Chef News

David Rosenfeld on Sprezzatura, Fine Dining and the Dynamics of Pizza

After a fine-dining training, David Rosenfeld is exploring pizza at Sprezzatura.
After a fine-dining training, David Rosenfeld is exploring pizza at Sprezzatura. Laura Shunk
On the patio of Littleton’s Rocker Spirits sits a silver trailer from which a couple doles out drinks, snacks, salads and, above all, pizzas topped with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, ricotta and Taleggio, or walnut pesto and aged goat cheddar, and baked in an external 1,100-degree oven. Welcome to Sprezzatura, a major departure and welcome change of pace for David Rosenfeld. Sprezzatura’s chef/owner has a pedigreed résumé: He spent a couple of years at Michelin-starred Dovetail in New York City before decamping for Roberta’s and Blanca, Brooklyn’s now-legendary pizzeria and its tasting-menu-oriented sibling. After a jaunt to St. Louis, where he ran and partnered in a couple of different restaurants, Rosenfeld landed here with girlfriend Kelsey Baker, ready to take a break from full-service dining and excited to run a pizza trailer at a distillery. In the following, Rosenfeld describes his journey, explaining his interest in pizza, his thoughts on the evolution of fine dining, and what might be next for him here in the Mile High.

David Rosenfeld: I went to school for environmental law. In my first six months there, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I think the school realized it, too, because I didn’t attend class and they asked me not to come back. I got a job at a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, where my family was living at the time — I grew up in Philadelphia. One of the managers there had gone to the New England Culinary Institute, and he really talked it up. I decided I might as well [try it]. I moved up to Vermont, where I lived in the middle of nowhere. Montpelier is a very small town, so I could really immerse myself in the culture. I worked — or I guess I should say staged, because it was for free — at a cheese farm called Jasper Hill, where I made artisanal cheeses. Then I worked at a small brewery called Trout River. I was mostly washing kegs, but also learning to brew.

I walked in graduation, but I never got a degree. After finishing school, I went to New York City, because I felt like that was where I should go. My first job out of school was at Dovetail, a one-star Michelin on the Upper West Side. I worked there for two and a half years, learning everything I could from chef John Fraser. He was a huge inspiration. He didn’t have two other restaurants like he does now, so he was in the kitchen every day and working side by side with his staff.

After two and a half years, I’d seen the menu change enough and I knew the style, so I was ready to learn something different. I met chef Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s while at Dovetail. He was getting ready to open Blanca, a twelve-seat tasting restaurant. So I went to Roberta’s and worked there for six months. I was an extra person — I only made about three or four pizzas, but it was my first exposure to what pizza really could be. In Philly, it was all New York-style pizza using mostly white flour, cheap tomatoes and commodity mozzarella. Seeing the kitchen at Roberta’s actually making their own cheese, naturally fermenting their own dough, caring about where the flour came from and when it was milled, getting to work with a live fire — in culinary school, they don’t teach you that. It was so primitive and so much fun, and ever-changing. It was something I fell in love with.

Working in those two kitchens and going from the one to the next was very different. Dovetail had a very French-brigade system, so we were getting screamed at constantly. It was the kind of place where you’d be scheduled in at 1 p.m., but if you’re not there at 7 a.m., you’re screwed. Learning those systems, that organization, that rigidity, was a great lesson for me; now, if we have a really busy night and I have to be up at 4 a.m. to prep, it’s not too bad, because it’s only once in a while. But at Roberta’s, no one yelled at each other. Everyone worked very hard with a sense of urgency, and they put pride and passion into everything they were doing. I felt valuable there. Every day at my jobs before that, it was like, what am I going to do that I’m going to get screamed at or fired for today? I’ve never been fired, but it was always on my mind that it could happen. If one garnish cut was a half centimeter off, I’d probably have it thrown at me. It was a level of stress that people don’t need. It was a great way for me to learn, but I worked with so many people that just shut down. There’s so much passion in this industry; at Roberta’s, I realized that as a chef, you could be nurturing and really care about your employees and they’ll work just as hard, if not harder. It was eye-opening to see that, and it’s something that I strived to mimic.

click to enlarge
A Margherita pizza from Sprezzatura with a cocktail from the bar at Rocker Spirits.
Mark Antonation
Eventually, I helped open Blanca and was there for about a year. We got our first Michelin star while I was sous-chef there, plus a lot of great reviews. But it got to a point where I could not afford New York City anymore. A friend who had worked at Roberta’s was getting ready to open a place in St. Louis with the Compass Group, and he offered me a good amount of money to come out and help. I had family who had moved there by then, so it was a chance to get out of debt and live in a city I was familiar with.

We opened Central Table. It was a big food-hall concept, similar to Avanti, but all the stalls were run by us. We had sushi, Neapolitan pizza, a new American grill, a little market and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was my first time managing a staff that size — I had a kitchen staff of thirty people — and a great experience. But it didn’t have the freedom and creativity that I wanted. There was a restaurant in St. Louis called Blood and Sand, and they were looking for a new chef. The partners came into Central Table often and liked our food. So I went there, took that over, and helped them open Death in the Afternoon. Blood and Sand was a private, membership-only dinner place, while Death in the Afternoon was a new American lunch spot that did food no one else was doing. We had a Juicy Lucy burger, housemade pastrami on a pretzel bun, and we built a charcuterie room to do all our own charcuterie for our Italian sandwich. And I made ramen: I worked with Yuji [Haraguchi, of Yuji Ramen] in New York for a bit because he was doing pop-ups at Roberta’s.

