A First Look at Pizzeria Locale in Waldo
What happens when Chipotle merges with artisanal pizza restaurateurs and test drives a fast-casual concept in KC? A crazy hybrid that leaves one happily fed but a little confused about the concept.
The first mistake I made was to study Pizzeria Locale’s Boulder, Colorado, menu in anticipation of a Neapolitan feast at the restaurant’s new KC location. I was salivating over the menu’s sophisticated grilled octopus and frutti di mare salads, risotto-saffron-mozarella arancini, full wine list and gourmet pizzas such as a red sauce pie with mussel-fennel-garlic-nduja-chili-breadcrumb or a bianche pie of taleggio, mozzarella, oyster mushroom, scallion, garlic. (And this is the more casual concept from restaurateurs Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey, whose sister restaurant, Frasca Food and Wine, also in Boulder, focuses on the rustic-elegant cuisine of the sub-Alpine region of Fruili-Venezia Giulia, Italy. There they offer fancy five-course tasting menus of things like Spaghetti Nero with peekytoe crab, Tuscan chicken liver mousse with smoked cherry and hazelnut, and pappardelle with lamb ragu, ceci beans and Parmigiano-Reggiano.)
However, none of those options are available at KC’s Pizzeria Locale, which is, in turn, a fast-casual spin-off of their sit-down version of Pizzeria Locale in Boulder and was created in partnership with Chipotle. Yes, that’s right. Move over, Spin! Chipotle has partnered up with this pair of fine restaurateurs, and is hoping to do to pizza what they did to assembly-made burrito bowls. (Will Hillary Clinton be dropping by on her next campaign trail?) Kansas City is the first city in which the Chipotle team is testing this new concept outside of their home state of Colorado, just as the first Chipotle Mexican Grill export was also based in KC. And we know how well that concept performed.
The result of this unlikely culinary marriage is a strange hybrid of high-flying aspirational chefs with a taste for Neapolitan artisanal pizza and Chipotle’s love affair with the quick, functional, assembly-line food that is both healthy and delivered at an acceptable price point. The menu at the KC Pizzeria Locale is therefore extremely simple, streamlined and spare. This is actually in character with the often two-option menus and no-frills communal tables at some of Naples, Italy’s, most famous pizza temples. It is also in line with the Chipotle formula.
There are 10 specialty pizzas on the current Pizzeria Local menu, as well as the option to create your own red or white pies based on fresh toppings that range from artichokes and arugula to eggplant and meatballs. Four simple salads, a side of mini pork meatballs in marinara sauce, and prosciutto crudo sliced to order and served with garlic focaccia bread round out the entire menu. There are just two wines on offer: locale rosso and locale bianco served in stemless glasses for $5 apiece. (Don’t worry; co- founder Stuckey is a master sommelier and owner of Scarpetta Wines, so his swill is decent.) Should you want dessert — and you do — the only sweet is a mini butterscotch budino (Italian for pudding) in a tiny plastic (really?) container layered with whipped cream, a thin ganache of chocolate and caramel, and just a sprinkling of sea salt. The message is loud and clear: Eat well and cheaply; don’t dither because your menu choices are few; move through the line quickly and don’t get too comfortable in your rather uncomfortable counter seating at the bar or window that is neither conducive to conversation nor easy meal sharing. (If you are incredibly lucky, you may score one of about only four indoor tables accommodating four to six.) Even then, the lines of patrons forming out the doors and leering uncomfortably over your table as you consume your pizzas will discourage leisurely, grown-up dining.
The restaurant’s long but diminutive space is best defined as a shoebox — though a handsome black-and-white shoebox of industrial lighting and concrete floors with gorgeous white marble counters. Glossy large-format color photos of Italian street life adorn the white subway-tile walls. Pizzeria Locale is located in the former Pizza Manifesto space, just across from Summit Grill & Bar and, not coincidentally, next door to a Chipotle Mexican Grill. The area has a laid-back neighborhood vibe, and when we visited early evening on the second day of business, the patrons consisted almost entirely of either young families with kiddies in tow or smartphone-toting hipsters on the prowl.
