Review: After a Kitchen Nightmares wake-up call, change is good at Pantaleone's
Danielle Lirette Pantaleone's pizza got a makeover. Browse through more photos from our visit to the restaurant.
2120 South Holly Street
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
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.
Danielle Lirette Chef Josh Fafalios, chef/owner Pete Fafalios and owner/manager Paulette Fafalios.
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.
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."
Danielle Lirette The decor of Pantaleone's got an update.
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.