Man, is that a sexy wood oven.
Apparently one of three in Colorado, the imported 9,000-pound Stefano Ferrara Napoli, a luxurious bit of domed craftsmanship in the Neapolitan-pizza world, stands in the middle of an open kitchen. Assembled brick-by-brick over a week and a half, now covered in blue and orange tiles and branded with "The Duke" in square, capital letters, it tops out at around 1,000 degrees; meaning the 11-inch pizzas cook in about 90 seconds.
It's a pillar to build around, and father-and-son team "Papa" Joe and Tony Duca have done just that. They've been helped along by the recipes for the pizza dough and most of the sauces, which came with the oven. But despite the results — the leopard-spotted bread's dense and intense; the clean, red sauce of stewed plum tomatoes, sassy and wonderful — there's work to be done.
First, that bread is powerful, and if you're going to make sandwiches with it (each mentioned below, $8), then you need to offset its thick richness with a thickly flavorful set of fillings.
The rosemary-ham sandwich, with thin layers of mushrooms, greens, melted mozzarella and house garlic cream, could be the highlight of an afternoon, but with only a whiff of herb here, a hint of garlic there, it's something of a chewing chore. Same with the spicy salami: There's bad-assery in them buns, with a lemon olive oil that zings, but it's only when you can find it over the (affable) taste of bread and cheese; and the meat disappears completely. The roasted vegetable fares the best, with the zucchini, peppers and pesto holding their own.
The Neapolitan-style pies come personal-sized and modestly topped, with splotchy islands of delicious mozzarella among the sauce, but toss the lesser hallmarks of the style: They're sliced, and not goopy. The flavor's always right, but the various crusts' textures range between hot, structured and perfect, and semi-firm and lukewarm (like a savory Danish).
All this could be because the type of wood being burned is still in flux. But that wouldn't explain the problems with how the pizza toppings produce one-sided flavors. For instance, the Gorgonzola and caramelized-onion round ($9) is almost a star, with the huge, pungent flavors from the blue-veined cheese dancing with the yeasty dough. But the onions (and their sugars) are way undercooked, and the rosemary's on vacation. The Duke ($8.50) has good intentions, but its salami tastes pale as milk, and the olive oil, basil and mushrooms can't compete against the vibrant red sauce.
The rosemary-ham pizza ($9) smells like a smoky fire, but the thick garlic cream underneath has no counterpoint from taste or texture. And for only one bite I found equilibrium among the quiet ham, mushrooms, artichokes and Kalamata olives of the capricciosa ($9).
The restaurant just needs a little direction — a hard-and-fast vision backed by consistent execution. It shows even in the small things: The sandwich plates are awkwardly too big; the potato chips are whatever's on sale that week, says manager Meg Ligotti; and the music contains an amusing blend of Les Misérables, Sting and something that sounds like Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Ultimately, there's potential here for Duca's to be one of the hottest openings recently. But what was it that Mr. Miyagi told Daniel-san? "Whole life have balance," he said. "Everything be better."