I was intrigued by my visit to The Oven and returned a few nights ago when some colleagues stood me up for dinner at the nearby Sushi Wasabi. The place was packed, and my wife and I waited 30 minutes to be seated. This time, I ordered the fresh mozzarella cheese appetizer, which according to the menu is "made right this minute." I asked the waitress what that statement meant, and she explained that they take mozzarella curds and knead them in hot water when a customer places an order. As someone who is struggling to make homemade mozz, let me say that the hardest part of making mozz is getting to the point where you have good curds. Starting with curds is cheating! I wonder they really make mozz from scratch, e.g., from milk and rennet, or if they leave the hardest part to someone else. That said, the mozz was pretty tasty, and I wish my own mozz turned out as nice.
The pizza itself was a disappointment. On my prior visit, both of the pizzas I tried didn't have tomatoes on them, so I was looking forward to a nicely sauced pizza. I ordered the smoked portobello pizza. However, as Abatardi noted, they sauce their pizzas very lightly. So lightly that I couldn't taste it. Also, I couldn't pick up any smoky notes in the mushrooms. It tasted like an ordinary mushroom pizza.
My wife had the oven roasted vegetable salad, which was merely ok.
I think that grouping The Oven and Protos together is appropriate. The best pizzas at both places are non-traditional. At The Oven, I think that the bbq chicken pizza is the best option. At Protos, I like the bacon and pineapple pizza with honey-chipotle sauce. Both restaurants have carefully chosen wine lists. The pizzas have similar textures, although my recollection is that Protos' crust is crispier. Both places use the technique of individually wrapping dough balls in plastic. I have to wonder how long dough prep takes.
In the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to try out a number of well regarded pizzerias in DC, L.A., Portland, and Las Vegas. My top 5 favorites are, in no particular order: Moroni Bros. (unknown place in DC), Ken's Artisan Pizza, 2 Amys, Settebelo, and Mozza. In February I'll be trying out some of the elite pizzerias in NYC (UPN, Luzzos), and I hope this trip helps me recalibrate my standards for high end pizza.
When compared to the places I've tried in other places, Denver's pizza scene is pretty bad. I think that I have to give the nod for the best pizza to Via Baci, which serves a respectable Neapolitan pie. The first time I visited, they had a brochure that said that they used Caputo 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and homemade mozz. A few months ago they reworked their menu to focus on pasta, but the the pizza was still pretty good.