The perfect pizza finalist in Denver, Cart-Driver, was devoted to the next subjects: The Know
Alan Youngerman (second from left) checks an order at the checkout while Robbie Spinelli (left), chef in training, looks on while General Manager Becky Taussig (second from right) and bar manager Courtney Hochwalt (right) label bottles at the cart driver Friday April 16. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)
There aren’t many other restaurants – let alone pizzerias – that capture nearly a decade in Denver as well as cart drivers.
Since 2014, the 640-square-meter shipping container in the River North Art District has served 90-second wood-fired pizzas, 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 has room for anyone, and if you squeeze past the pizza oven and just a few cubicles later you will find a place to eat in an open air courtyard.
When you go
The RiNo cart driver is located at Larimer Street 2500 (behind Work & Class), 303-292-3553, Tuesday to Thursday from 3pm to 9pm, Friday and Saturday from 12pm to 10pm and Sunday from 12pm to 9pm, Closed on Mondays. cart-driver.com/rino. The location in Highland is 2239 W. 30th Ave., 720-501-2264, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 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 vibe,” said co-owner Andrew Birkholz. “And I think it 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 store on Larimer Street and a larger second restaurant on 30th Avenue in Highland.
“We really want to be this place in the neighborhood, but we are not allowed to call ourselves that,” said Birkholz. “The neighborhood can (decide).”
It took Birkholz and his partners five years after the original’s debut to open Cart-Driver Highland. They renovated the former Z Cuisine room and took the time to find out the neighborhood and change the room and menu accordingly. While Cart-Driver RiNo is a lively young counter-service company, the Highland Restaurant is calm and more mature.
Chef Brian Wilson, fourth from left, speaks to staff on December 11th ahead of a Christmas party the night before Cart-Driver LoHi opens in Denver. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post)
Both manage to prepare quick pizzas and cocktails and at the same time encourage guests to linger.
“We want these slow-plate institutions to be in town,” 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 food from the farm to the table, Birkholz explained.
“These cart drivers would gather in the downtown piazza and be grocers,” he said. “And that still exists today.”
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The idea for the name and focus of the restaurant – fast but well-sourced food – came when Birkholz was working as a pizzaiolo at Basta in Boulder. He and the restaurant’s owner and cook, Kelly Whitaker, wanted an offshoot of the gourmet Italian eatery with an emphasis on Neapolitan pizza and just a few other free items.
(Whitaker’s restaurant group and Cart-Driver have since split, but the inspiration for Cart-Driver’s classic cakes can still be found on Basta’s menu.)
“Cart-Driver was Basta’s little sibling,” explained Birkholz, adding: “What Kelly is doing now really goes beyond the restaurant.”
While his founding chef opened up other concepts for Denver and Boulder 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 boss Alan Youngerman and Highland boss Brian Wilson are developing their pizzerias further. Favorites like the daisy (margherita, $ 14) and clam (pancetta, roasted garlic, cream, $ 20) will always be on the menu, while seasonal cakes like spring (snow peas, nduja, burrata, lemon, $ 18) only Stand on the menu as worthwhile.
And in the afternoon and late evening hours of the restaurants, industrial workers and locals come in for $ 6 daisy pies and mess up Negronis (gin, campari, vermouth, prosecco).
“I know there are $ 19-20 pizza on our menu, but you should be able to get a pizza and beer for under $ 10,” said Birkholz.
At the beginning of this month, Cart-Driver RiNo closed for renovation work. It was a necessary break for the tiny space after years of wear and tear, Birkholz said.
But the finished and now reopened product doesn’t seem to be any different from customers who come back for their wood bread and chicken liver mousse, spritzer and marinated olives, and of course their sausage and kale house pizzas.
In fact, “it looks the same,” Birkholz said of the updated original cart driver. “We like the mood we’ve created here over the past 7 years and we didn’t want to change that.”
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