Boulder, CO: Stellar Pies and More at Pizzeria Basta
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, CO 80303 (map); 303-997-8775; pizzeriabasta.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitanish, but with a sturdier crust
Oven Type: Wood-burning
The Skinny: The pizzas here are extremely well thought out and well executed
Price: Range from $10 (Marinara) to $16 (Daily Special)
Since opening its doors less than two years ago on December 31, 2009, Boulder's Pizzeria Basta has been the subject of glowing reports from local and national press, and has gotten special attention from pizza and bread guru Peter Reinhart, whose Pizza Quest has prominently featured Basta. Based on my visit, it's clear that all of the praise is deserved.
Chef/co-owner Kelly Whitaker spent a year in Naples developing his pizza-making skills and even brought home a fifty-year-old starter; the soul of each pizza that comes out of his wood-burning oven. But Whitaker's skills don't stop at pizza. Basta is the rare pizzeria where the rest of the menu is far more than an afterthought. Even with the variety, the menu is actually quite small. Basta means enough, and as Whitaker explains in this video, that principle, a small menu done well, is what his restaurant is all about.
There are just six pizzas on the menu at Basta at any given time; five hold down permanent spots and one special changes based on available ingredients. Local sourcing is a big deal at Basta, so much so that the restaurant has a small garden just out the back window. The small plot not only produces a substantial portion of the herbs and vegetables used at the restaurant, but it also brightens up the rather sterile and enormous condo complex that hosts this very out-of-the way pizzeria (GPS or a local guide are required to find the place).
The Daisy, Basta's version of a Margherita, comes topped with nothing more than sauce, mozzarella, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. Every component of this simple pie tasted fresh and sang with flavor. The mozzarella is hand-stretched in-house from local curd. The sauce, a fresh concoction of California tomatoes, added extra zip. Still, despite the quality of the ingredients flawless execution, this pizza would have bored me because, well, Margheritas almost always do. But thanks to the addition of Calabrian chiles, one of eight additional toppings available, this classic pie got a nice kick without overpowering a thing. This was about as balanced as a pizza gets.
I'm a fan of the concept of local food, but I'm a bigger fan of delicious food. And in certain parts of the country, limiting all sourcing to local products can get boring. Whitaker's passion for all things local cannot be questioned other than by the most self-righteous locavores. But the special on my visit starred some plump, sweet and salty PEI mussels. Joining those juicy nuggets from the sea were house-cured pancetta, smoked mozzarella, panna, and brussels sprouts.
I loved absolutely everything about the pizza, which was one of the most flavorful pies I've had in a while. The pancetta brought some welcome chewiness and more salt to the pizza. Any worries that the pancetta and mussels would bring too much sodium to the pie were easily brushed aside by two underutilized creamy toppings, panna and house-smoked mozzarella. Given all the flavor already on the pizza, I'm not sure the brussels sprouts added anything in terms of taste, but the shredded bits of vegetable did make the pie more colorful.
Nice spotting and magnificent hole structure are not guarantees of a top-notch crust, but in this case, looks were definitely not deceiving; the crust at Pizzeria Basta is outstanding. Whitaker adds organic 00 flour from Northern California to his half-century old Neapolitan starter to make bread that, while close to Neapolitan, has more flavor than the traditional VPN variety. In terms of texture, these crusts had a combination of crisp exterior and chewy interior that's tough to beat.
Yes, this is a pizza blog and yes, this is a review of a pizzeria. But the menu at Basta goes beyond pizza and the burrata, which occupies a near-permanent spot on the menu, is a must-order no matter what Whitaker adds to the plate. The accompaniments change with the seasons and in my case, the large hunk of fresh burrata from DiStefano was accompanied by juicy chunks of pork belly and melted leeks along with a mess of olive oil and some crusty wood-fired bread.
When I first started traveling to Denver on a semi-annual basis a few years ago, artisanal pizza was nowhere to be found. And while I liked Beau Jo's (reviewed here) just fine, it wasn't the kind of place that inspires repeat visits. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, there's been a relative flurry of openings that have raised the bar in both Denver and nearby Boulder. And while I still have a couple new Colorado spots to hit when I'm back there in the spring, I can already feel Basta calling me back.
About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today. When he's not focusing on expanding his waistline, he works as a lawyer on behalf of employees and tenants.