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Nelson's inferno

Hell's Kitchen descends on Manitou, and it's all a dream



The story of Ruffrano's Hell's Kitchen Pizza is one of dreams, good fortune and — of course — kick-ass New York-style pies.

Owner Nelson Rufran, a 45-year-old part-time realty agent and arborist, experienced a vivid dream of running his own pizzeria late last year. A little later, while visiting New York City, he somewhat synchronistically connected with Russ Brunelli, the owner of Hell's Kitchen Pizza. He'd soon return to apprentice with Brunelli for a week, at no charge.

From there, he found an ill-economy-inspired deal on the Ruxton Avenue building, opened in early September, and has enjoyed a brisk business since, converting Manitoids and defying East-Coast-born skeptics on pilgrimages from elsewhere in town.

"They're like, 'What, do you ship the water in?'" he says. "I just say, 'Try it.' Then they say it's wonderful — literally hundreds of people have told us it's the best they've eaten."

While not compelled to go that far, I'll concur that there's little-to-no fault to be found in this little flame-painted corner of Hell: The pizza's damned good.

At present, the open kitchen's menu is virtually identical to that of Hell's Kitchen in "the City," with seven relatively simple house pies ($2.50 to $3.50 a slice; $12 to $16 for a small pie; $14 to $18 for a large), one easy side salad ($3.50) and four Hot-Pocket-like mini pizzas ($3 to $4). The only outsiders are a gluten-free crust and new, $5, calzone-like creations that Rufran is calling "Hellhounds."

The Hellhounds story highlights Rufran's continued good luck: After pulling 16- to 18-hour days early on, he's assembled a tight, friendly relief crew that includes Jaime Beja, a young, hotshot New Jersey native with 10 years' pizzeria experience.

"He subscribes to pizza magazines and talks about getting pizza tattoos," says Rufran, adding, "He knows New York-style pizza."

Together, they stuffed folded dough with Italian garlic sausage strips, onions, mozzarella and the spicy special sauce (with undisclosed ingredients) from the outfit's signature Hellfire Pie.

That pie, if you like moderate heat, is the obvious first-visit choice, with cherry peppers, pepperoni and hot Italian sausage. I suspect there's some type of hot oil blend mixed with the tomato sauce, as my lips felt a little burn. The white pizza (Parmesan, mozzarella, provolone and ricotta) makes a nice balance if you're eating by the slice. It's excellent on the house-made thin-crust dough but doesn't make for the best choice if ordering a gluten-free personal pie ($12), which works better with saucier options.

We bypassed the Sicilian deep dish and caught the outfit out of the popular Mac and Cheese pie on both visits (an equipment-related concern Rufran says he'll soon remedy). But we built our own satisfying three-topping veggie pie and enjoyed the Chicago-style-esque, pan-baked Grandma's Pie. For it, the staff softens the dough by cooking it in olive oil, then puts the mozzarella down before blotching the tomato sauce. They top it with Parmesan and the true highlight, fresh basil leaves.

Though his menu's shrunk from an initial vision that incorporated Italian desserts — there's only one, serviceable New York-style cheesecake ($3) made in Denver — Rufran says it will likely grow slowly from here, first with liquor and more soda options. Out of courtesy, he still consults Brunelli with changes, and says the two may team up on locations elsewhere in the future.

Based on what I've tasted, I'd say that's a hell of a good idea.

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