The line invariably will snake out the storefront on any given day because there are only 32 seats in the entire restaurant. An additional 18 seats are found on a tiny back patio overlooking an un-scenic parking lot. I don’t know if the small space and lack of seating is a master plan to generate restaurant buzz or a financial decision to not risk too much with this new restaurant concept. Either way, be prepared to wait in line to order your pizza and then hover aggressively to find seating. It’s a tad stressful. At the same time, the restaurant did not particularly seem to be promoting carryout (though available) so the dining prospects are kind of dicey.
Servers compose your pizza on the spot at the marble bar counter as you file though the line. They flatten out the hand-stretched pizza dough into a little circle, spoon on the soupçon of tomato sauce required in a spiral pattern (if you order a red pizza) and sprinkle on a light dusting of toppings of your choice. The pizza is then placed on a wooden paddle in a newfangled, custom-made, gas-and-infrared-powered, 1,000-degree circular oven that cures and then rotates and cooks the pizzas in a mere two minutes. The speed is astonishing. Your pizza is ready before you have cleared the cash register. You must schlep all your food and drink to your seats yourself, which is a tad awkward when you order up as we did, but occasionally a helpful employee will pitch in. You are expected to bus your own table when you are finished.
Now, about the food. The pizzas were quite delicious if you like a soft, chewy crust with little char or crackle and a meltingly soupy, liquid center that almost caves as you pick up a slice. Il Lazzarone this is not. All five pizza versions that we tried were satisfactory with the standard-bearer Margherita being particularly crave-worthy. How can a bit of tomato sauce, mozzarella, dough and basil be this delectable? The 10-inch pizzas can serve about two people, but I could see one consuming the whole Margherita easily all by oneself. And if you feel a bit daring, perhaps the most adventurously gourmet pie on the menu is the Mais. It was divine. Consisting of mozzarella, creme fraiche, pink slivers of proscuitto ham, corn and more than a trace of garlic oil, this white pizza was rich, sweet, luscious and just a tad decadent. The Diavola was not as spicy as expected given its pepperoni and chili flakes, but the Bianca pizza of sausage, broccolini, garlic, mozzarella and chili flakes came packed with plenty of heat. It would have been preferable if the sausage was arrayed in more meaty, organic crumbles than what looked like an industrialized, uniform small-dice but that is a minor quibble. All of Locale’s pizza dough consists of little more than a special red winter wheat flour, water and salt —with gluten-free pizzas also available.
The leafy green salad with fresh tuna was eminently passable as was the caponata salad (also lettuce-based) with zesty, small-dice grilled eggplant, zucchini and red pepper. But really, it would be pazzo to come here and not partake of the pizza. Don’t count on the side of mini pork meatballs for your indulgence. Not only were they bland but also less than lukewarm and, as I watched the baby at the table next to me fingering them, I couldn’t help comparing them to the meatballs found in a can of SpaghettiOs. You can order a soda, but why not try the mild and tasty house red, a San Pellegrino soda to feel positively Euro, or a local craft beer to advertise your KC allegiances? By all means, spare the $1.50 for the budino. With pizzas priced within the $5 to $7 range (only the supreme with all the fixings coming in at $8), you can afford the mini splurge.
I would long to settle into a cozy booth at Pizzeria Locale with glossy Italian street photography overhead, a carafe of affordable middling-priced house vino, a few pies, a budino NOT served in plastic and minus the leering lines of people hovering over my Margherita and waiting for my coveted booth, but I suspect this restaurant is not geared to my middling age demographic. However, every now and then, I think my intense craving for this kind of wet, lush Neapolitan street pizza will force me there for a quick bite of the Margherita or Maiz pie while perched on an uncomfortable barstool with a treacherously narrow counter-ledge. And it will be so worth it.
Pizzeria Locale, 505 W. 75th St., open 11 a.m.to 10 p.m. daily, pizzerialocale.com. Future locations of the restaurant are planned for Corbin Park and perhaps another Johnson County location.