“Maybe a third time will be the charm,” my partner, Ben, joked when I told him I just had lunch at Uncle’s Pizzeria & Co…again. But it was so true. It took me three lunches before I could write about this “new” restaurant in Fort Collins.
It’s not exactly correct to say that Uncle’s is a new establishment. Its precursor, Uncle’s Pizzeria on College Avenue, had been around for quite a few years. Garrett Marlin, the owner, recently closed the old location and re-opened as Uncle’s Pizzeria & Co in the old Gib’s Bagel on Olive Street. I became a fan of his previous pizza place when my daughter was taking Jujitsu classes next door and Uncle’s was a convenient place to grab some easy dinner after class. It was known for its giant slices, about ¼ of a 15” pie – at $5 a slice – it was a great deal for excellent pizza. Caroline enjoyed white pizza with spinach and tomato while I always got pepperoni or some other meaty choice. That was our routine.
Curious about the reincarnation of Uncle’s, I brought my daughter to check it out a few days after it opened. We walked in to find Uncle Garrett of the neighborhood pizzeria, who was often seen sweating away in a baseball cap and an apron stained with pizza sauce, in semi-formal attire overseeing a staff in white crisp chef uniforms behind a high counter. The old light box sign of a low-key neighborhood pizza joint is now replaced with a wooden sign that spells out Uncle’s Pizzeria & Co. in a simple yet sophisticated font. Instead of the old paper plates and grab your own fountain machine, there is white china and attentive black-clad servers. The blackboard, a faint remnant of the old Uncle’s chalkboard menu, now speaks of polenta, roasted peppers, truffle oil, and shaved Brussels sprouts. We were intrigued by the new ambience enough to break from our routine and order an arugula salad as a starter.
The salad turned out to be a feast, not only to our eyes, but to our stomachs as well. The tender serrated greens were tossed with white & red rounds of paper-thin radish; lumps of Haystack Mountain goat cheese with roasted pistachios settled here and there. A garnishment of juicy wedges of peeled oranges pulled this pleasant heap together. I savored the hint of spiciness in the greens and radish, the creamy cheese, the smokiness in the nuts, the zinging of the citrus, all washed down in a light coating of olive oil and balsamic. I’ve never seen my daughter clean up a plate of salad so fast. The pizza slices (we followed our old routine for comparison) were equally satisfying. The giant size stayed. After the pizza, I was still hungry so I ventured to try the wild mushroom risotto. It was creamy and fragrant. I’d describe it more in depth but I downed it in minutes and forgot to take notes. I guess that means it was good.
However, after this first visit, I was not yet ready to write about my dining experience. After all, we were in a state of shock seeing how the old Uncle’s had up-scaled itself. My judgment could have been impaired since we were both ravenous at the time and short on other options. Who, but a starving pregnant woman would order risotto as desert otherwise?
So, the next day I went back for seconds with Ben. I ordered arugula salad, again, plus a bowl of onion soup with chunks of beef short rib. Ben ordered sausage and roasted pepper pizza by the slice and a Caesar salad. I again devoured the arugula salad but hesitated with the soup. It was pleasant but faintly reminded me of a can of Campbell’s soup – a bit too standard in its flavors.
At one point, Ben offered me a crouton from the four that lined his salad plate. I’m not a crouton fan and they looked like good decorations for what looked like a typical Caesar salad. The only thing that suggested otherwise was a translucent sliver of Grana Podano cheese balanced atop the heap. “Are you sure?” Ben enticed. Oh heck, I obliged. Oh my, the crouton was divine. It was not the crunchy kind made from salvaged day-old bread that typically tests the resilience of one’s teeth. Instead, it was a cube of polenta dusted with semolina and then lightly fried. The “crouton” was crisp on the outside, soft, creamy and warm on the inside and melted away before I realized what it was.
Although Ben enjoyed his Caesar salad, commenting that the dressing was good with just enough kick but not too overpowering, he didn’t like the pizza slice. It had a pool of oil in the middle, semi-burnt crust, and the toppings were haphazardly strewn on the pizza leaving large vacant cheesy patches.
‘But wait’, I asked, ‘Don’t you think it is unfair to judge a pizzeria by the heat-and-go slices it sells?’ He did agree that a fresh, cooked to order pizza maybe different. So, to set the record straight – and get my third helping of Uncle’s – I headed over to Uncle’s again. It was just past noon and the restaurant was busy. I sat across from the blackboard ready to order just pizza. But I struggled to decide as I read about the many specials; butternut squash ravioli, pork meatball, new soups…all gourmet options around $10. I wanted to try them all. Finally, my journalistic sense of duty regained control. I made a mental note to come back again for those non-pizza lunch specials then ordered an Arugula salad and an 11”, half white and half pork pizza.
Pork and white? You might wonder what homely pizza I ordered. But much goes into these simple titles. The pork has balsamic braised onions, Uncle’s pancetta, Gorgonzola, and rosemary, and the white has spinach, roasted garlic, mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil, and aged balsamic vinegar.
The pizza arrived a few minutes after I cleaned the salad plate. The crust was hot and crispy and crackled as I bit into it. The pork half was a little salty because of the pancetta but for me it balanced well the lightness of the white half. The caramelized onions were sweet and the gorgonzola pungent yet not greasy. The white half looked too healthy with all the green spinach but the aroma of the ingredients, especially the roasted garlic came through it all. Using serious will-power I stopped myself from eating the whole pie. I knew my daughter would love some slices, even if they were cold.
On the way out, I asked Garrett, why the restaurant is called “Uncle’s?” It turned out he grew up one of 4 boys and when one of his brothers had a baby, they all became Uncles. Then, in Hawaii, where he learned the pizza business, everyone belongs to one big family so he just became an uncle to more kids. One thing I know for sure, any kid would love to have an uncle who runs a fine pizzeria & restaurant like this one.