The midterm elections may be a blip in the rearview mirror, but Denver remains a battleground. Only instead of politicians vying for voters, restaurateurs are fighting for guests. This is especially true in the pizza business, where the campaign remains as heated as the thousand-degree ovens behind the parties' blistered, Neapolitan-style pies.
Pizza has been a hot-button item for years, ever since the economic downturn prompted chefs to explore foods that wouldn't break the bank. For decades before that, however, it was a more common crowd-pleaser: something delivered to your door when you didn't feel like cooking, a staple at kids' parties to be eaten before cake, an easy bar accompaniment to a pitcher of beer. In Denver, Proto's Pizza helped usher in the new era of more gourmet pies, followed by Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria and Kaos; these, along with many other pizza emporiums, have solidified their fan bases over the years. The current race is between two newcomers: Pizzeria Locale and Cart-Driver.
In political terms, Pizzeria Locale would be the incumbent, having entered the Denver market a year and a half ago. Run by Frasca veterans Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson in partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill, the Locale concept boasts institutional knowledge, deep pockets, and two locations in popular neighborhoods. The challenger is Cart-Driver, a sliver of a place that opened in a trendy shipping-container development in RiNo this summer. But while the 25-seat restaurant -- the size of a bar car, with unadorned corrugated-steel walls and a few booths opposite the tiny open kitchen -- may be new, the person behind it is not. For years, co-owner Kelly Whitaker has been building a name for himself at Basta, a full-service restaurant in Boulder that specializes in short ribs, wood-roasted chicken and an admirable wine list. But it's pizza that Basta is really known for, with high-quality ingredients scattered over wisely charred crusts. Little wonder, then, that it was pizza that Whitaker decided to spin off at Cart-Driver.
Like the Frasca folks before him, Whitaker and his partners went the fast-casual route here, with counter service and a tightly edited menu of nine or so pizzas -- there's no make-your-own option -- and a limited selection of small plates, including oysters, meatballs and one salad. Yet the two concepts feel worlds apart. Instead of Neapolitan pizza for the masses, which is what Locale made possible with its assembly-line approach, rotational oven and low prices, Cart-Driver steered toward a different goal. "We wanted something a little more accessible, a little more casual" than Basta, says Whitaker, adding that just because he's taken the server out of the equation "doesn't mean there's a lack of hospitality."
Cart-Driver, then, runs like a hybrid. Yes, you stand in line to place your order at the counter. Yes, you watch as your pizza is stretched and topped in the open kitchen. You fill your own water glasses, grab a seat where you can, and wipe sauce off your fingers with thin paper towels, the kind normally pulled from bathroom dispensers. But tabs are kept open -- a good thing, considering the Prosecco on tap -- as plates are delivered and cleared for you, and questions are answered with the knowledge that comes from years of experience, both at Basta (working partner Andrew Birkholz spent three years there as pizza-maker) and at Potager (where sous-chef Andrew Van Stee formerly hung his hat).
For this you're expected to pay a premium, with prices on par with those at full-service Neapolitan pizzerias, mostly hovering in the $12 to $16 range. It seems a bit too much to ask in this cramped, noisy space, especially when receipts include tip charts that start at 18 percent and go up from there. And it would definitely be too much to ask if the food wasn't so very good and produced with such care. Dough is made from organic 00 flour, a domestic version of the finely milled flour prized by pizza purists, and a 150-year-old starter imported from a small island in Italy. The tomatoes in the red sauce are organic, with a sweetness that comes from vine-ripened fruit. Sausage and meatballs are made by Western Daughters, a local butcher shop, according to Whitaker's recipes. Extra-virgin olive oil, commonly drizzled over pizzas, is pressed from organic, California-grown olives. Even finishing salts are high-end.