When I went to Blood and Sand, they made me a partner in that business. My partners developed a POS system, and while I was there, that became their focus; they didn’t have time or energy for the restaurants. So we decided that the best bet was to put them up for sale, and we ended up selling last September. I’d gotten to the point of wanting to do something more casual, to not have the stress of a full-service restaurant. So during the process, I had started talking to one of my partners, who was close friends with the owner of Rocker Spirits in Littleton. They needed a food program. Pizza was something I loved; I had some experience with it, and I wanted to keep playing with it. I had been to Littleton, and I knew there was nothing like what we’re doing, so I thought it was a good fit. So I came here and opened Sprezzatura with my girlfriend.

click to enlarge
Sprezzatura serves thematic holiday desserts, like this cherry hand pie for Pride.
Laura Shunk
When I moved to St. Louis, Kelsey was just out of culinary school, and she came on as a pastry cook at Central Table. We ended up downsizing the pastry program, but she said, “I want to learn pizza,” so we moved her to the pizza station, and she did a phenomenal job there. When I left that restaurant, we started dating. I brought her on at Death in the Afternoon, and she worked every station in that kitchen before we moved her to Blood and Sand and let her go back to her pastry roots. She took to it so quick. Within a year, she was, in my opinion, the best pastry chef in St. Louis. She’s a really naturally talented cook. Since she had the pizza experience, it made sense for us to do this together; we had always worked together. We collaborated on the pizza dough recipe.

I guess the closest thing you could compare our pizza to would be Neapolitan-style, but it’s not traditional. Traditional is made with Italian 00 flour, and it has a soggy center; you eat it with a knife and fork. To me, pizza should be eaten with your hands, and I like a light, airy crust. So our crust is kind of a cross between Neapolitan and New York. We use 65 percent 00 flour; 25 percent is an all-purpose flour milled from hard red winter wheat from a farm in Vermont, and the remaining 10 percent is coarse-ground rye flour, which gives the dough a little more bite and texture. Our dough is 100 percent naturally fermented — we don’t use commercial yeast. I have a sourdough starter that I got from Roberta’s years ago, and I have been feeding it and using it to do different breads ever since. It moved with me to St. Louis and then here, so the air and water in both places has changed it. It’s cheesy to say we’re making Littleton-style pizza, but it really is, because elements in the air and water are making the dough unique to this space.

Playing into my experience working on that cheese farm, we make our own ricotta cheese, and we stretch our mozzarella every day. As far as the other cheeses go, we try to source the best, most interesting ones that we can. We’re trying to use non-commodity products, things we can really stand behind. We’re getting as much as we can right now from the farmers’ market, and we have a few garden beds where we’re trying to grow our own produce, mostly herbs and edible flowers.

My philosophy on sourcing is that I want to source the best-quality product I possibly can in a sustainable fashion — for the most part. I’m never going to get a local Maine lobster, and I can’t really say it’s sustainable to use them because of the carbon footprint, but if I was in the right venue and my guest wanted Maine lobster and I could source a good one, I would. It’s about what the guest wants, and about trying to treat the planet with as much respect as possible. Like I said, I went to school for environmental law, so the environment is something I’m very passionate about, but it’s very hard to run a business and completely follow all of that. Even in Vermont, where I was at a school that was a big part of the Slow Food movement, it was still not possible to do things completely without harming anything, so it was a matter of trying to give back wherever we can. It’s a matter of finding different and interesting ingredients and treating them with respect. Carlo [Mirarchi] taught me to minimize and let ingredients stand for themselves. We were sourcing outrageous product there. We’d have fish shipped in from Japan, and we were paying more than $100 per pound, so we did very little with them. We might quickly sear it and garnish with one little herb from the garden, and that was the whole plate. That can be a huge flavor.

Is this pizza my ultimate goal? I don’t really know, honestly. I’m doing this and having a lot of fun. Do we do brick-and-mortar and move back toward fine dining? I don’t know. I’m mainly focused on growing this business and on helping Rocker grow their business. I wouldn’t call it a break, but it’s less stress than a full-service restaurant. It’s nice that it can support us for now, that guests come in and are thrilled, and that we’re able to really interact with everyone. But I loved what we did at Blanca with the extended tasting menus, and I’d love to get back into doing something like that. I’m also very new to this town and area, and I don’t know what the market wants yet.

click to enlarge
Sprezzatura is now serving wood-fired pizza at Rocker Spirits in Littleton.
Mark Antonation
I don’t think fine dining is dying, though. I think it’s changing; it’s morphing into what today’s generation wants it to be. It’s gone through a number of changes throughout the years. In the ’70s and ’80s, fine dining was all about the most luxurious ingredients, who was there, what atmosphere you could really create to bring those people in and make it a see-and-be-seen kind of a thing. In the ’90s and early 2000s, people started experimenting with food a lot, and the lines started to blur. I ate at Roberta’s before I worked there, and it was not really fine dining, but the first thing I was served was housemade lardo, housemade bread and honey. I was sitting on a picnic bench drinking great beer out of a Mason jar. Great food doesn’t have to be stuffy.

I went to Frasca recently, and I loved that — I really want to experience that level of service once in a while. Dovetail really put pride in that style of service. But it’s just not as big as it once was. You have places moving toward that ethos of taking great ingredients, treating them with care, and doing it in a fun way. And they’re making it more affordable and accessible for the general public — it’s cheaper and in an atmosphere where you can go listen to music and not feel weird about having a regular-toned conversation with a friend. So that’s more what it’s about — serving great food in a fun atmosphere — and the rest doesn’t matter as much.

5587 South Hill Street, Littleton
Open from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk