Right next to a pawn shop, in the Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood of Denver, one would not expect to find a pizzeria serving authentic Neapolitan and New York Style Pizza, but that is exactly what Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria is doing. Anybody who has lived in Denver for more than a decade can remember how run-down LoDo used to be. “From what I understand, 10 years ago, you couldn’t even walk down the street,” says Mark Dym, the owner of Marco’s. “It was all a bunch of junkies and drunks.”
The city decided to turn the neighborhood around, and today it is one of the hottest spots for new businesses and young professionals. In June of 2008, Mark opened his pizzeria in this emerging neighborhood. Before he could open the restaurant, there were several things Mark had to do: move to Colorado, learn how to make pizza and renovate the space.
The Toscana Pizza
Mark grew up in Brooklyn, NY, but prior to moving to Denver, he lived in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. As far as food service experience goes, Mark has a fair amount, just not working directly in restaurants. He has owned a commodities firm, vending company and a cleaning company. “I’ve had businesses over the years that I’ve built and sold,” Mark says. “I just hated the commodities business. Got out of that in ’05; sold my house in ’06. Moved out here in ’07, and here we are.”
Mark decided to go into the pizza business because of a small chain in Florida called Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria, which is in the process of expanding and has NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino as one of its shareholders. “I really liked their model, and I liked the numbers that I was listening to and hearing about,” Mark explains. “So, I was all set to do a similar concept.”
The concept he borrowed from Anthony’s, but the pizza style he borrowed from the traditional Italian method. Before Mark moved to Denver, he tried the pizza at another shop in Ft. Lauderdale, called Fratelli La Bufala. After trying their pizza, Mark knew instantly what type of pizza he was going to specialize in. “I tried this pizza, and I thought it was the greatest pizza ever. And that was Neapolitan pizza,” Mark says. “It’s the first time I had eaten Neapolitan pizza, and that sorta changed everything.
"[The building] was a complete disaster. Nothing was touched in 70 years. It was ugly."
When asked about his cooking experience, Mark will tell you flat-out, “I’m not a chef. I make pizza.” He says this because he has no formal training as a cook. Luckily, the VPN association in the United States is more than happy to put restaurant owners in touch with pizza experts to teach them the ins and outs of authentic Neapolitan pizza. One man in particular, Roberto Papaduccio was his mentor. Roberto flew over from Italy and spent two months showing Mark everything he needed to know about Neapolitan pizza. “Roberto is just a phenomenal guy,” Mark says, “I was like a sponge with him, because he’s been making Neapolitan pizza for a number of years.”
One important part about making Neapolitan pizza is the ingredients, particularly the flour. The flour Mark uses (Tipo 00 flour imported from Italy) is so finely ground that it feels like powdered sugar. This helps the flour absorb water better for lighter, fluffier dough.
The dough is mixed at very slow speeds to keep the gluten from activating too much. Mark explains that the more you handle the dough, either when mixing or stretching it, the tougher it becomes, so a gentle hand is needed. “I always tell my guys, ‘You gotta handle this dough like a beautiful woman,’” Mark says. “’Nice. Soft. Gentle.’”
The private dining room at Marco's
In addition to the flour, Mark also imports cheese and tomatoes from Italy to keep his pizzas authentic. Using authentic ingredients and preparation methods has earned Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria the coveted VPN Certification. VPN stands for Vera Pizza Napoletana; translated from Italian it means True Neapolitan Pizza. The VPN association is based in Italy and is a type of historical preservation society that wants to preserve the original method for making Neapolitan pizza.
The VPN association will certify any restaurant that meets its strict standards. Everything from the flour, to the mixer, all the way down to the way you stretch the dough and bake the pizza has to meet VPN standards. “Ultimately,” Mark points out, “they check what’s on the plate.” This may be a modest statement though, because worldwide, there are fewer than 400 VPN certified pizzerias. Currently, Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria is the only VPN-certified pizza shop in Colorado.
Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria also has authentic New York pizza on the menu, and like the Neapolitan pizza, Mark uses authentic ingredients. Bloggers, former New Yorkers and New York pizza chefs will all tell you it’s the water that makes the difference and gets the dough just right. Though he doesn’t quite believe the whole water thing, Mark did spend the time and money to fly a sample of water from Brooklyn to Denver and have a chemist analyze and replicate it.
Using a special filtration system, Mark is able to duplicate New York water in Denver, and he uses the water strictly for his dough. “I don’t know if it makes a difference,” Mark says. “But, that system cost me about four or five grand. So I’m not going to use Denver water…if it doesn’t make a difference, I’m going to be awfully upset.”
"I love this product. I have never loved a product or a business more than I love this business...I thank God that I could have a pizza place, because it changed my life."
Aside from learning how to make pizza, Mark also had to turn a disaster into an attractive, comfortable dining environment. Before it was Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria, the building was a rental store for used furniture for 60 or 70 years. Needless to say, there was several decades’ worth of clutter to clear out when Mark decided to take over the space. “It was a complete disaster,” Mark says very bluntly. “Nothing was touched in 70 years. It was ugly.”
The renovation included removing all of the old furniture and gutting the entire upstairs and downstairs areas. Now, the upstairs features a full bar and open kitchen. The kitchen has two brick pizza ovens; one burns coal, and one burns wood. “Chicken wings and sandwiches and toppings…everything else is finished in the coal oven,” Mark explains. “The wood oven is used strictly for pizza.”
Wood burning in Marco's brick pizza oven.
Mark does recognize the irony of his restaurant’s name. The pizza is actually cooked with a wood fire, not coal, and his name is Mark, not Marco. “Marco’s sounds a lot more Italian than Mark’s,” Dym says. “So, I screwed the whole name up. Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizzeria…the whole thing.” But like all great restaurants, it is the food that keeps customers coming in, and by 6:30 p.m., on any given night, the dining room is filled to capacity with several groups waiting patiently for a table to clear so they can eat.
The open kitchen concept allows guests in the main dining room to watch their food cook in one of the two ovens. The kitchen is very fast-paced, and the wood-fired oven, which maintains a temperature of 1000 ºF, can cook a 12” pizza in a minute. Mark explains that two ovens are necessary because it would be nearly impossible to properly cook pizza and other food in the same oven at the same time.
The downstairs is now split into two sections, one section is a food-prep and storage area with a walk-in cooler, various shelving units and all the equipment and supplies necessary to prep pizza dough and the other menu items. The other half of the basement is a private dining room that can seat a party of 40 people.
In addition to the restaurant tables and chairs, the private dining room also has a small media center with a flat screen TV, DVD player and a sound system that is separate from the main dining area. The system includes an iPod hookup, so customers can plug in their iPods and play a custom playlist. They recently added carpet to make it a more inviting atmosphere. “It was a concrete, cement floor, that we had painted, and it was nice,” Mark says. “But this just changes the whole dynamic of the room. It’s warmer. The acoustics are better. It just elevates the room to a whole other level.”
Looking through all of the hard work and attention to detail that Mark has put into his restaurant, one can see that passion is his main driving force. He didn’t just get into the business to make money; he does it because he loves the pizza. “I love this product. I have never loved a product or a business more than I love this business, and I’ve been in business my whole life,” Mark says. “I thank God that I could have a pizza place, because it changed my life.” This love is reflected in the food because it is, quite possibly, the best pizza Denver has to offer.