Good pizza's usually not that far away, so I can't say Aron Melvick's new pie joint really necessitates a 30-minute trip up the pass. But I would call it a must-visit if you live in Woodland Park, and that's even before mentioning that locals get 20 percent off. Either way, AJ's American Pizzeria is on my short list next time I'm above 8,000 feet, because there's some killer stuff coming out of those stone ovens.
The location's been severely toned down since its days as Jo-Mama's Pizza; all the murals and dividers got tossed for a clean, brown-and-black look, with paintings of changing aspens on the wall, booths on the side and four-tops in the middle. Entertainment during one of our visits was limited to episodes of Family Feud, and all its attendant advertising — self-lubricating pocket catheters, anyone? — but the wide-open kitchen's business is done in public, just across the counter, so there's plenty to see. Plus, the whole room smells like rising dough and cornmeal.
Starting out, there's really no reason something with a description like, "Garlic sausage chunks, tossed in sweet and spicy buffalo sauce" should taste as awesome as the Sweet and Spicy Sausage ($6.95) does. It was confusing as hell to eat, and I still feel somehow guilty, but mother of God, it was epic. Partially it's the meat-crust of sweetness put on that dynamic little pile, but dammit if the finger-coating sauce doesn't just demand you pop another misshapen lump of fennel-forward fun.
The cinnamon knots ($3.95) are similarly insane, though for more straightforward reasons: The four rounds are incredibly airy and moist; covered in rivulets of butter, sugar and cinnamon; and the size of your fist. There really is no beating these.
The house-made original pizza-crust is a beauty, too — thick and pulling apart into hot, doughy strands once you crunch through the outside. Go with it over its thinner brethren, which on our visit quickly folded into a wet mess under the power of the pepperoni, ham, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms and onions on the Classic ($8.99/10-inch). Great, zinging tomato sauce, though, particularly with the meatballs, sausage, ham, bacon and pepperoni of the Butcher Shop ($16.99/14-inch). The grilled chicken, cheddar and white onions drizzled with a sticky barbecue sauce on the High Mountain BBQ ($11.99/10-inch) are also delicious.
Speaking of, order the wings: They're better than you'll ever see from a pizza place. A bowl of eight will run you a mighty reasonable $6.75 and get you a meaty mix of drumettes sporting a heavenly sear, as if graced by the flattop. The Blaze, colored a ruddy blackish-red, are better than the Hot, but that's because I love the burn.
Other than our thin crust, about the only unimpressive part of two meals was an antipasto salad ($7.95), and to be frank, I've never met one that blew me away. This bowl of ham, pepperoni, salami and assorted vegetables will meet your non-grease needs, though, which of course is the point of its existence, anyway.
So, if we're going to say, as one New York Times commenter did in 2006, that "'destination dining' is like going to a symphony performance or the theatre," then I wouldn't say it's time to call the babysitter and gas up the Subaru. But if you like knowing where to get good food, you should know about AJ's.