Benzina Is This Summer's Essential Pizza Destination in Denver
Destination-level dining in a former gas station.
Parts of Colfax Avenue have changed with the times, but the best parts not only haven’t—and with any luck, they never will. The history of Denver’s most infamous stretch of pavement is writ large in mid-century architecture, complete with gaudy neon signage, and entrepreneurs who respect it by bringing new life to old structures are guaranteed some goodwill from locals. That includes restaurateur Brad Anderson, owner of the newly opened Benzina—who also deserves credit for spending more than a decade turning his longtime dream of a humble neighborhood pizzeria into a destination-level reality with major culinary muscle behind it.
The concept for Benzina as it now stands “started with the building,” Anderson explains, back in 2017. “I lived about three blocks away and I drove by it every day, and I said ‘Man, that rundown Meineke muffler shop is cool, and somebody ought to do something to, one, save it from the bulldozer, and two, keep the architectural integrity that we have here.’” Constructed in 1963, it was originally a Phillips 66 gas station, so “it wasn’t rocket science,” Anderson admits: “With those great slanted windows and the huge canopy going out to the street, we said, ‘We’ve gotta play on that’” in designing Benzina—whose name, sure enough, is Italian for “gasoline.” The results are as retro-chic as could be, from the Nelson and PH5 pendant lamps overhead to the molded fiberglass chairs and the tiki bar that serves as a host stand to the JBL speaker covers and glossy Slim Aarons photos on the walls. Bocce courts and planters for growing herbs, lettuces, and edible flowers are being installed outside to complete the picture executed by design firm Semple Brown.
The fact that it took more than three years to get Benzina up and running should hardly come as a surprise, between the usual zoning and permitting obstacles and the anything-but-usual pandemic. But for Anderson, the project has actually been taking shape a lot longer: It was in the mid-aughts, when he and his wife were living part-time in New York City, that he first became fascinated with the Neapolitan-style pizzerias that were then popping up all over the boroughs. Traveling to Campania “to visit the tomato growers and the bufala mozzarella farms and the Caputo flour [mill],” he received his certification from the American delegation of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana even before the trend reached Denver (AVPN-certified Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza opened in 2008)—but then spent years working on a deal for a space that ultimately fell through.
All the delays may have been a blessing in disguise, however, when it came to attracting prodigious talent. Boulder native Brian Lockwood’s résumé includes stints at none other than The French Laundry, El Celler de Can Roca, The NoMad, and most recently Eleven Madison Park, where he served as chef de cuisine until the pandemic forced its temporary closure. When a New York acquaintance suggested that Anderson look him up last summer, “I Googled him and started laughing and said, ‘We’re just doing a little neighborhood pizza and sub shop and you’re sending me one of the top chefs in the country?’” But Lockwood, who had returned to his hometown after the shutdown, was interested.
Coming on board as consulting chef, Lockwood “is very cognizant of his great reputation, so he wanted to make sure that everything we did would have a good impression,” Anderson says. While he worked on expanding and elevating the contemporary Italian menu beyond pizza, Anderson managed to score more great hires in the form of Italian-born executive chef Daniele Bolognini and general manager Justin Dano, who had been working together at the highly acclaimed Acorn until its closure last September.
The only problem, now that they’re finally open, is “the same as everybody else is having,” says Anderson: staffing. As a result, the inaugural menu is much smaller than planned, with five pies from the imported Pavesi oven supplemented by just a handful of other items including salmon rillettes with lavash, citrus-brined spatchcock chicken, and chocolate-salted caramel tart. The current beverage list is likewise stripped down to six classic cocktails plus a few wines and beers. But rest assured that the full slate of antipasti, handmade pastas, and wines by the bottle is coming soon: Benzina is only just beginning to rev its engine.