Photos by Rick Daugherty
When Mark Dym left sunny Florida and the commodities business just a few years ago and relocated his family to the snowy Denver mountains, the goal was singular: to open an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria. Never mind that he had no restaurant ownership experience or no real clue how to make pizza, let alone that of the Neapolitan variety. Dym had a vision, the passion and — perhaps most importantly — the capital to buy a building and get the venture off the ground.
(Mark Dym of Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria)
The storefront he purchased, at 2129 Larimer Street in the Mile High city’s Ballpark Neighborhood, was built in 1883 and was in dire need of renovation. Though it required plenty of heavy lifting in terms of construction, the result is a modernized restaurant that gives a nod to the building’s charm and character.
“You just can’t duplicate an 1800s-era building,” says Dym. “People have embraced us here and what we’ve done with the building. It’s been a great feeling.”
The construction on the building lasted nearly five months, and the restaurant cost Dym $1.8 million to open. When Marco’s debuted on June 11, 2008, Dym had a lot at stake, to say the least. And though it was somewhat of a gamble — Denver didn’t have a Neapolitan pizzeria, and there’s always the risk of the public not appreciating the product, which is vastly different from traditional, American-style pizza — Dym says he was so focused on producing a winner that he had blinders on.
“I probably should have had some reservations, because the money it took to get this place up was stupid money,” admits Dym. “But I really didn’t. It never occurred to me that this place wouldn’t work.”
It’s that passion that guided Dym as he had wood- and coal-burning ovens built in Italy and shipped into Denver (each one weighs in at 5,500 pounds, by the way). His quest for a perfect pizza was so driven that he even spent $4,000 for a convoluted water system that converts Denver’s city water to the exact specs of New York’s water. While this was an unnecessary step — even he admits he “was a little manaical about it all” — it’s proof that Dym doesn’t settle for anything he considers less than the best.
“That’s why we use an Italian fork mixer to make our dough,” he explains. “It adds more air into the dough. With Neapolitan pizza, the dough is fragile and if you mess with it too much ... that’s very bad for this type of pizza.”
As one might expect based on his devotion to his mixer, Dym is also adamant about the Italian 00 flour he uses.
“This fl our,” he says, scooping up a handful and running a finger through it, “look here. ... If you looked at it under a microscope, the granules are all pretty much the same size. This allows you to get better absorption.”
The inspiration behind all this? A trip Dym made to Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Fort Lauderdale when he was still living in Florida.
“The first time I tasted Neapolitan pizza, it changed my life,” he quips. “There’s nothing like it.”
When Marco’s did open in 2008, the public response was overwhelmingly positive. The pizzeria did $1.5 million in first-year sales, and Dym says Marco’s is the most-reviewed Denver restaurant on the popular customer-review site Yelp.com.
“We do very little advertising,” he says. “We haven’t had to. We’ve done some with a local magazine, but that’s about it.”
When you garner press attention, reasons Dym, that’s better than any paid advertising — so why add the expenditure? “
We were awarded Best New Restaurant and Best Pizza in Denver, and that really put us on the map,” says Dym. “That exposure helped tremendously. But beyond that, our marketing is really about sampling and human interaction. We give away a lot of food and do a lot of tastings. I’ll run a new idea past customers and find out if it’s to their liking, to their taste. I try to get out on the floor and touch every table and be visible. People like to talk to the owner and feel like they know the owner.”
When all is said and done, Dym knows the biggest asset Marco’s has is its menu. It was designed with care and with authenticity in mind, and its quality is indisputable.
Receiving certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) was important as a means of distinguishing Marco’s from the competition — it’s the only restaurant in Colorado with the VPN designation. Before applying for the certifi cation, Dym underwent training from Roberto Caporuscio, the president of the VPN in America. As co-owner of Kesté Pizza & Vino on Bleecker Street in New York City, Caporuscio is considered one of America’s premier pizza makers. He’s taught a bevy of respected American pizza men the art of Neapolitan pizza, and Dym says learning the rules and regulations of the culinary discipline from Caporuscio was the only way for him to go.
“Kesté is the best pizzeria in America,” says Dym. “What they do there is unbelievable. It’s amazing. I wanted to bring some of that here and learn from the best. So I hired Roberto and brought him out here to train us. It was the best investment I could have made.”
The result of said training is an inspired, yet simple menu. Top sellers include the Margherita and the Abruzzo, a white pizza that features buffalo mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gran Cru, Caciocavallo, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil. It’s deceptively flavorful — upon tasting, you’d swear it had garlic and other seasonings.
Not so, says Dym: “It’s such a simple pizza. There’s nothing on it but very basic ingredients. Just some olive oil and four cheeses — plus the fresh basil. It’s one of our top sellers and people are always pleasantly surprised by it and what it has to offer in terms of flavor. It’s pretty intense.”
One of the more unique offerings at Marco’s isn’t a pizza, but rather a mainstream appetizer with a twist. The Coal-Fired Lemoncello Chicken Wings are well seasoned and served in a bed of grilled onions and a side of focaccia bread. A small order is priced at $8, while the large goes for $14. They are cooked to a crispy texture in the coal oven, and Dym says the item is in high demand.
“They’re very popular, and I think it’s because they’re so unique,” he says. “They’re definitely unlike any wings most people have had before.”
Speaking of the coal oven, its presence and the name of the pizzeria nearly cost Marco’s its VPN certification. By VPN rules, an authentic Neapolitan pie can only be baked in a wood-fired oven. And that’s the way it’s done at Marco’s, but since the words “Coal-Fired” appear in the company’s logo, the VPN was hesitant at first to sponsor Marco’s.
“We had to have Roberto assure them that we don’t cook the pizzas in the coal oven, that we only use the wood-burning oven for pizza and we use the coal-fired oven for other items, like the wings.”
Ironically, Dym and members of his staff admit they sometimes cook pizzas for their own personal consumption after hours in the coal oven — and like them better.
Regardless, the important thing is that Marco’s customers give the pizza their blessing, adds Dym.
Like many pizzerias, Dym noticed that the lunch day part wasn’t as robust as he would like. To counter this, Marco’s launched the “$9 Lunch” promotion — and it has been popular. The special consists of a nine-inch Margherita pizza, a small salad and a drink.
“It’s really brought a lot of people in,” says Dym. “Most people who come in here during lunch time get the lunch special.” The increased lunch traffic and the soon-to-come addition of a retractable roof that will allow the pizzeria to use its outdoor patio during the winter should help Marco's reach Dym's sales goal of $2 million in 2010 or 2011.
“We can seat 45 to 50 people out there on the patio, and it's really popular after Rockies games,” says Dym. “When we can use it all year long, that will give us a nice boost.” ❖
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at Pizza Today.
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