Slow Food Gets Fast
With Pizzeria Locale Denver, the five-star team behind Frasca Food and Wine nails the fast-casual genre.
Online chat rooms can be vicious places. And when the team behind Boulder’s nationally celebrated Frasca Food and Wine and Pizzeria Locale opened a pizza spot by the same name in Denver, anonymous posters were especially catty. Denver’s fast-casual expression of the wildly popular, full-service pizzeria in Boulder was criticized for slicing its pizzas. (In Naples, and at the Boulder location, they are served unsliced to be eaten with a knife and a fork.) Disgruntled customers complained that the pies are one inch smaller, forgetting that they are also significantly cheaper. Experts debated whether one or two, certainly not 10, more seconds in a blistering oven would give the Denver pizzas precisely the same crust char they were accustomed to in Boulder. Online comments bemoaned the fact that there are only two tap wines (a crisp Pinot Grigio and an earthy Barbera d’Asti) instead of the Boulder location’s James Beard Award–winning leather binder of wines, spritzers, and digestifs. Stripped of servers, a hostess stand, and more complicated salads like the frutti di mare, team Frasca was accused of taking a concept that worked so well in Boulder (a location that was named one of Bon Appétit’s top 50 best new restaurants in 2012) and “dumbing it down” for Denver. “You think we Denverites who aren’t breathing the rarified Boulder air are incapable of discerning a good pizza from Domino’s,” one Westword reader barked.
In many ways, the direct comparisons between the Boulder and Denver locations of Pizzeria Locale were understandable. No matter how forthright the crew was about its fast-casual intentions, co-owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson didn’t do themselves any favors by using the same name for two different pizza concepts. But in the end, it’s the consumer-critics who sounded out of touch.
The management team was clear from the outset that the 3,000-square-foot Denver location was a different business model. “Pizzeria Locale Denver is [our] interpretation of fast casual,” says co-owner and master sommelier Stuckey, who worked on the Denver business plan for an impressive 18 months. The team’s laudable goal, in a world where eating at McDonald’s is cheaper than shopping in the produce aisle, was to bring quality ingredients to the masses at an affordable price. “We’ve got a huge problem in the United States,” Stuckey says. “Sometimes it seems like the only people who can eat good food are wealthy people.” Pizzeria Locale is a noble attempt to debunk that dining axiom. (Even the wine is cheap—a tumbler costs less than certain Starbucks drinks.)
Regardless of this explanation, Frasca’s owners are hardly the first white-tablecloth team to try their hand at the fast-casual genre. Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian-born celebrity chef most known for Los Angeles icon Spago, has been selling his Chinois Chicken Salad out of airport kiosks since 1991. Tom Colicchio, judge of Bravo’s Top Chef and five-time Beard-winning chef, entered the fast-casual arena in 2003 with the opening of ’Wichcraft, a sandwich stand that has grown to 17 locations. In New York City, the Bromberg brothers of Blue Ribbon fame just opened their take on over-the-counter fried chicken in August. It was only a matter of time before Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson, surely the most decorated duo between the Hudson River and the Sunset Strip, gave us their expression of quick-serve meals. Even so, you would expect Denver diners to recognize the value of a good fast-casual offering. This is a town that has given birth to Quiznos, Noodles & Company, Qdoba, Smashburger, Garbanzo, and Chipotle—perhaps the most responsibly successful fast-casual chain in the world.