Saturday, 15 May 2021

Best Denver pizza finalist Cart-Driver has devoted following — The Know

There aren’t many other restaurants — let alone pizzerias — that capture nearly a decade in Denver food quite so well as Cart-Driver.

Since 2014, the 640-square-foot shipping container in the River North Art District has been serving 90-second wood-fired pizzas, fresh-shucked oysters and tinned seafood along with batched cocktails and sparkling wine on tap.

Food and drinks are ordered at the counter, the bar barely has room for anyone and when you squeeze past the pizza oven, and just a few booths after, you’re left finding a spot to eat in an open-air courtyard.

If you go

Cart-Driver RiNo is located at 2500 Larimer St. (behind Work & Class), 303-292-3553, 3-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, noon-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon-9 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday, cart-driver.com/rino. The Highland location is at 2239 W. 30th Ave., 720-501-2264, 3-9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday, cart-driver.com/lohi.

“Seven or eight years ago, there were so many great operators in the city, but we thought that we could add something to the equation — bringing you into the kitchen … and feeling that vibe,” co-owner Andrew Birkholz said. “And I think it has struck a chord.”

Now in its seventh year, Cart-Driver is still a neighborhood spot that manages to draw diners from near and far to two locations — the compact first shop, off Larimer Street, and a larger second restaurant on Highland’s 30th Avenue.

“We really want to be this neighborhood spot, but we don’t get to call ourselves that,” Birkholz said. “The neighborhood gets to (decide).”

It took Birkholz and his partners five years after debuting the original to open Cart-Driver Highland. They renovated the former Z Cuisine space, taking time to figure out the neighborhood and to change the space and menu accordingly. Where Cart-Driver RiNo is a bustling young counter-service business, the Highland restaurant is sit-down and more mature.

Both manage to make fast pizzas and cocktails while still encouraging diners to linger.

“We want to be these slow-plate institutions in the city,” Birkholz said. “Wherever we (travel), any of us, we want to go to where the locals go.”

The name Cart-Driver is translated directly from the Italian carrettiere. In Southern Italy, for example, you can still order pasta alla carrettiera. And these horse-drawn carts and their drivers were the original source for farm-to-table food, Birkholz explained.

“These cart-drivers would gather in the piazza in the city centers, and they would be food purveyors,” he said. “And this still exists to this day.”

RELATED: We’ve made it to the finals of the Denver pizza bracket: Vote now for a winner.

The idea for the restaurant’s name and focus — of fast but well-sourced food — came when Birkholz was working as a pizzaiolo at Basta in Boulder. He and that restaurant’s owner and chef, Kelly Whitaker, wanted an offshoot of the Italian fine-dining spot with a focus on Neapolitan pizza and just a few other complimentary dishes.

(Whitaker’s restaurant group and Cart-Driver have since parted ways, but you’ll still find the inspirations for Cart-Driver’s classic pies on the menu at Basta.)

“Cart-Driver was the little (sibling) of Basta,” Birkholz explained, adding, “What Kelly’s doing now really goes beyond the restaurant.”

While its founding chef has moved on to open other Denver and Boulder concepts and to start the Noble Grain Alliance, growing wheat and milling flour for restaurants and pizzerias around town, Cart-Driver has largely stayed its slow and steady course.

But RiNo chef Alan Youngerman and Highland chef Brian Wilson continue to evolve their pizzerias. Favorites like the Daisy (margherita, $14) and Clam (pancetta, roasted garlic, cream, $20) will always be on the menu, while seasonal pies like the Spring (sugar snap peas, ‘nduja, burrata, lemon, $18) are just as worthwhile.

And the restaurants’ afternoon and late-night happy hours are when industry workers and locals will come in for $6 Daisy pies and messed up Negronis (gin, Campari, vermouth, prosecco).

“I know there are $19-20 pizzas on our menu, but you should be able to come in and get a pizza and beer for under $10,” Birkholz said.

Earlier this month, as it was advancing in the Denver pizza bracket, Cart-Driver RiNo closed for renovation. It was a necessary break for the tiny space after years of wear and tear, Birkholz said.

But the finished and now-reopened product won’t seem that different to customers who are coming back for their wood-fired bread and chicken liver mousse, their spritzes and marinated olives, and, of course, their sausage and kale house pizzas.

In fact, “It kind of looks exactly the same,” Birkholz said of the refreshed original Cart-Driver. “We like the vibe that we’ve created here over the last 7 years, and we didn’t want to change that.”

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