If it weren't for the noise and the uncomfortable closeness to other human beings, a meal at Cart-Driver could be perfect stoner food. Not that that you have to be dabbed, twisted or otherwise burnt to enjoy bites and sips at this pizza mini-parlor, but Cart-Driver is an Alice in Wonderland-style rabbit-hole trip as deep as the space is narrow. Two happy hours, offered daily from 3 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight, offer two very different personalities — each a singular slice of the RiNo experience.
The late-afternoon happy hour works better as an addition to a Cart-Driver dinner than as a show horse in itself, but it's still better than most, even on its own. You're ordering and eating right up against the flaming wood-fired oven, the heat and smell tying everything together. The crew ably juggles mixing cocktails and pulling pies while offering recommendations to newbies. If you're looking for booze before dinner, Cart-Driver offers Prosecco on tap, Negronis and Aperol spritzers for $5 a glass, the same price as everything at happy hour. The noble Negroni is served in a small juice glass, just like Prosecco and pours of canned beer. It's only appropriate because this here is a "messed-up" Negroni, with a lighter color and flavor from a shot of sparkling wine, far from a craft-cocktail realization, but a fine accompaniment for some light Italian plates.
Co-owner and chef Kelly Whitaker earned stripes at his Basta in Boulder, a place that has become as famous for virtuous entrees and seasonal plates as for its pizza. Cart-Driver's thin menu digs up some curious, retro plates, enough that I wonder if the kitchen is pulling them through some 11.22.63-style dimensional portal. Tuna mousse at happy hour has already been fêted in these pages, but a shortage led us to the chicken-liver variety, topped with mustard seed and cinnamon cap mushrooms. Now, there are rich terrines and mousses, and then there are next-level liver delights like Cart-Driver's. With the look and consistency of warm peanut butter, it's heavenly when spread on some of that wood-fired focaccia, though there's just not enough bread to appreciate it to the fullest.
A five-spot brings a pair of oysters from the raw bar (Blue Pools from Washington, on this visit) with pink mignonette and grated horseradish, a perfectly themed afternoon snack. The oysters are as mild as the horseradish is abrasive, a smooth/strong balance that's seen all over the menu. But if you're going to Cart-Driver, you're going to end up getting some pizza. The 10 p.m.-to-midnight happy hour offers a $5 margherita pizza (normally $12), and pies here are reliably complex and pleasing, masterfully cooked, and given the proper amount of salt, toppings and attention.
If it's dark on Larimer and the taco carts aren't cutting it, late-night happy hour brings some offbeat surprises, too. There's the mortadella dog, an appealing pink tube with more personality and bite than a ballpark frank, packed in a super-crispy bun with some sauerkraut and mostarda. Yet even if you've been mainlining PBR all night, it could be hard to get past the huge glop of mustard that blocks out any other flavor. Only major mustard fiends need apply.
The night didn't end on a bum note, though: Cart-Driver makes delicious soft-serve gelato, and they'll even upend a mini-bottle of Underberg bitters in it. It's a bizzaro-world Coronarita, and the day's gelato selection (salted caramel) happened to jibe well with this bit of boozy brilliance. Take out the bottle when it's half-way drained, and down the rest to promote good digestion and good vibes.
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SHOW ME HOW
It's a party all the time inside Cart-Driver, though not everyone chowing down here knows it. It's a rave in the mouth, a sweaty communal dose of ecstasy. Late-night happy hour can be a gravesite where bad dishes are buried, but at this pillbox of a pizza place, it's a miniature diorama of RiNo's hopping scene, and it works.
Perfect For: Let the commuters wait outside Work & Class. If you live or work in this ’hood, call in and get a pizza or two to go. It's difficult to think of Cart-Driver as a fast-casual joint, but it's one of only a few places around the block that can get you carryout in a hurry.
Don't Miss: My favorite pie is the Cart-Driver ($15), with heaps of spicy sausage and crisp kale, but the clam pizza ($15) is the signature, with Little Neck clams and crisp pancetta in umami harmony.