Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I Know the Secret Ingredient

Il Vicino

I'm about to break one of the cardinal rules of food blogging. I am right now violating an unwritten set of laws laid out by the Fraternal Order of Food Aficionados and Web Writers. I'm going to review a chain restaurant. I know you're currently gasping in shock and outrage, but believe me when I tell you, this place is worth it. I'm willing to risk the unfettered wrath of food bloggers everywhere, because I truly feel that this restaurant should be discussed, so here goes...

Still in Denver, after a long day hiking in the mountains, we were exhausted and starving. Foiled once again by angled streets, two south-bound one-way streets in a row, and 6th Avenue vs. 6th Street issues, we were driving rather aimlessly for nearly an hour in the pouring rain. At this point we had established Natasha didn't want Mexican food, I didn't want Asian, and neither one of us wanted to eat at a bar again. In frustration, we were headed back to our hotel to ask the desk clerk's advice again, when we spotted Il Vicino.

Though I'm not the world's biggest fan of (American) Italian food, we decided this would do and parked right in front. On closer examination, we found that Il Vicino is subtitled "Wood Oven Pizza". Though I wasn't wild about eating pizza, my obstinate streak took over and decided this place was where we were going to eat. In hindsight, I'm glad it did.

There is nothing remarkable about this restaurant, at least the one in Denver, save a large wood-burning pizza oven dominating one wall. Not sure what type of pizza to order, we asked the kid at the ordering counter what his favorite was (a fail safe tactic to finding the best dish in any place). He was nice to the point of bordering on annoying, but he recommended the Angeli pizza, a pie with sweet balsamic marinara (featuring a not-so-secret ingredient), mozzarella, roasted chicken, portabellas, artichoke hearts, gorgonzola and rosemary. We also split a Caesar salad.

I also ordered a wheat beer, which they brew themselves, and Natasha had a glass of semi-sweet vino verde (that's green wine for you mono-lingual types). We retired to a table by the front with our drinks to wait for our salads and our pizza to be cooked to order.

Now I consider myself something of a beer connoisseur. I love wheat beers, particularly our hometown brew, Boulevard Wheat, which up until this point I considered the best wheat beer around. No more. This beer, brewed in Golden, Colorado, surpasses even that high mark. It's a little less sweet than Boulevard, yet full of flavor. Garnished with a lemon slice, the acidity and the sweetness worked in perfect harmony. Point blank, this was an excellent beer.

When our salads arrived, our waiter, a scraggly-haired hippy-wannabe like so many others in Denver, offered us fresh-cracked pepper on top, a personal touch I love, then left us alone to eat. The Caesar was good, and surprisingly, the dressing had anchovies, a touch most restaurants leave out. The dressing level was good, with neither too much, nor to little, and it came with homemade croutons. We were each served a slice of crusty bread on the side. All in all quite good, but even as hungry as we were, our pizza arrived almost before we were ready.

The pizza too, was given that personal touch, as the waiter grated parmesan to order. After sprinkling on a little crushed red pepper, we were set. This pizza was amazing. Normally I view the crust as simply a vehicle to hold the toppings, which hold the real flavor. Not the case this time. I guess I've never had a wood oven pizza, because I'm sure I would remember this. The crust was delicious, I could have eaten it plain. But topped as it was, we were dealing with a masterpiece. The sauce had just a slight sweetness to it, which at first I couldn't place (remember the secret ingredient I mentioned?). Then it hit me... Ginger... yep, that most Asian of flavors, when worked into a marinara sauce adds a slightly sweet kick that works really well with premium toppings.

In short order we demolished this pie, and ordered another. This time it was the Bianca, featuring spicy oil, mozzarella, capocolla, portabellas, caramelized onions, goat cheese, gorgonzola, tomatoes and rosemary. Though, by the time this one ordered we weren't as hungry as we thought, having let our food digest a bit, we ate a slice each. It was just as fantastic as the first, and left with a box of four slices for our breakfast the next morning.

I maintain that this is one of the finest chain restaurants I've eaten in. Prices were good, $8-9 for most everything, including pizzas, calzones, paninis, and pastas. The atmosphere was relaxed, nice while still casual, and the staff friendly, if a bit distracted. I don't mind supporting this chain, as it's privately owned, and only has eight locations, three in New Mexico, three in Colorado, one in St. Louis, and one in Wichita, of all places. This is a place that, while clearly successful, hasn't lost touch with its small-business roots.

Food: 4.5
Atmosphere: 3.5
Service: 3.5
Menu: 3.5
Price: 4.5
Total: 19.5
Average: 3.9

Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon

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