Review: After a Kitchen Nightmares wake-up call, change is good at Pantaleone's

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Danielle Lirette
Pantaleone's pizza got a makeover. Browse through more photos from our visit to the restaurant.

Pantaleone's
2120 South Holly Street
303-757-3456
Pete Fafalios is passionate, stubborn -- and no longer stuck in the past. Nor is Pantaleone's, the pizzeria on South Holly Street that he founded in 1985 with his wife, Paulette, which survived not just Denver's downturn in the '80s, but the recent recession, as well. When business failed to really bounce back -- the dining room sometimes turned only one or two tables a night -- they turned to Kitchen Nightmares and were contacted by the show's producers the next day. And last month, when the episode devoted to last summer's remake of his restaurant finally aired, it followed a segment on the owners of Amy's Baking Company in Scottsdale, who handled criticism by screaming and branding naysayers as "trolls."

Fafalios couldn't have scripted a better lead-in to his story.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Pantaleone's

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Danielle Lirette
Chef Josh Fafalios, chef/owner Pete Fafalios and owner/manager Paulette Fafalios.
A native of Greece who got his start in the food industry at his cousin's pizzeria on Long Island, this gray-haired grandfather initially fought Gordon Ramsay's renovation plans. He refused to listen when the celebrity chef called his meatball hero a "zero" and said that his pizza was not Denver's best (as it proclaims on the restaurant's green awning) -- and in fact might be the worst. He didn't even respond when Ramsay told him that in a blind taste test, Denverites preferred a frozen, store-bought pie to one from Pantaleone's. "Am I willing to change?" asked Fafalios, in a moment of much suspense on the show. "No." But he later recanted, and when everything was said and done, he came away looking like an old softie -- at least in comparison with the Amy's Baking Company crew.

Were Fafalios and his family right to change? Were they wise to let Ramsay turn their restaurant inside out, swapping out paint colors, wall decorations, recipes and nearly everything else that Pete and Paulette had done over nearly three decades? In a word: yes.

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Danielle Lirette
The decor of Pantaleone's got an update.
The decor is now in keeping with the times, with stylish black-and-white walls accented by collages of red-and-white Pantaleone's pizza boxes and photographs of the restaurant's beginnings. Gone are the yellowing, twenty-year-old reviews and the scary green hologram of a clown. The food is better, too, much fresher, lighter and more responsibly portioned than I remember it being years ago, when I used to trek to this aging shopping center in Holly Hills for dinner. The learning curve was steep, but Fafalios shrugs it off. "Don't forget," he says in his signature no-nonsense manner, "I've been cooking for 37 years."

Aside from pasta imported from Italy and fresh mozzarella, nearly everything is now made in-house, from pesto to meatballs to chocolate budino. As a result, labor costs have gone up -- but Fafalios isn't complaining, even though he and his son and grandson (both of whom help in the kitchen) are doing "three or four times more work," he says. Then again, why complain given the bump in business -- an increase of nearly 70 percent -- since the Kitchen Nightmares episode aired in April?

I made my review visits to Pantaleone's before I saw that segment, so I didn't know to do a comparison test of the sausage pizza -- which Ramsay had held up to the camera to show how the grease dripped off in slick, orange drops. But I did try many others, and the observations I scrawled on a sheet of paper in the car specifically noted that none of the pizzas required the old blot-with-a-napkin trick -- and no grease marred those notes. Although Ramsay did not tinker with the dough recipe, large, New York-style pies are now fourteen inches, compared to the previously gargantuan eighteen, and the crust, while still crisp and thick-edged, is no longer mountainous. This is an improvement not only because we've learned over the years that we should limit white-flour carbs, but because the kitchen now manages to cook these crusts all the way through, which wasn't always the case in the past. I'd also noted that the crust -- with a guaranteed air bubble or two and a golden, never charred exterior -- tasted crisp on the outside but pillowy on the inside, much like a baguette, a term Ramsay later used on the show. The pies had just enough shredded mozzarella to balance the substantial crust, but not so much that the grease puddled.

