Enough is never enough for Kelly Whitaker at Pizzeria Basta in Boulder
The "Sauce" pizza: crushed tomato, sliced garlic, local oregano, maldon salt and olive oil.
"Alex Weiser, man. He grows the best potatoes."
Kelly Whitaker was standing in front of his roaring wood-fired oven at Pizzeria Basta, slicing a tiny, misshapen purple tuber with exacting precision, then spreading the disks on a just-stretched circle of dough. "I used to get potatoes from a local farm. But it sold the lot where it grows them, and they haven't been the same since. So I went to Weiser, because I used to buy his potatoes at the Grove in Los Angeles. They're epic."
Weiser Family Farms potatoes are also featured on the menus of a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, including the French Laundry and Per Se, but I didn't need to hear Weiser's client list to know that these tubers were stellar. Whitaker is obsessed with great ingredients and has an almost manic drive to find the best sources possible. To that end, he grows herbs and some vegetables on an unused part of Pizzeria Basta's patio, and pea shoots in his kitchen window. He works his Colorado purveyors for top-notch meats and produce. And although he'll import items from California or Virginia if he sees something he really wants, he won't bring in anything but wine and Calabrian chiles from outside the United States. He doesn't think he has to.
Basta means "enough" in Italian. But in Whitaker's quest for perfection, nothing will ever be quite good enough.
After potatoes, he talked about salumi, coffee and pastries, all while stretching ball after ball of dough, topping his pizzas with those great ingredients, then using his pizza peel to move pies around the oven. I watched and listened while I savored the crudo: four slices of firm, fleshy raw scallop, topped with small segments of blood orange, tiny nests of crisp radish, dots of slightly bitter shishito pepper and a sprinkling of black salt. Plated with a smear of sweet, tangy blood-orange purée and paired with a flute of bone-dry sparkling prosecco, the appetizer was an excellent way to start an early spring dinner at a restaurant I'd watched grow from the ground up.
I'd stood in this space when it was still a shell in the Peloton apartment-complex courtyard in Boulder, back in the summer of 2009, listening to Whitaker's plans. He'd recently returned to his home state from Los Angeles to open a pizza place; I was pondering whether I should help run his front of the house. Eventually, I decided against it: I'd never had Whitaker's food, but I doubted whether any talent would be enough to draw the crowds to this tough location, a hidden quad completely blocked from street view by massive buildings.
I was wrong.
Pizza has always been a passion of Whitaker's. Before going to California, he'd worked at the now-closed Pulcinella Ristorante in Fort Collins for several years, then at fine-dining restaurants in Italy for almost a year. That's when he'd wormed his way into pizzerias in Naples, befriending pizzaiolos so they'd let him come in and work with them on his day off. In Los Angeles, he'd trained at the celebrated Hatfield's and manned the fish station at Providence, a restaurant in that same city that boasts two Michelin stars. Then he'd helped open a wood-fired pizza place in Hollywood. When Whitaker decided it was time to open his own top-of-the-line pizzeria, though, he wanted to do it in Colorado. And he wanted to take what he'd learned in Naples but adapt it to his home state, adhering to the Italian philosophy that cuisine is a local expression built on regional ingredients. So when he finally opened Basta in January 2010, he opted not to import San Marzano tomatoes or flour; instead he found domestic purveyors that could provide a suitable substitute, and he kept experimenting with those elements until he got them exactly right. And then he'd change them again, making another small, incremental improvement.
When I'd stopped by a few weeks before, Whitaker had just switched to a new flour, one that added density and richness to his dough. Painted with a ladle's worth of tangy, crushed tomato sauce and topped with disks of hand-stretched mozzarella and leaves of basil — the delicate ingredients of the Daisy, an English translation of a Margherita — and then baked crispy in the 900-degree oven, the crust made for an ideal pie. I was less certain about the market pizza, topped with slices of those purple Paul Weiser potatoes, smoked mozzarella, crisp strips of cured pork belly, a smattering of bitter Brussels sprouts leaves and a poached farm egg, orange yolk oozing over the center. While most of the flavors worked together (I wasn't sold on the potatoes), the ingredients were piled on so thick that this didn't seem like a pizza at all. It was more like a complete dinner served — for no apparent reason — on bread that I'd rather have had on the side.