I wasn't thinking about any of that, though, as I pulled a slice from the Four Season pie, which went from the flame-kissed oven to the bridge over my table -- a clever space saver -- in a matter of minutes. The crust was more white than golden, with black freckles and the occasional burst blister that fans of this style find addictive. The fat, puffy crust was chewy with a touch of crispness, just as I'd hoped, under carefully arranged, overlapping rows of ingredients. With laces of delicata squash, nearly translucent slices of crisp Asian pear, Virginia ham and tomatoes, plus creamy burrata added post-fire, the elegant pie wouldn't have been out of place in a patisserie. Traditionally, this pizza -- in Italian, the quattro stagione -- represents the four seasons with ham, artichokes, mushrooms and tomatoes. But Whitaker isn't as concerned with tradition as he is with great-tasting pizza, so he bends the rules to his liking, making season-specific pizzas with corn and peaches in the summer, squash and potatoes (which just replaced the tomatoes) in the fall, and so on. Nor is he afraid to bake the pizzas so that they have a sturdy enough crust to be picked up with fingers, in the process shunning certification from the VPN, the body that regulates authentic Neapolitan pie. "I like eating knife-and-fork pizza in Naples, but that's not for us," says Whitaker. "We're not set on any Italian rules. We're just set on making a delicious product we like to eat."
Keep reading for more on Cart-Driver. Of all the pies on the menu, the Mariner and Daisy epitomize the restaurant's philosophy that pizzas should be, as Whitaker says, "all about the dough." The former has crushed tomatoes, oregano and sliced garlic but no cheese; the latter -- Cart-Driver's version of the margherita, Italian for "daisy" -- has patches of mozzarella but no garlic, herbs or sugar in the red sauce; that sweetness is coming purely from the tomatoes. To me, those lighter pies seem like appetizers, meant to be divvied up along with the garlicky meatballs and oysters on ice. The ones that are more like entrees -- i.e., the pizzas I wanted all to myself -- are slightly more complex, like the Four Season, which is hard to share anyway, given its segregated toppings. Friends liked the Cart-Driver, with sausage, broccoli rabe and chile flakes, while I preferred the clam, with littlenecks, thin slices of pancetta and garlic. We all wanted more of the white pizza, with a nuanced balance of mozzarella, lightly smoked ricotta and basil -- though we hardly touched the "Grandma-style" pizza, a socca-like concoction of chickpea flour and olive oil that was so soggy, it defied our attempts to pry it from the pan with fingers and even knives and forks.
The surprise hit was the mushroom pizza, which might scare some people off with its black piles of ash interspersed with onions, goat cheese and baby shiitakes. Ash is edible; you've probably had it in certain cheeses. This ash was made from onions left so long in the oven that they turned powdery and black and had no onion flavor left. Blended with a hint of vinegar and spices, their effect on the pie was irresistible, upping the earthiness in the mushrooms and charred crust.
Pizzas constitute the bulk of the Cart-Driver menu, but not all of it. Indeed, glimmers of Basta are just as evident in the eclectic "etc." section, which includes salty coppa sliced thin and plated with wedges of spicy dills. The tuna mousse -- known at Basta as tuna panna cotta -- brought a blend of tuna with agar, cream, butter and dry vermouth in a canning jar topped with glistening, roe-like pearls of olive oil. Smeared on housemade focaccia, the decadent appetizer was worthy of a celebration -- even if your meal marks just the end of another workday. The salad, however, was a party pooper, with baby kale, cabbage and radicchio topped with chickpeas so hard they could have been pebbles.
And if oysters seem like an afterthought at a pizza place, they're not here. The day I caught up with Whitaker by phone, he was in Washington touring oyster farms. Hopefully he'll increase the menu's limited selection; on my visits, there were never more than three varieties. But the WiAnnos I encountered one night were a much better precursor to pie than breadsticks -- a nice shot of protein before all that starch.
Perhaps the best way to view the race between Cart-Driver and Pizzeria Locale is not as two opposing parties, but as frontrunners in the same camp. After all, despite their conflicting strategies, they're both pushing the same agenda: high-quality Neapolitan-inspired pizza, delivered in a casual, quick format. The good thing for diners is that unlike a political office, which can only fit one candidate, there's room for both in this town.
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Select menu items at Cart-Driver: Prosecco $8 Four Season $16 Daisy $12 Mariner $9 White $13 Cart-Driver $15 Mushroom $12 Clam $15 Oysters market price Coppa $7 Tuna mousse $7
Cart-Driver is open from noon to midnight daily; learn more at cart-driver.com.