Contemporary Italian fare in casual restaurant from the Smashburger folks
I applaud Tom Ryan, creator of the Smashburger, which became a smash hit as soon as it burst onto the fast casual restaurant scene in 2007. He recognized that something was missing between high-priced boutique burgers and cheap fast food burgers, and slotted Smashburger into the gap. Times were good. Venture capital to the tune of $15 million came from Consumer Capital, allowing Smashburger to expand to something on the order of 100 locations in about two dozen states.
But that’s not why I applaud Ryan. I applaud him for having the courage to launch Tossa, an affordable artisanal pizzeria, in this nervous economy. More to the point, he chose to launch it in Boulder, which is up to its earmuffs in upscale, boutique pizzerias.
“Tossa is more than a pizza place,” says Ryan, whose background is heavy with national restaurant chains. “It serves great food at great prices.” He knows all about value, but Tossa rises above most chains in terms of more food sophistication and ambiance. The decor is clean-lined and cheery, and the interesting format is to combine fast casual service (order at the counter, have the food brought to the table) at lunch and full table service at dinner. Smart!
Chef Andrew Selvaggio (with an E and no relation to the local Salvaggio Italian deli group)developed the menu and created the dishes. He has Italian food in his gene pool. His grandfather immigrated from Italy, began working for an Italian bakery in Chicago, married the baker’s daughter and moved the family to the small town of McHenry where he opened a restaurant.
Son Andrew grew up in the business and lists on his impressive resumé such poles-apart places as Chicago’s famous Pump Room and McDonald’s, where he was charged with creating a more adult menu. IMHO, Selveggio’s talents were wasted at Mickey D’s, which I view as hopeless. But then again, when he was in that position, the New York Times Magazine’s “Big Cook” column profiled him, so who am I to sneer?
It seems that Selvaggio’s talents are well suited to wildly successful Smashburger and now Tossa. In both (especially at Tossa), he is able to take a common fast food (burgers, pizza) and kick it up a notch in the general direction of more upmarket restaurants while keeping prices in line. He likes to enhance common ingredients with something additional — often marinating — to elevate them taste-wise.
Here are some dishes my husband and I and several friends sampled. (Note to self: Next time, try a pasta dish. They looked good too.) It opened today, and I got a chance to sample some of the menu items — and here are some that we tried:
Also worth noting: An elegant dispenser for three custom non-alcoholic drinks, in addition to conventional soft drinks and a small wine and beer list. The menu offers suggested pairings for each dish. I initially thought about the Ca Donini Montepulciano, but Ryan himself suggested Rapitala Nero d’Avola, which was an excellent recommendation. The small menu children’s lists just three selections, but these are ultra-affordable at $4.50 each, including cooked broccoli or veggie sticks; 2% milk, lemonade or a soda, and a sweat treat. Bottled beers are $3.
It’s not a chain yet, but chances are very, very good that it will become one. The folks behind Tossa are such clever promoters that they even had seven “likes” on urbanspoon.com before the doors even opened. If there’s anything that Tossa is missing (at least at this time of year) is a stated commitment to buying local ingredients when possible. It is understandable given the self-imposed mandate to combine contemporary Italian food, efficient service and extremely moderate prices. If that bothers you, don’t order the cookies, which are brought up from Phoenix, where Selvaggio worked in the early ’80s and won most of his culinary honors, including the city’s Best Chef honors on a couple of lists.
Price check (prices the same at lunch and dinner unless indicated otherwise): Small plates, $2-$7.; salads, $3.50-$7; pizzas, $6-$9 (small), $11-$17 (large); pasta $5.-$7 at lunch and $7-$10 at dinner; grilled panini, $7 (including a small salad).