Pulcinella owner on a mission from Naples

FORT COLLINS – It has long been my contention that pizza is Nature’s perfect food. I simply never tire of eating it, which leads me to believe that it was designed to be my primary fuel source.It creates a chicken-and-egg problem: Was I created in order to keep the population of pizza in check, or was it created in order that I might eat and henceforth survive?
There is that old joke that pizza is like sex. Even bad pizza is still pizza. Thick Chicago pies or thin East Coast grease triangles are all fine with me.
But if you are going to talk about the pinnacle of pizzaness, in my opinion, you need to find something that resembles the true source – the artesian spring of pizza.
Fort Collins is blessed with Antonio (Tony) Race, pizza ambassador from Naples, Italy. He does for pizza what blue does for the sky.
But wait, there’s more. In the summer of 1991, Tony opened Pulcinella restaurant at 2100 W. Drake Road, in the strip mall at the corner of Drake and Taft Hill Road.
I went there soon after, and I was so happy to find a local place with food that was fresh, light and creative. We Americans for the most part consider Italian food to be either pizza or noodles with red sauce. Maybe a little Alfredo sauce if we’re feeling daring.
Those things are good, but they are certainly not all that Italy has to offer. It is like saying that American food consists of barbecue. It’s a subset.
At Pulcinella, I was impressed with the seafood, veal and pastas, but I was in heaven when I had the pizza. It turned out, so was the rest of the town. The pizza was so popular it threatened to drive Tony’s restaurant out of business.
Pulcinella was intended to be a fine-dining establishment. White tablecloths, wine stems, waitpeople in ties, all that. The pizza was supposed to be the second or third course in a meal. But folks weren’t ordering anything but pizza, and the high overhead of fine dining coupled with the lower revenues of pizza made it difficult to figure out what Pulcinella should be.
Tony solved his problem by opening Pulcinella pizzeria at College Avenue and Horsetooth Road in 1993. Those desiring the wonderful pie could go to the more-casual plastic-fork style pizzeria, and those wishing to dine out could go to the restaurant. All are doing good business now, and a second pizzeria opened at the corner of Drake and Shields Street behind Blockbuster.
Tony told me he learned to be a pizza man (a pizzaiolo) in Naples, where pizza was first created. There was a small pizzeria in his neighborhood where he learned his trade. He told me that a serious pizza maker in Naples goes to pizza school.
Tony is adamant about keeping his pizza traditional, sneering at the idea of putting oregano in the sauce. One night at the restaurant, I tempted fate by telling him that I thought that I made a better ‘puttanesca’ sauce for pasta than he did. Visibly bristling, he said, “Oh, yes, is this right? Tell me how you make this sauce.”
I began to disclose my method, and he stopped me on about the sixth syllable, dismissing the recipe. “You are not making puttanesca. You may be making a good sauce, but it is not puttanesca.”
That tradition thing again, I guess.
If one thing sticks out in my mind as a “symbol” of Pulcinella, it is the tomato that Tony buys. Order the bruschetta in the middle of winter, and you are served toasted, buttery bread topped with fresh basil, garlic and tomatoes that taste like Iowa in the summer.
Where does he find these things while the rest of us are eating the waxy pink things sold ostensibly as tomatoes at the local grocery stores? I asked that question, and Tony lit up like a pinball machine during multi-ball.
He orders organic tomatoes at least 90 percent of the time, and during the winter he has to have them shipped from Mexico. He will pay upwards of $35 for a case of 20 pounds.
“I wish you could taste a Neapolitan tomato” he told me, shaking his head.
“I feel like I am on a mission here in Fort Collins” Tony told me. He said he is trying to bring us the quality Italian food he grew up on in contrast to the gloppy stuff we are used to.
In my opinion, the downside of the restaurant has always been the strip-mall atmosphere. One always felt like they could take the tables out and turn it into a dry cleaners in a matter of minutes. The sound tiles on the low ceiling, the bare walls and the fact that you had to park in front of an auto-parts store to access the place didn’t help.
These problems will be solved the day after Thanksgiving. Tony is moving Pulcinella into the auto-parts store space after performing a $150,000 makeover there.
There will be 50 seats, a drop ceiling, an indoor water fountain and some decorative columns. He said he is trying to recreate the atmosphere of a Roman Temple.
The wine list is expanding to 100 selections, and a full bar will be created. And the tiny kitchen will be expanded not only in square footage but also functionally with the addition of a much-needed grill. I’m looking forward to going to Temple.ÿ