Grabowski’s Pizzeria is now churning out thin-crust, tavern-style pizzas in the Source Hotel + Market Hall after quietly opening for business earlier this week.
The classic and comfortable pizzeria (yes, there are red-and-white tablecloths) is a collaboration between Jared Leonard and Justin Anderson. Leonard is the Denver restaurateur behind Norm’s Deli, AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q, and the Budlong Hot Chicken, while Anderson is one of the figures behind RiNo’s Zeppelin Station market hall and the Isabel cocktail lounge that opened at the Source earlier this year.
The two share Chicago ties — Leonard grew up in the city and Anderson spent several years there before moving to Denver — and a knowledge of and passion for the unique flavor of that town is evident in several details. Windy City touches can be found in everything from a section of Grabowski’s wall decor that is meant to evoke the ivy walls of Wrigley Field to a beer list heavy on Chicago bar mainstays (Old Style, of course, but also Peroni and Czechvar).
Their insider knowledge is also evident in the pizza, which is not the deep-dish typically pushed on Chicago tourists but rather a much thinner and sweeter concoction known mostly to Second City locals. Tavern-style pies, Anderson explains, trace their roots back to the era following the Great Depression when bar owners would dole out square slices to patrons for free in order to encourage them to stick around and keep drinking.
Anderson says Grabowski’s version is a traditional, though elevated, take on that style that consists of a thin but still soft crust made with cornmeal, olive oil and a secret ingredient that gives the pie its distinctive sweetness. That thin foundation is topped with Stanislaus tomato sauce and whole-milk mozzarella, then cooked in an old-fashioned rotating oven.
“It’s definitely Chicago,” Anderson says. “The sauce is sweet as opposed to robust, you get cheese and ingredients all the way to the edge, and it’s round pizza cut into squares.”
The speciality pies also generally keep with tradition. The Classic Chicago comes heavily topped with fennel sausage, and the Italian Club is doused in pepperoni, prosciutto, and bacon. Windy City natives will likely get a particular kick out of the Old Comiskey, which is named for the old White Sox ballpark and comes topped with giardiniera, a spicy Italian relish that is a popular sandwich and hot dog topping in the city.
The bar program, Anderson says, also takes its cues from the unassuming character of the Midwest with a focus on simplicity and regional favorites. The wine list features 13 Italian wines while the cocktail list mixes popular classics, such as a mojito and margarita, with Midwestern specialities like the Sconnie Old Fashioned and Pink Squirrel, a creamy pink cocktail with an almond and chocolate flavor that was popularized in a Milwaukee cocktail bar. In another nod to Grabowski’s Midwestern roots, drinkers will have to ask the bartender for a description of each cocktail.
“A lot of places will have descriptions of the cocktails on their menus with all of the different liqueurs no one even knows,” Anderson says. “But if you look on traditional menus from these kinds of taverns and pizza parlors they just have the names of the drinks and there’s no explanation. That gives you an opportunity to explain the drink.”
The bar will also serve both alcoholic and virgin lemon chillers (Grabowski’s version of an Italian ice) and root beer from Cherry Creek’s Bull & Bush Brewery.
While parents are sipping at the bar, kids are welcome upstairs to play a line of vintage pinball and arcade machines, all free to use. Once everyone gets their fill, they can meet on the outside patio to eat their pizza (they come in 12- and 16-inch varieties that are meant to be shared).
Grabowski’s will initially be open from 4 to 10 p.m. daily, though the plan is to eventually add lunchtime service.