Meet Denver darling and the very best pizza finalist cart driver – The Denver Submit
There aren’t many other restaurants – let alone pizzerias – that have captured Denver food as well as cart drivers for nearly a decade.
Since 2014, the 640 square meter shipping container in the River North Art District has been serving 90-second pizzas from the wood-fired oven, freshly peeled oysters and canned seafood, as well as cocktails and sparkling wine on tap.
Food and drinks are ordered at the counter, the bar hardly offers any space for anyone and if you squeeze past the pizza oven, you will find a place outside in the inner courtyard just a few stalls later.
When you go
Cart-Driver RiNo is located in 2500 Larimer St. (behind Work & Class), 303-292-3553, Tuesday to Thursday 3pm to 9pm, Friday and Saturday 12pm to 10pm and Sunday 12pm to 9pm, closed on Monday, cart -driver.com/rino. The location in Highland is 2239 W. 30th Ave., 720-501-2264, Tuesday through Sunday 3 p.m.-9 p.m., closed Monday, cart-driver.com/lohi.
“There were so many great operators in town seven or eight years ago, but we thought we could add something to the equation – bring you into the kitchen … and feel that atmosphere,” said co-owner Andrew Birkholz. “And I think it hit a nerve.”
Now in its seventh year, Cart-Driver is still a neighborhood eatery that manages to draw diners from near and far to two places – the compact first store on Larimer Street and a larger second restaurant on 30th Avenue in Highland.
“We really want to be this neighborhood, but we are not allowed to call ourselves that,” says Birkholz. “The neighborhood must (decide).”
It was five years after Birkholz and his partners debuted the original to open Cart-Driver Highland. They renovated the former Z Cuisine room, taking the time to find out the neighborhood and changing the room and menu accordingly. Where Cart-Driver RiNo is a bustling young counter-service company, the Highland Restaurant is cozier and more mature.
Both manage to prepare quick pizzas and cocktails and at the same time encourage guests to linger.
“We want to be these slow institutions in the city,” said Birkholz. “Wherever we (travel), each of us, we want to go 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 wagons and their drivers were the original source of farm-to-table food, Birkholz explained.
“These cart drivers would gather in the piazza in the city centers and they would be grocery deliverers,” he said. “And that is still there today.”
RELATED: We Made It To The Finals Of The Denver Pizza Bracket: Vote For A Winner Now.
The idea for the name and focus of the restaurant – fast but well-sourced food – came while Birkholz was working as a pizzaiolo at Basta in Boulder. He and the owner and cook of this restaurant, Kelly Whitaker, wanted an offshoot of the fine-dining Italian restaurant with an emphasis on Neapolitan pizza and just a few other free items.
(The Whitaker and Cart-Driver restaurant group have since split, but inspiration for the classic Cart-Driver pies can still be found on Basta’s menu.)
“Cart driver was Basta’s little (sibling),” Birkholz explained and added: “What Kelly is doing now really goes beyond the restaurant.”
While its founding chef opened up other Denver and Boulder concepts and founded the Noble Grain Alliance, which grows wheat and grinds flour for restaurants and pizzerias around town, Cart-Driver has largely maintained its slow and steady course.
But RiNo chef Alan Youngerman and Highland chef Brian Wilson are continuing to develop their pizzerias. Favorites like daisy (margherita, $ 14) and clam (pancetta, roasted garlic, cream, $ 20) will always be on the menu, while seasonal pies like spring (snap peas, ‘nduja, burrata, lemon, Jan. US dollars) only as worthwhile.
And the afternoon and late evening happy hours of the restaurants are when industrial workers and locals come in for $ 6 daisy pies and messed up Negronis (gin, campari, vermouth, prosecco).
“I know our menu is $ 19-20 pizzas, but you should be able to get a pizza and beer for under $ 10,” Birkholz said.
Earlier this month, as the Denver pizza industry was moving forward, Cart-Driver RiNo was shut down for renovations. It was a necessary break for the tiny space after years of wear and tear, said Birkholz.
But the finished and now reopened product won’t appear any different to customers who come back for their wood-fired bread and chicken liver mousse, their syringes and marinated olives, and of course their sausage and kale house pizzas.
In fact, “it looks the same,” said Birkholz about the refreshed original cart driver. “We like the atmosphere we’ve created here over the past 7 years and we didn’t want to change that.”
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