Pizzeria Rustica, Colorado Springs, CO — A study in perfection

Owner Dave Brackett, Pizzeria Rustica, Colorado Springs

Some people were born into pizza making; others hone the craft through blood, sweat and tears. For retired Air Force Colonel Dave Brackett, opening a pizzeria offered a creative outlet for the lifelong amateur chef and a source of income after his 31-year military career ended. He modeled Pizzeria Rustica after the Old World trattorias he visited on tours of Europe, and today, the Colorado Springs-based restaurant is a study in successful independent operations. Brackett has infused two modern ideologies into Pizzeria Rustica, however: the restaurant is certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) as well as the Green Restaurant Association. As a result, it is garnering attention on a national level for both its Neapolitan pizza and its environmental initiatives.

After Brackett retired from the Air Force in 2006, he made his way back to Colorado Springs, where he had completed two assignments and still owned real estate. Noting a lack of quality pizza in the area, he took matters into his own hands and opened Pizzeria Rustica in 2008.

“We decided after finding no good wood-fired pizza in a town of half a million people that we needed to create it,” Brackett says, so he studied Neapolitan pizza at a school in California and perfected the art of making mozzarella cheese and Neapolitan dough. He then had to adapt that to Colorado’s high altitude. “The (classic) dough recipe for Neapolitan pizza for California is sea level, Naples is sea level, New York is sea level –– it’s a totally different thing when you go up to 6,000-plus feet.”

Instrumental to Pizzeria Rustica’s brand is a proprietary flour blend that allows its pizza to be baked at high altitudes in a wood-fired oven. The custom-built oven is fueled by pecan wood and burns at 875 degrees. “Everybody says that it’s the closest to Italian pizza that they’ve had in the US,” Brackett says. As a result, Pizzeria Rustica has become so popular that the restaurant nearly seats by reservation only. There is no delivery, and only five percent of sales stems from carryout. After all, this type of pizza is best right out of the oven. “We explain to people that our pizza doesn’t travel well,” Brackett says.

They make 200 to 220 dough balls daily, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. “We’ve got a really small kitchen –– it’s 12 by 12 (and) smaller than most home kitchens –– but we do 350 covers a day out of there in the summertime,” Brackett says. He intentionally sought out a small space for the restaurant because Colorado Springs is a seasonal town and in the colder months, the restaurant is usually only full on the weekends. They have a patio that more than doubles their seating during warmer months.

When it comes to the menu, less is more. They have no fossil-fuel appliances, so that means no fryers or gas ovens –– just the wood oven, an induction burner to heat water, cooling equipment and a slicer. That streamlines their menu to antipasti and salads, pizza and desserts, but much is made by hand and Pizzeria

Rustica sources many of its seasonal ingredients from local farms and food organizations.

The signature pizza is the Rustica, topped with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, handmade mozzarella, Grana Padano, Parmesan, prosciutto di parma and fresh arugula. “We also stuff one corner of the pizza with garlic-spiked ricotta cheese so you get the saltiness of the prosciutto, the bitterness of the arugula and you get the sweetness of the ricotta,” Brackett says.

Other ingredients include soppressata and fennel salami, wood-roasted garlic and zucchini, house-made basil pesto and white Italian anchovies. Brackett says food costs sit at 27 to 28 percent. “We obviously have higher food costs than a lot of other people in this industry because we’re using ingredients like high-quality imported San Marzano tomatoes and Caputo flour. We use the highest- quality imported salamis, 20-month aged prosciutto di parma … plus the farmers’ ingredients are more costly,” he says.

While Brackett admits fresh and handcrafted ingredients increase labor costs as well, he reduces operating hours during the off months and closes completely on Mondays and Tuesdays in the winter. “You kind of habituate your customers to those hours and what happens is you get a nice big pop (in sales) on Wednesdays after being closed for two days,” Brackett says. The restaurant employs about 20 in the off-season and up to 35 during the summer, many of them local culinary arts and college students. He says employee turnover surprised him during his fledgling years, but Pizzeria Rustica now utilizes a three-tier interview process to find the best employees. A manager initially meets the applicant, and then he or she undergoes a peer-to- peer interview with a current employee. “That’s as much about having the candidate find out what the job’s really like from someone who’s doing it and learn what they like and what they don’t like as it is to see if they’re going to be able to hack it,” Brackett says. Finally, he or a second manager interviews the potential employee. “We don’t hire off of Craigslist. We don’t hire off the street. We work almost 100 percent on referrals,” he says.

Brackett also owns and operates a tapas restaurant that is just a few blocks away. Having two restaurants in close proximity allows them to share products and labor if needed. “We have a couple of people who work at both restaurants, so they’re cross-trained,” Brackett says.

Aside from the emphasis on handcrafted, organic and locally sourced foods, Pizzeria Rustica has also been praised for its green initiatives. But the restaurant doesn’t just pay lip service to environmental sustainability by simply recycling or avoiding Styrofoam –– it has earned a three-star Green Restaurant Association certification for its efforts, which include sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (like wind, solar and geothermal), composting 90 percent of the restaurant’s waste and biodegradables and reducing water consumption. They even use tablecloths from a sustainable linen company and green-certified cleaning products. A bonus? Reduced energy costs.

“We use about the same amount of energy per month as a three-bedroom, two-bath house,” Brackett says. “Right now, our full energy bill for gas, electric and everything runs about $300 a month.”

During certification, Brackett says documentation was the most difficult part –– and it’s all done electronically to reduce paper waste. Certification from the Green Restaurant Association requires a minimum of 100 points but Pizzeria Rustica earned 224 points. “Once you’re certified, you just keep doing what you’re doing,” Brackett adds. They can also use the certification logo in their advertising and on their menu.

Although they have a limited output at the pizzeria, they have a mobile pizza trailer that can travel to off- site events like wedding rehearsals, festivals and office parties. That is an added component to the business, but Brackett isn’t interested in growing to a multi-unit franchise. “We’re not going to franchise for sure,” he says, “We may add another unit under a licensing agreement, but not anytime soon.”

After all, Pizzeria Rustica is a study in doing things right –– not simply.

Mandy Detwiler is managing editor of Pizza Today.