Chef and Tell with Virgilio Urbano of Virgilio's
Virgilio Urbano, the pie-slinger behind his namesake pizzeria in Lakewood, tosses his hands up in the air -- an automatic reflex, no doubt, from spinning pizza dough for the past four years -- and shakes his head. "Look, I can't make everyone happy. God knows I try, but some people? Some people won't be happy no matter what I do. We all work incredibly hard here, but we're small, you know? And we're busy at peak times, so not everyone is going to get the table they want when they want it. All we can do is try to accommodate people the best we can," says the Italy-born Connecticut transplant and cheese-pizza purist.
Lori Midson Virgilio Urbano and Gabriel Monge
Urbano made waves (and plenty of fans) last year when he publicly denounced his pizzeria's exclusion from the yearly Festival Italiano at Belmar, a move that motivated him to create his own Italian celebration, one that raised more than $15,000 for Children's Hospital. He's renowned -- and often criticized -- for his brashness, even while his pizzas are revered by a vocal majority. "I'm working on being nicer, but honestly, compared to everyone else on the East Coast, I'm nicer than most," Urbano insists. And the compliments, he says, far outweigh the criticisms. "The satisfaction of people telling me that I make some of the best pizza in Denver makes me the happiest guy in the world," he adds. "The compliments keep me motivated, they keep me going, they make me smile, and they make us continue to strive to be better at what we do.
"This is my first restaurant," he reveals, leaning forward. "I'm not sure a lot of people know that about me." Before Urbano saw the for-sale sign on the building that is now Virgilio's, he was working for United Airlines as a mechanic, but after 9/ll, he took some time off to re-evaluate the forks in the road. He dabbled in the mortgage business for a while, and when that dried up, he made the decision to follow his passion: cooking. "My mom taught me how to cook when I was really young," he recalls, "and the whole time I was working for United, I'd make soups, Italian sausage sandwiches, calzones and Philly cheesesteaks for my co-workers, and then I started making pizzas for my son's baseball team." By then, he says, cooking had become a ritual, and opening a pizzeria was the next logical step, a small place where "we could make our own mozzarella and our own dough and use the best ingredients we could find."
In this interview, Urbano talks about his love for Italy and Italian ingredients, his disenchantment with superstar Italian chef Mario Batali, and his insistence that New Haven, Connecticut is the culinary capital of America.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, old-world, scrumptious, yummy and authentic.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, tough, demanding, driven, caring, proud, crabby, uptight, genuine and, of course, Italian.
Proudest moment as a chef: After being denied acceptance into the Italian Festival at Belmar last year, we decided to have an Italian festival of our own, to benefit the Children's Hospital of Denver. My excellent staff and chef, Gabriel Monge, worked so hard, and to see 3,000 people come out to support our cause was incredible, but it was handing over a check for $15,020 to Children's Hospital that made it truly one of the proudest and most rewarding moments of my life.
Favorite ingredient: Garlic. Every Italian knows that garlic makes everything taste better.
Best food city in America: New Haven, Connecticut. Pizza is the best food in the world, and the best place in the world to get it is at the world-famous, original Pepe's Pizzeria in New Haven. The pizzas come out charred from the coal-fired oven, greasy with olive oil and cheese, and they use the best ingredients available. I love that place, right along with nearby Sally's Apizza, Modern Apizza place, Roseland Apizza and Bar Pizza.
Favorite New York restaurant: Lombardi's Pizza. It's the original New York pizza place, born in 1897. They have great pies -- crispy and charred with that amazing coal-fired taste. I haven't been there in a long time, but when I go, I always get a cheese pizza with fresh garlic.
One food you detest : Sea urchin. I just don't have the palate for that mushy, pasty consistency. I can eat just about anything, but that creature does not belong in any mouth.