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The Ava Angelini and White Pie pizzas. Photo by Sarah Boyum

What Makes White Pie’s Pizzas So Special?

New Haven-style pies and nearly perfect pastas make White Pie a Denver casual dining destination.

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White Pie

3 Stars

The Draw:
New Haven-inspired pizzas, excellent fresh pastas, well-composed drinks.
The Drawback:
Salads need work.
Noise Level:
Moderate.
Don’t Miss:
Pizzas (especially the white, Fuggetaboutit, and pepperoni), arancini, lasagna, gnocchi, chicken Parmesan.

A few years ago, I became obsessed with seeing how thin I could make my pizza crusts. After stretching and resting the dough, I would drape it over my fists and stretch it even farther until translucent, as if I were making strudel. What emerged from the oven was blistered, black on the bottom, and brittle to its edges. Was it even pizza? I suppose so: baked dough, stuff on top. But you could also argue that it was nothing more than fancy crackers and that I had lost my marbles.

The point is that pizza engenders mania, and its dough-plus-stuff formula has manifested a crazy quilt of varieties in this pie-mad country. There’s the casserole heft of Chicago deep dish and the airy, medium-thick Roman pizza al taglio, often square in shape and cut with shears. Detroit-style pan pizza sports a lacy, cheesy ridge fans go nuts for. The Neapolitan pie is the inspiration for a lot of recent pizza revival artisans: crisp on the bottom and puffy and supple around the edges, with Ph.D.-level attention paid to proper chew and the flavor of the wheat.

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Then there’s the thin-crusted version favored by White Pie in City Park West. It’s a variety chef-owners (and brothers) Kris and Jason Wallenta grew up eating at the famous Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut. The classic New Haven approach would get you fired from Domino’s for its extravagant black char, both on the bottom and around the edges. In fact, traditionally cooked in a raging coal-fire oven, a New Haven pie looks like a disciple of Satan made it. Yet done right, it’s crisp, smoky, and damn good.

Counter seating at White Pie. Photo by Sarah Boyum

That style is indeed done right at White Pie. The Wallentas’ interpretation is thin enough that it can’t support an overload of toppings, so even the menu’s more baroque versions—such as the Paulie Walnuts with potatoes, pancetta, garlic, mozzarella, candied walnuts, and parsley—are assembled with a light hand. The flavors of the crust are rarely obscured. And the minimalist iterations, such as the Fuggetaboutit (tangy red sauce with lots of garlic and briny kalamata olives) and the pepperoni (quarter-size disks on a thin slick of sauce with melted mozzarella), deliver true pizza-purist satisfaction.

You’ll note the pies’ silly, sometimes mob-inflected names. There’s a Burrata Bing, a Mootz (the New Haven word for mozzarella, so that one’s arguably legit), and an Ava Angelini. I tend not to like restaurants that leave me pointing at the menu as I order, loathe to actually call things out. That may be a personal hang-up, but really, Porky Porkorino?

Monikers aside, after tasting eight of White Pies’, well, pies, I was consistently impressed with its attention to detail. The house red sauce had vivid, concentrated flavor. Pepperoni slices arrived nicely curled (that curl is called “cupping”; entire articles have been written about it) with charring about their rims and little pools of hot, salty oil inside the cups. The dabs of mashed potato on the Paulie Walnuts pie proved again how delicious a starch-on-starch play can be: With pancetta, the result was a deconstructed baked potato effect (the candied nuts were thankfully so scant as to be moot). There was bacon-and-egg pleasure in the eponymous White Pie, topped with crème fraîche, bacon, garlic, and mushrooms, a soft-yolk egg forming the sunny center. The Ava Angelini, by contrast, is all about olive oil, prosciutto, and arugula, added after the oven for a fresh salad effect. Even the Jerry Springer (ricotta, mozzarella, sugar snap peas, pesto, cherry tomatoes, and onion), which sounded grotesque, was impressive, its dog’s breakfast of ingredients deployed with admirable restraint.

I will highlight one flaw: Slices tended to flop. Even using the New York fold technique from my days living in Brooklyn, I could not, in several instances, get the slice from pan to mouth without a fatal droop at the pointy end. This is a calibration error, having to do with the limited cantilever strength of dough if you make it too thin. The problem is fixable—if the Wallentas even view it as a problem.

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White Pie’s gnocchi is a must-order. Photo by Sarah Boyum

But enough about the pizza. The real surprise at White Pie is its killer pasta program. I would put its cacio e pepe against the best I’ve had in recent years, with bucatini exactly as chewy as you want and its sauce having creamy essence of Parmesan, salty-funky Pecorino Romano notes, and just enough black pepper bite. The baked 10-layer lasagna will bring me back too: thin, soft noodles in the Bologna style, with béchamel and tomato sauces blending into unctuousness.

Nor did the wonders cease there. White Pie’s gnocchi consisted of exceptionally tender potato dumplings bathing in a bright tomato sauce and tossed with barely cooked cherry tomatoes. Fresh basil and a spoonful of Burrata finished the dish. Gnocchi are so commonly botched that I wanted to walk back to the kitchen to congratulate the cook for her or his touch.

And then, perhaps the greatest surprise of all: an entrée of chicken Parm. Let me not count the ways this dish can bore us all. But here, the chicken was neither dry nor watery and was coated with a substantial crust that was fried to a deep brown for maximum nutty intensity. The result reminded me of the best possible schnitzel, only thicker. There was a modest layer of that red gravy on the bottom, and on top, a burnished combination of mozzarella and Parmesan more complex in texture and flavor than the usual glop.
There were a few brilliant small plates, too, such as perfectly fried arancini enriched with that cacio e pepe cream and a daily special of wood-fired cauliflower enlivened by vinegary romesco. But two salads were misfires: White Pie’s Caesar, with breadcrumbs and bagna càuda, was disappointing. It wasn’t a terrible salad, but it also wasn’t a Caesar. I was even less happy with the green salad with candied walnuts and pears, which suffered from a too-sweet vinaigrette.

White Pie has a relaxed vibe and a convivial bustle. Its wood-fire oven dominates the tall, boxy dining room of plain and painted brick. Decorations largely consist of stacked cordwood, lush greenery, and wine bottles.

Photo by Sarah Boyum

The attentive servers apologized for occasional lags in delivery, delays that I attributed to too many pie orders in a full restaurant. A pizza oven is like an airport with a single runway—during busy times, you wait. No matter: We consoled ourselves with well-made drinks. In the hot weather, the strawberry frosé and frozen Negroni—the former tasting of real fruit, with herbal depth from vermouth; the latter terrifically bitter—were especially welcome. If you like sour cocktails set to maximum pucker, try the Asbury Park Sour, made with fresh lemon juice, Four Roses bourbon, and a lambrusco float.

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White Pie succeeds in so many ways that my only request is for the kitchen to tackle a few more vegetable dishes and improve the salads, channeling the sorts of items that put the excellent Franny’s pizzeria (now closed) in Brooklyn on the national map: small plates, lightly dressed and on the acidic side, featuring things like beans, radishes, fennel, escaroles, anchovies, olives, and nuts. The kitchen certainly has the range to pull that off. In the meantime, White Pie is the sort of cheerful, finely tuned neighborhood restaurant every neighborhood needs.

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