Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in Denver. —The Mgmt.
Virgilio's Pizzeria Napoletana
Just when I finished my four-part series on Atlanta's pizza and thought I'd return to my traditional role as the chronicler of Chicago's pizza, a trip to Denver snuck up on me. And since I'm incapable of visiting a city and not trying some local pizza the only question was where I would go. When I headed back to the city after some fishing in a stocked trout pond (ideal for fishing with a 4-year-old) I stopped in Lakewood to check out Virgilio's Pizza Napoletana.
Virgilio Urbano was born in Ruviano, Italy but settled in the New Haven area at a young age. Urbano, who still says New Haven has the best pizza in America, was working as a mechanic at United Airlines when he first came across the building that now houses his eponymous pizzeria. He left the mechanic job in 2001 and after trying out other career paths, the chef whose only cooking instruction came from his mother, decided to start slinging New York pies in Denver. His place has won virtually every every food award for which it's eligible since opening in 2006, and was just named the best pizzeria in Denver by both Westword and the Denver Post.
We opted for one of the many specialty offerings, the Salsiccia con Pepe, which comes with sausage, roasted red peppers and red onions, although we limited the sausage to half of the pie. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I would never choose to order a pizza with crunchy vegetables unless they are part of a giardinera. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed my pizza. Was it mind-blowing? No, not even close. But it is a very good New York pie in a city that until recently had little pizza to be proud of aside from Beau Jo's.
Virgilio's menu refers to its pizza as New York-Neapolitan, but as fluid as pizza categories are, that seems to be a bit off. Cooked in a brick-lined gas oven, the hand-stretched crust is just on the chewy side of the crispy/chewy ideal, but is more than a serviceable New York specimen highlighted by a small amount of char around the edges.
The sausage, oblong slices of well-seasoned ground pork wrapped in a snappy natural casing, was very good. The rich meat was cooked to the point of having some nice extra chew that I liked a lot. The fresh onions were plentiful, as were the red peppers whose crunch had been mercifully roasted out. The vibrant sauce had a touch of sweetness and managed to shine through it all, blending well with the whole milk mozzarella.
Speaking of cheese, Virgilio's offers a pizzeria appropriate appetizer that I've never seen before: fresh, made while you wait mozzarella. Seeing as mozzarella takes a whole lot longer than 10 minutes to make, I assume that all but the stretching is done before the order is placed. Still, the soft fresh pulled cheese, which comes in a dish of extra virgin olive oil and is dotted with finely chopped basil, is a delicious treat that is made even better with the crusty garlic bread that comes with it.
Less successful for me were the garlic knots that were heavily touted by our server and on the menu. There's a whole lot of garlic on them which I liked, but the bread itself didn't excite me. My assumption is it's freshly made bread, but due to the overly chewy nature and complete lack of crisp exterior, I'd believe it if someone told me they were from a mix. They weren't bad, but I wouldn't order them again.
In researching pizza in Denver, which I've done a few times since my sister moved there, I have yet to come across anyone who claims it's a great pizza town. Equally clear is that the past few years have seen a radical improvement in the local pizza scene and Virgilio's certainly deserves some of the credit for that.