Cafe Society

Enough is never enough for Kelly Whitaker at Pizzeria Basta in Boulder

"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.

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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