The pizza of southern Italy filtered through the Northeast
I grew up in Connecticut, went to college in Boston, moved to New York and then across the river to Hoboken, N.J., which at the time was about 45% Italian-American. In every place that I lived before moving to Colorado, pizza meant a toothsome thin crust, pliable enough to fold but robust enough to hold a layer of flavorful sauce, stretchy mozzarella cheese and maybe some toppings. Each slice was a two-napkin affair because moisture from the cheese running down to your wrists was part of the appeal.
Back in the Northeast, if a place served pasta, it had to be simple and usually from southern Italy. Favored were such robust dishes from southern Italy as spaghetti with meatballs (and clam sauce on Fridays), stuffed shells, lasagna and eggplant Parmesan. Extra points for using family recipes. And wine, if available, had to hold its own against rich, high-flavor red sauces.
I felt at home when I walked into Carmine’s Pizza & Pasta, and that’s exactly the way owner Danny Pisarra wanted it. He grew up in Queens Village, N.Y., in a family of “terrific cooks” and spent time helping his grandmother on Long Island with her tomatoes, peppers and basil. She taught him how to make fresh sauce from plum tomatoes. “The earth was outstanding,” he recalls. “It was a mix of rich soil and sand.” He’s been in the Denver area for some 20 years, running New York-style restaurants but is still a bit wistful for such soil.
This Carmine’s, by the way, has nothing to do with the better-known Carmines on Penn. You see, when he was growing up, Danny’s nickname was Carmine. But that was a long time ago and two time zones away. He and his wife Toni live in Lone Tree, so that’s where they located Carmine’s. This classic neighborhood place is a welcome anomaly amid the chains that dominate this fast-growing area.
The restaurant is cozy and simple with bare tables, pendant lighting and paintings of Italy and a chalkboard menu on one wall. Framed pages from vintage New York newspaper sports sections occupy other wall space. “I’ve had them since I was a kid,” Danny says. “My wife won’t let me put them all up, because she doesn’t want it to look like a sports bar.” An open kitchen in the back cranks out great pizza, delivered fast and hot by the friendly waitstaff.
Everything is made from scratch, including the excellent dough used for pizza, calzones and garlic knots. These light little twisted baked treats are rich with butter, parmesan and garlic. I’m inclined to order a side of marinara for dipping. The lasagna is to-die-for. And the tennis ball-size meatballs crown a plate of spaghetti with beefy aloofness. But for nostalgic former New Yorkers and others Carmine’s pizza, whether a simple cheese pie or loaded with veggies, meats or a combination, is the real deal.
Price check: Appetizers, $3.50-$8; salads, $4-$8.50; heroes and subs, $8-$10; New York-style pizza, $110-$16 for small to $15-$20 for large.