Keep reading for the rest of our review of Pantaleone's.


Location Info

Pantaleone's New York Pizza

2120 S. Holly St., Denver, CO

Category: Restaurant

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20 comments
jacobw_5150
jacobw_5150

Was wonderful, pete was super nice and talked about the show. The housemade sausage pizza was perfect.

Kamikaze López
Kamikaze López

Pato Mercado Minerva Hernández Renteral Olimpia Juárez González

rauschpfeife
rauschpfeife

I wish Ramsay had chosen a different restaurant to ruin in the name of entertainment. I've been returning to Pantaleone's for 20+ years because of their unique pizza. I like moist and chewy thick crust, and three dimensional toppings. It's a kind of regional fare Ramsay could never understand, hailing from the UK (what a culinary nadir - this pooh-bah also suggested a Louisiana-style restaurant serve fried chicken and hush puppies).

For quite some time I've been worried for Pantaleone's survival, and have done my best to spread the word. When we unsuspectingly stumbled in after the makeover, I hoped for the best. The new décor is tacky - it must have taken all of 30 minutes and $200 to slap pizza boxes on the wall. The menu is typical Ramsay - cut a letter sheet in half. We tried the Caesar and pizza, staples of their past. The salad was 1990's nouveau, long out of fashion. The dressing was bitter and tasteless. Ironically the store-bought dressing they used before was better. But the pizza fared even worse, now very ordinary cardboard with sprayed on toppings. We used to fight over their food, but after the first few bites, no one wanted to continue. We were in shock. 

I hope for Pete they can sustain the business boost the show provided, but I'm more nervous than before. Pete - please add one item to the menu - your original pizza. I want a reason to return.

Evelyn Maria
Evelyn Maria

Will try it again, ate their a few times in the past, the decor needed fixing up so thank goodness for Gordon Ramsey, now to taste the pizza!

Thaise Laube
Thaise Laube

I am a huge fan of that place I love love love the dough. And the new menu and dessert items are delish!!!

chezington
chezington

Someone had a really bad day, but most likely had an axe to grind, because the rant about Pantaleone's is totally unjustified. The restaurant is run by warm, wonderful, hard-working people and the food, with a little help from Chef Ramsay, is awesome. Ramsay kept only one thing from the old menu, which was Pete's amazing pizza dough. Because it is the best! But don't take my word for it (or anyone else's). Check out Pantaleone's for yourself.

Justin Belmont
Justin Belmont

I ate their a few months before the episode aired, lets just say I never ordered their again. I prefer Giorgio's Pizza on South Tamarac.

iannidenisem
iannidenisem

I will NEVER EVER go back!!!  They were and are horribly overpriced, bad and spoiled ingredients which have WAY too much salt (obviously to cover up horrible cooking), rude, ignorant servers, and HE's an ASS who spends more time "hitting on" guests rather than preparing good affordable food, and SHE's a complete BITCH!  NEVER AGAIN!   Shame too.  That area is in DESPERATE need for decent pizza, especially one that delivers.  How the HELL do you mess up a salad???  I hope you guys not only go under, but are buried by competition which will surely come.  Egotistical jerks!  

StevenGregory
StevenGregory

I'm glad to hear about this makeover, I don't watch TV, so I didn't see the Kitchen Nightmare's makeover.


My first visits were when I was a kid and the lady who watched us after school was in this neighborhood. After two disappointing meals with friends, I couldn't ask people to come back here. Now I'm looking forward to it.


Thanks for this review, it really brightened my day for their entire family.

canoby
canoby

@rauschpfeife So new decor is tacky, but that horrific holographic clown was not?  Ok.

netrek
netrek

@rauschpfeife You are delusional. It's customers like you with bad taste and a ruined palette that drove this restaurant almost to ruin. Reality check: Ramsay is a world class multi-Michelin starred chef who DOES know what he is talking about. The old pizza was a gross mess. If you liked it that shows you haven't a clue!

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