Roberto Calcagno says his yet-to-open restaurant, Basil & Barley Pizzeria Napoletana, is all about authenticity. Tentatively set for an August launch in the Briargate neighborhood (9278 Forest Bluffs View), the eatery will feature the pizzas, salads, desserts and drinks you might find while wandering the streets of Naples. Authenticity is so important, in fact, that even Calcagno himself is Italian. The 38-year-old has been in the U.S. only since February, and moved to Colorado Springs with the sole intention of realizing the American Dream.
Calcagno spoke this week with the Business Journal about his passion for food — and all things American.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Italy — a town near Genoa in northwestern Italy, on the coast. I moved to Manchester, England, five years ago. I opened my first restaurant in Manchester and basically decided I wanted to leave, so I moved here in February.
Talk about your restaurant in Manchester.
It was called Verace, which means ‘authentic.’ It was more like a daytime restaurant. We had pizza, obviously, and paninis, pasta. It was a coffee shop as well. Something very informal with quicker service.
Here will be more like fine dining with Neapolitan pizza. Everything is basically based on authenticity, from the ingredients to me, the chef! Everything comes from Italy. You’re getting the real deal.
Did you work in restaurants before opening your own?
In Italy I was mostly a pizza chef. I didn’t own [any restaurants]. Owning a restaurant was just a passion but I couldn’t get the loan to do it. I decided to close my time with Italy because of the government and everything was running downhill. Even now it’s still downhill. … I wanted to have my own [business] and started in England with a place that wasn’t massive — 50 seats — but a nice starting point. Here, I have 120 seats with a totally different atmosphere.
Was funding an issue here?
In England, everything is quite a bit cheaper. Opening a restaurant isn’t like here, a half-a-million dollars or more. In England it was like $100,000 — much cheaper.
I don’t know honestly. It is just how England is. I spent there one-tenth what I’m spending here. Here, I had savings and family help and the money from selling that business. That’s how I had the funds to open this place.
I didn’t have any. I like to be very open to learning from everyone — from everything I see. I just assimilate. You have to adjust obviously to a new country, new laws.
And you moved here directly from England?
Yes. I traveled all around the state with my wife. There’s just a feeling here, we basically love it. We’ve been nearly everywhere [in the U.S.]. All along the East Coast and the West Coast. If Colorado didn’t exist, we’d probably be in the [Pacific] Northwest — Oregon or Washington. But this is better. Especially the weather. … In England, there’s no summer. Just rain.
Why did you go to England first?
Basically it was free to enter because of the European Union. I wanted to move away from Italy and needed experience to apply [for a visa] here. At first I thought England was kind of like American culture. But after more than 200 years, the cultures have separated. After living there, I know [the two countries are] much different. … I never felt at home in England.
How difficult was it as an immigrant to start a business?
There is a type of visa called E2 [treaty investor visa] that allows immigrants from a short list of countries (fortunately Italy is one of them) to invest and open a business in the United States. You basically have to put capital at risk — spend a lot of money — before physically having my visa and approval to work here. … Then I applied for the visa. … My lawyer in London is an American. She told me sometimes people try to come here and open a business with $20,000. You can’t.
You also have to create as many American jobs as possible. I knew that. I wanted that. I will have at least 15 staff here to start, and they’ll all be American. I’m going to host two hiring events. Aug. 2 for front of house and Aug. 3 for back of house. I need every position.
What’s the Italian climate like for a small business owner?
There’s a lot of government corruption and tax pressure. Tax enforcement is incredibly different. In Italy, they basically accuse you of things to get money.
What does Italy’s employment landscape look like for young professionals?
A lot of those in their 20s move to England hoping to get a job just because they’re in England. Unemployment in Italy for [15- to 24-year-olds] is more than [50 percent].
The feeling is very bad.
Did you consider other locations in the state?
I started looking in Denver. Honestly, I didn’t get a nice, proper feeling from Denver to open my type of place. I know in Boulder there’s a famous pizzeria. I didn’t want the competition. I also like the smaller community. Colorado Springs is not small but it has a small-town feeling. I just like it. And I don’t have anyone who will do a similar product to mine. That’s one reason I chose Briargate and the Springs.
Talk about your business model.
The menu will have Italian starters — antipastos. … We will have traditional pizza and signature pizza. We will have approximately 10 of each. Traditional will be Neapolitan dough — a thin center and thick crust. I say my ingredients — there are not just four: flour, water, salt and yeast. We have six. I put air inside, which is an ingredient. It’s essential to Neapolitan pizza. The sixth is passion.
Toppings will be traditional Italian. …
Signature pizzas are where I’ll push myself. This is where I think I’ll be different from the whole United States — doing alternative dough. The base is still Neapolitan but I’m going to integrate four different doughs and maybe expand in the future. One is a whole grain barley dough. The second is germinated buckwheat. It’s very interesting. And because we’re in Colorado, we will do a hemp dough. We’ll also have gluten-free dough available for every pizza. We differentiate from others because I’m doing the gluten-free dough by myself. Everyone buys frozen gluten-free dough because it’s easier. … I want to make it different. There won’t be any chemical to take the gluten out. The flour at the source doesn’t contain gluten. That will be unique.
The oven is also very important. It is wood-burning and completely handmade in Naples. There are two companies that make ovens in Naples and they build ovens with all the traditions. The company that made my oven, Acunto, has been around 125 years. Every brick inside is handmade. It’s a piece of art. The type of bricks and base give a particular flavor to the pizza and is able to keep the temperature at 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Pizzas cook in 50 to 60 seconds each. We can cook four pizzas at the same time. The pizza maker must be very skilled to cook four pizzas in 50 seconds.
Do you plan on sourcing from any local businesses?
For beer, we’ve created a deal with a very small brewery south of Peterson [Air Force Base] — Dueces Wild Brewery. They’re very small and amazing. I’ll have 10 taps and seven will be Dueces. Three will rotate. We’ll also have two taps for house wines.
Why move here to open a business?
I’ve loved the U.S. since before I was a teenager. The first time I was here I was 20-something on holiday and fell in love with the American culture in general. It’s incredibly different — from Florida to Washington state. I like the people as well. They’re very patriotic, especially Colorado Springs with the military.
Any plans to become a citizen?
I would love to! Unfortunately this visa won’t allow me to, but there are other ways, so maybe in the future. My first American stamp in my visa — I was so happy. I posted it on Facebook. It was one of the best moments of my life. It was just a working visa, not a green card or citizenship. It just allows me to live in the country I love.
When are you opening?
I’m planning for mid-to-late August. I didn’t put a date in stone because I want to finish the fit out, but I’m planning for the last Friday in August. I’m planning a couple of soft openings — friends and family and then more business-related. Then we’ll have a grand opening, a party. Not traditional service, but a buffet and drinks and a live band playing — a proper party.
Any final thoughts?
So far, nearly everyone I’ve met thought I was a franchise. I’m not. I just put in every effort I can to look even bigger. I’m just starting, but if you think bigger, you can grow bigger. That’s what I think. n CSBJ