Proto's Pizzeria Napoletana
Greetings from the Department of Snap Judgments, where I pass through a town in which I'm totally unfamiliar with the pizza landscape and form opinions after only one pie.
Here's the thing: I found my way to Proto's Pizzeria Napoletana on a recent trip through Colorado based on a few friendly recommendations, but when I entered the restaurant and got a look at the pizzas on other customers' tables, I wasn't inspired to order more than a single pie. I figured I could always get more if the pizza tasted better than it looked and, well, one pie proved to be enough. It wasn't bad, but rather vehemently pedestrian.
Proto's has been around since 1999, and people seem to like it. It earned some love from Bon Appetit back in 2002, and has grown into a mini-chain of six restaurants, including the location I visited in Boulder, CO. There, I watched the fellow behind the counter use a large silver rolling pin to press out ultra-thin pizza skins from balls of dough that had been flecked with dried oregano.
By looks, I feared these thin-crusted pies would arrive as sauce and cheese on a cracker. But, actually, other than some crisped bits around the edges, the undercarriage of our pie had plenty of give. In fact, I found that the crust lacked some gumption—it needed more char, more chew, more flavor, more something.
Given that we only committed to one pie, it seemed fitting to go with the namesake Proto Pie: mozzarella, tomato sauce, basil, and Italian sausage. Though you'd think the meat would steal the show, I got stuck on the sauce. Our waiter told us that the DiNapoli tomatoes had been mixed with "a little" garlic salt, but it tasted like a lot, and the effect was to turn the sweet sauce somewhat cloying.
Could any of the other toppings save the day? Well, I didn't much notice the cheese. The sausage did offer plenty of fennel-y flavor, but the little coins of meat—even when they'd started to curl up into pepperoni-like cups—had a soft, not-quite-mushy texture.
Proto's offers plenty of other topping combinations, and it may be that some of these do a bit better. They'll do a classic Margherita, with a different red sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes. Another pie, called The AP, proudly features anchovies, which Proto's t-shirts call "The Other Sushi." Or, you can branch out into more interesting territory, with something like the Low Rider: honey tomato chipotle sauce, mozzarella, bacon, pineapple, and cilantro.
I didn't try any of those other pizzas, and so maybe I just got the wrong thing. Plenty of patrons seemed happy with their meals—one little boy had eaten so enthusiastically that I watched him exit the restaurant wearing a full-on Joker mask of sauce.
Was I too rash? Did I catch Proto's on a bad day? Set me straight, or at least tell me where I should go to rectify the situation next time I find myself in the Rocky Mountain State.
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