Autogrill, a chain of roadside food stops that dot the Italian motorways, are what "Italy has in place of the oddball combination of fast food restaurants under one roof that we have at Jersey Turnpike rest stops," writes Frank Bruni, former New York Times restaurant critic. But instead of pimping flattop burgers and chicken-fried steak, the Italian Autogrill, he continues, "sticks with the tried and true: usually a bit of pizza and a bunch of panini, or sandwiches, that tend to showcase a few familiar and high-quality ingredients: prosciutto crudo, arugula, mozzarella, etc."
And Kelly Whitaker and Andrew Birkholz, the co-owners and pizzaioli at Basta, the Boulder restaurant entrenched in wood-fired cooking, are bringing their own translation of Autogrill to Upper Larimer, where, as we first reported in June, they'll open a new restaurant called Cart-Driver in the Gravitas Development Group shipping container project at 2500 Larimer Street. And they'll be joined by nine other tenants, including a cafe concept from Huckleberry Roasters that will open in late November, and Work + Class, a new restaurant from Tony Maciag, Justice League of Street Food founder Delores Tronco and former Bistro Vendome executive chef Dana Rodriquez.
The 8,200-square-foot, mixed-use complex is comprised of 29 reclaimed shipping containers, 640 square feet of which will be devoted to Cart-Driver, a concept, says Birkholz, that "starts with the premise of a wood-fired oven," much like Basta, though he's quick to point out that Cart-Driver is not another Basta.
The concept, which was conceived long before they inked the deal on the Upper Larimer space, will fashion itself after the Italian-style chain of truck stops, all of which turn out good food at moderate prices -- and many of which also boast in-house retail markets strewn with regional foodstuffs like olive oils, pastas, cured meats and cheeses.
"The Autogrill serves high-quality, accessible Italian food for anyone who's traveling throughout Italy," explains Birkholz, and cart drivers date back to Sicily in the early 1800s, when drivers would travel across the island in ornate, horse-drawn carriages and pull off the road to cook. The Sicilian carts -- or carrettiera -- often harbored small ovens as part of their cargo, and the drivers would feed a simply-prepared pasta, lightly sauced, to the field-hands. The dish, now known as pasta alla carretiera, or "cart driver's pasta," is one of Sicily's most popular dishes.
"At Cart-Driver, we're translating this idea of the traveling chef cooking simple and beautiful food," says Birkholz, noting that the space, albeit tiny, will trumpet a custom-designed open kitchen, a market with spices sourced from San Francisco's Le Sanctuaire, fresh pastas and a grab-and-go component, plus a combination of seating and standing areas and two patios.
"In a nutshell, this is an approachable, Italian-inspired truck stop where everything touches the wood-fired oven, and the menu is rooted in the foundation of flour and water," emphasizes Birkholz, adding that they'll continue to use Basta's dough recipe for the pizzas, which utilizes Central Milling's 00 flour and a mother dough starter that alters the fermentation.
In addition to pizzas smeared with hand-crushed, raw tomatoes, Whitaker will turn out everything from oysters, crudo and pickled vegetables to wood-roasted sardines, piadini and rabbit rillettes with mustardo. And the idea behind the menu, says Birkholz, is two-fold: "While we want guests to come in and slurp a few oysters and eat some pasta or a pizza, we also want people to be able to take those same things with them to make -- or eat -- at home," adds Birkholz. "We'll have a pasta alla carretiera kit that people can take with them, and we'll cook a whole fish in the oven, for example, cryovac it and leave it to you to finish at home," he adds.
And Whitaker, who began incorporating the sous-vide method of cooking at Basta in 2010 -- and utilizes the method for most everything except his pizzas -- will integrate the water bath practice at Cart-Driver, too, an element, says Birkholz, that will be a big component of what he and Whitaker hope will be a Michelin-star kitchen.
The space will have a full liquor license, as well, although the bar program, says Birkholz, will be pared down and mostly likely rely on an entirely kegged system, given the limited amount of storage capacity.
"We're super-stoked to be doing this in Denver," says Birkholz, and "we're really excited about our neighbors -- there's such a great alchemy of creative minds in different industries -- and the lay-out of the project is super-cool, too. It's going to fantastic."
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Look for Cart-Driver to open in early 2014.