Walking up to Benzina, you probably wouldn’t assume that it used to be a gas station — other than the fact that “benzina” means gasoline in Italian. The modern-yet-funky restaurant brings a new vibe to the South Park Hill neighborhood with mid-century decor, funky music, ‘60s art, bocce ball courts and Neapolitan-style pizza.
Brad Anderson — Benzina’s owner — has been a partner in many Denver restaurants including the Rocky Mountain Diner, Rick’s Cafe, Castle Cafe, Chopper’s Sports Grill and The Next Door Bar. Benzina, however, is his first solo endeavor and his dream concept. “I’m an older father, I want this to be a living dream because I won’t be around forever,” said Anderson, “My kids will only have me in their lives for 30 years or so. I want to show them what you can do if you have a dream, work hard and put your mind to it.”
The idea for Benzina had been forming in Anderson’s mind for years prior to its execution. In 2004, his wife’s job transferred her to New York City so Anderson spent a lot of time there. “We would go to all the famous New York City pizza places like Joe’s, Grimaldi’s and Patsy’s,” Anderson said, “We thought that the pizza was 10 times better than anything we could get in Denver.” And then they were introduced to Neapolitan-style pizza. The introduction of this pizza style intrigued Anderson even more, “We thought that these Neapolitan-style pizza places were even better than the New York-style pizza places.”
Anderson ate at dozens of pizza restaurants across New York and even visited several in Italy, but his main inspiration comes from Brooklyn’s Roberta’s. Anthony Falco — former chef at Roberta’s — introduced Anderson to the pizza he has grown to love. “He’s the one who said that it’s more fun to eat food with your hands than a fork and knife, and I agree,” said Anderson. So, unlike traditional Neapolitan pizza, Benzina’s pizza will come sliced — which means the dough has to be a bit sturdier too. The dough is made from a four grain blend that has the perfect texture of crispy yet doughy and is just thin enough to allow you to hold it without falling apart.
Benzina’s kitchen is helmed by executive chef Daniele Bolognini with help from consulting chef Brian Lockwood. Chef Bolognini was born and raised in Italy and previously cooked in Aspen before working as executive chef at Acorn until it closed last year. Lockwood is a Boulder native and has experience working at Michelin starred restaurants including Gary Danko and The French Laundry in California and The NoMad and Eleven Madison Park in New York. During the pandemic he moved back to Boulder with his family and began consulting with Anderson last fall — when Benzina was originally slated to open. “We’ve created about three menus since I first started,” joked Lockwood, “It’s seasonal, so now we’re on our spring version.”
The menu is simple and highlights the smoky flavors that come from the wood-fired Acunto pizza oven and coal-fired oven. It consists of three salads, five appetizers, three housemade pasta dishes, seven pizzas, four entrees and two desserts. The tortelli ($21) — a stuffed pasta — is the perfect springtime appetizer or light entree and includes English pea, smoked trout and horseradish. Any pizza on the menu is sure to please, from the clam ($19), mushroom ($17), spicy sopressata ($18) and more. The entrees are all cooked in the coal-fired oven and are great to share or to enjoy on your own. The spatchcock chicken ($28 for a half or $49 for a whole) is a dish Anderson and Lockwood have been perfecting for months and are really excited to finally serve. “When I first spoke with Brian I told him I wanted to do a spatchcock chicken like he did at The NoMad and he said we’d kill it. I think we did,” said Anderson.
Now that warm days are becoming the norm in Denver, Benzina will have outdoor patio seating, bocce ball and a garden with herbs and vegetables. If you do sit inside though, you’ll get to watch the chefs in the open kitchen, enjoy the retro art from Slim Aarons and listen to the ‘70s funk music coming from the speakers. “We want to encompass that funky vibe, we hope it’s’ something that Denver hasn’t seen yet,” said Anderson.
Next time you’re looking for a great patio, delicious food and a cool vibe, head over to Benzina. You’ll notice pretty quickly that it’s something special.
Benzina is located at 4839 E Colfax Ave, Denver. Open Wednesday – Thursday and Sunday 5 – 10 p.m. and Friday – Saturday 5 – 11 p.m.
All photography by Marla Keown.