What with faux-wood paneling & shakers of green-can Parm & red-pepper flakes on every table throughout 3 small rooms, Carl’s Italian Restaurant in the Highlands whisked me right back home to Boston’s North End pronto. Carl’s is the kind of place that serves ”hamburger steak” & meatballs all covered with cheese & 7-buck stuffed-shell specials. The kind of red-sauce parlor that pours Chianti up to the brim. Where the hostesses sport whole sticks’ worth of eyeliner & nose rings, & the line cooks are clad in ratty sweatpants & Flash Gordon tees. You gotta & I mean gotta love it.

Which doesn’t mean you gotta love the food—liking is sufficient. I stopped in on the rec of a fellow bar-grubber at Axios for the signature pizza, whose name I forget, but it’s been on the menu for decades. I loved that it was piled high with peppers & onions, crumbled sausage & sliced black olives from the can, & that the sauce was fresh & bright; the medium-thick crust, however, was just okay—a bit on the flavorless, stale side.

Still, food’s not necessarily reason one to frequent a joint like this—a little character goes a long way, & a lot of character goes even further.

Carl's Italian on Urbanspoon

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Denver’s looking to pull a Boulder with its sudden spate of serious pizzerias, among them LoDo’s Lucky Pie; when the Director recently opted to swing by & bring one home, I, in the words of Frank O’Hara I too often quote, practically went to asleep with quandariness trying to choose between the Bruges (brussels sprouts, apples & pistachios!), the Alvin (acorn-squash puree, fig gastrique & maple walnuts!), & the one I finally snapped to & picked: the Ham & Cheese.

It’s not often a pizza strikes you as truly different; most, even the great ones—maybe especially the great ones, since they tend to hew to Neapolitan or Sicilian tradition—begin to blur. This one—arriving in a box marked with the name of the crew member who baked it—was not great, but it was good, & it was also molto distinctive. In fact, the key reason it wasn’t great may also be the key reason it was so good: I’d almost swear there was rye flour in the thin crust, which was too tough but also quite tasty. Something was caraway-scented, anyway; granted, those seeds look more like caraway than the mustard seeds it also boasted, along with 2 cheeses (fontina & gruyère); beautiful, strong shavings of Black Forest ham; & a dusting of parsley. A heady, all-out savory combo indeed. Consider this a heads-up for the full review I’d love to do soon.

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By labeling Sexy Pizza the “dropout” of this here trio I’m just playing on the rebellious connotations of the name, folks—not denigrating the food, which, based on one delivery order from the brand-new branch on Old South Pearl, is at least adequate in a pinch.

I think I liked the Director’s ginormous calzone, stuffed with quality thin-sliced spicy sausage & pepperoni as well as a full ton of mozz, peppers, onions & mushrooms, better than he did for its doughy chew, with its slightly oily sheen—which the subtly garlicky knots shared. I definitely liked it better than my own 3-cheese white pizza, which, without sauce, needed something—preferably juicier, riper tomatoes. Not bad overall, but no match for Kaos down the street.

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