I ordered the market pie again a few days later, though, and Whitaker had already tweaked it, scaling back the spuds and sprouts, adding more sizzling pork belly and cheese, chopping the egg for better distribution. This time the potatoes worked, and the rest of the bold flavors were used with enough restraint to harmonize perfectly. That night I also had a Sauce pizza, the crust covered with just a thin layer of the crushed-tomato sauce, thinly sliced garlic and a healthy pinch of oregano, then finished, like most of Basta's pizzas, with a dusting of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. It's become one of my favorites, particularly for a light lunch.
Whitaker opened Pizzeria Basta with a board that listed just a handful of pies — there's also a white pizza, made with homemade ricotta — supplemented by appetizers, salads and desserts. After a few months, though, he thought that wasn't enough and decided to add entrees. But first, he had to figure out how to cook them.
When Whitaker built out his space, he was allowed only one exhaust — and had to decide between a wood-fired oven or a gas range. Since his vision was for a pizzeria, he stuck with the oven; to cook anything else now, he had to work without a stove. Whitaker could do some cooking with an induction burner and a tabletop smoker, but he really wanted to use sous vide, a system of circulators that slowly cooks food to the precise temperature of the water bath within. But in Colorado, the state health department requires that a restaurant using sous vide first obtain an approved HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plan detailing how it will maintain food safety, since the technique involves sustaining food at a medium-rare temperature, around 130 degrees, for an extended period of time. And under Colorado's health code, 130 degrees is considered a danger zone.
Whitaker's first attempt at an HACCP plan was denied. Determined to solve the puzzle, last summer he went to New York to work with Bruno Goussault, the food scientist who pioneered safe cooking in circulators. With Goussault's help, Whitaker took another stab at creating a plan — and this time, he got it approved. That made entrees possible, including the 72-hour short rib, for which reservations are strongly recommended.
I made one for a group under a friend's name, determined to stay away from pizzas for once (we already knew they were good enough to win Best Pizza in the Best of Denver 2011) — and also to see if I could eat a meal without being recognized. Not only do I know Whitaker, who's almost always in the kitchen, but I know most of his staff, who, under co-owner and Frasca Food and Wine front-of-the-house alum Al Henkin, have become a warm, knowledgable crew, answering questions about everything from Lambrusco — that dry, sparkling red wine that's an ideal accompaniment to cured meat and pizza — to La Quercia prosciutto. I wasn't successful in my bid to stay anonymous, and we weren't entirely successful in our effort to avoid pizza: We still got the pizza dough, formed into a loaf and baked to order. We paired that bread with the pickled vegetables — crisp, tangy chunks of carrot, fennel and red pepper that are also made in-house — as well as my favorite starter, the burrata. The stretchy, mozzarella-like exterior encases a creamy ricotta center; it's served over leeks, cooked until almost melted and tinged with acid, which pairs nicely with the warm cheese. The secret to this dish is layering: Whitaker works in three separate purées — garlic, onion and parsnip — as he cooks the leeks, then hits the tender, finished product with a champagne-sherry vinaigrette.
The short rib arrived just as the remnants of the appetizers were cleared away: 25 ounces of uniformly medium-rare beef, crisped around the edges from being finished in the pizza oven. The juicy, thick slices were fork-tender but not shredded, as they would have been if the beef had been braised. The meat was served with roasted kale hit with garlic, chile flake and lemon (the only element on the plate that required a knife); smoky, smooth mashed potatoes — boiled on the induction burner before being cooked in the smoker and puréed — and biting horseradish crème fraîche. It was a clever variation on the typical setup for prime rib: simple comfort food made better.
We finished the meal with sweet, smoky, housemade porter ice cream and shots of LaMill espresso. And I recalled how, that night at the bar, Whitaker had frenetically explained his plans for a custom-made espresso machine and even more desserts. "We've got our ice cream in a good place," he'd said, "but I want to up the pastry game." That contagious passion is inspiring, and infectious enough to make this lively spot not just succeed, but keep getting better.
Because for Whitaker, enough will never be enough.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter