me thinking about other possible unifiers. Here’s one: pizza.
Who doesn’t love pizza? All that melted cheese, the crisp crust, the casual way you eat it with friends, the fact that it’s just as good hot as it is cold the next morning. Pizza is an equal-opportunity meal, open to vegans, carnivores and gluten-free types alike — not to mention Republicans and Democrats, kneelers and standers. That’s why we can always use more pizzerias, even one like White Pie, which specializes in New Haven-style pizza, a style few have heard of in Denver.
Sally’s Apizza, a 79-year-old spot in New Haven, inspired brothers Kris and Jason Wallenta to start White Pie in Uptown this past spring, right around the corner from their popular Dos Santos taco joint. I’d visited Sally’s Apizza many pies and more than thirty years ago, and couldn’t quite remember what I liked about this variety. So one recent night I waited to find out, menu in one hand, slushy Negroni in the other, at the Wallentas’ homage to their childhood fave.
From my low cube of a stool at the community table, I couldn’t see what was happening behind the U-shaped chef’s counter, which had filled before the dining room. I couldn’t see the thickness of the dough, the generosity of the toppings, or whether the cheese was being applied like a classic margherita — i.e., white islands in a red sea — or in an edge-to-edge smother. What I could see was the hulking, dome-shaped pizza oven and the man hovering nearby, peering in and shuffling pizzas with a long-handled peel. He turned out to be Ken Wallenta, Kris and Jason’s dad; this is a family effort, with pizzas named for the brothers’ kids, Kris’s wife in charge of desserts, and Jason and his fiancée running the front of the house. Ken’s presence told me an important thing about the pizza I’d be getting: It would have char. But the unpredictability of flame makes every pie different, which is why rustic cookery can be both a thrill and a hair-pulling exercise for cooks as well as guests.
Case in point: the house puff, White Pie’s riff on garlic bread. This disc of pizza dough is rolled out to mere millimeters, allowing the oven’s intense heat to torch it and the steam to blow it up. The crisp balloon is then slathered with whipped butter studded with enough raw garlic to fend off a vampire. Delivered to your table on a stainless sheet pan, the puff is finger food, ideally used to chase silky slices of pesto-slathered carpaccio or a bowl of crisp, well-dressed greens. But we’d arrived on the early side, when the oven had yet to reach its 900-degree potential, and our puff was two-thirds flatbread, one-third air bubble, with such a heavy dose of burnt that my dining companion lost interest.
The oven was kinder to our pizzas. After one bite of my white pie, I understood why the Wallenta brothers — who talked as teens about opening a pizzeria and installed a wood-fired pizza oven seven years ago just so they could practice — finally made good on their dream, when it would have been easier simply to expand Dos Santos. What I’d forgotten was how smoky the crust of a New Haven pie gets, charred to the cliff of bitter by the intense heat that traditionally comes from coal but here comes from oak. I’d also forgotten how that crust is impossibly thin and crispy, with only a few bubbles and no puff, with a flatter, almost cracker-like cornicione (edge crust) since the dough stays in the oven nearly twice as long as it does for chewier Neapolitan pies.
The best-selling pizza is the white pie, a rich, decadent version with mozzarella sprinkled over crème fraîche, as well as bacon, garlic, mushrooms and a poached egg. Runny eggs seem more gimmicky than not; someday, they might rate as the trend of the decade. Although this one doesn’t take anything away from the pizza, it doesn’t add much either, since one egg can’t cover much ground. My hunch is that the pie’s popularity lies in the name; people assume it’s the best since it’s the restaurant’s namesake. But the Paulie Walnuts is even more intriguing. This garlicky pie, also red-sauceless, has an addictive mouthfeel, like a featherbed for your tongue thanks to mozzarella and a smear of mashed potatoes; the finish of candied walnuts and bacon is a real wake-up call.
White Pie’s originality doesn’t end there. Other than the Mootz, essentially a plain cheese, the eight-pie lineup skews funky: garlic shrimp and mushrooms on the Lucca Brassi; ricotta, prosciutto and arugula on the Ava. The best of the bunch is the Porky Porkorino, the naturally sweet red sauce adorned with sopressata that curls and crisps around the edges from the oven’s high temperature, plus mozzarella, green rings of pickled jalapeños and an invisible drizzle of chile-infused honey from an outfit in Brooklyn that playfully seesaws between heat and sweet.
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Such innovation is particularly refreshing in a category that’s often limited by either our own expectations — pizza should be what we grew up with — or rules set by the VPN, the official association that polices Neapolitan pizza from across the ocean. While the Wallentas are dishing up pie rooted in New Haven’s specific tradition, they aren’t chained to it, just as their tacos at Dos Santos aren’t bound to Mexican custom. Freed from expectations, White Pie’s crisp, often garlicky, just-cheesy-enough pizzas persuade us to open our minds to new possibilities for what else pizza can be, without straying into the crazy land of pineapple and barbecue sauce.
Some customers buck against the set roster, chafed that they can’t add black olives or sausage at will. But there are no à la carte pies. “We’re not yes men,” says Kris, a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute. In addition to their Denver spots, he and Jason run two restaurants in Cozumel and approach the menu with chefs’ eyes, fiddling with dough hydration ratios, how and when to add pepper in a certain pasta, and, of course, the combination of pizza toppings. “We try to get you to come out of your shell,” Kris explains.
And once you come out of your shell, White Pie gives you a few more reasons to stay. Even if you decide that New Haven-style pizza isn’t your thing — too burnt or not enough meat — this could still be your neighborhood go-to. Not because it’s a comfortable spot to hang out; the stools are too hard for that, the tables too small for the gargantuan sheet pans, the service efficient to the point of rushed. But two pastas are so good that you won’t mind such inconveniences. Cacio e pepe is comfort food at its finest, heavy on the pepper with just enough pecorino-parmesan sauce in which to swirl the bucatini. And if all you’ve known is the dry-edged American stuff, with thick noodles and even thicker layers of ricotta and mozzarella, the lasagna is as category-busting as the pizza. With ten sheets of thin, tender pasta layered with more creamy béchamel than Bolognese, this version calls up seemingly impossible comparisons: a savory mille-feuille with béchamel rather than pastry cream, or an airplane, heavy in materials yet light enough to fly. Once happy hour takes off, which should be soon, White Pie will be well-rounded enough to become a great unifier, whether you go for the pizza, the pasta, the drinks or a little bit of everything.
1702 Humboldt Street
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Select Menu Items:
House puff $5
Frozen Negroni $9
Beef carpaccio $14
Cacio e pepe $14
Porky Porkorino $14
White Pie $15
Paulie Walnuts $14