Pizza moving front and center at Shawn Cirkiel's Backspace
You'd never see the Backspace if you weren't looking for it. The old buildings of East Sixth Street harbor side doors and back alley portals almost invisible in the glare of the bars and restaurants that front the party district's main parade route.
One of those buildings shelters Shawn Cirkiel's urban bistro and oyster bar called Parkside (review, page 5). Behind it, a space that only recently was a dusty construction zone will churn out Neapolitan-style pizzas from a $12,000 Italian oven. That space is called, with no uncertain linearity, the Backspace.
'It's been a loan shop, a gallery, other things,' Cirkiel said of the business notched into the building his family owns. 'We had all these really fun Italian names, but at the end of the day, we were just kind of like, "Hey, it's just the back space behind Parkside, and that's what it's going to be."'
So the name is simple. Exactly when you'll be able to get a pizza there is more … complicated.
'The joke is that even if there's a thousand people banging on the doors saying, "We want pizza," if we're not happy with it, we're not going to sell it,' Cirkiel said. Factoring in time for training, perfecting the dough and seasoning the oven - nevermind the whims of the restaurant-opening gods - the word from Cirkiel's camp is they hope to open in the next few weeks.
'We all want pizza so bad that we can taste it. That's how close we're getting.'
The question turns to what part of Cirkiel's training made him gravitate toward pizza, this graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and chef of the late and lamented Jean-Luc's Bistro.
'Growing up as a kid back and forth between here and New York, I've been eating and making pizza my whole life,' he said. 'The classic New York pizza. Then like anything, you start to get more interested in something, and you cook it at home and you do it consistently and we make it for family meal here (at Parkside). It becomes part of your routine. When you travel, you go get Neapolitan pizza, because there's not that kind in Austin.'
A lifetime of cooking
It's been a year of progress and perdition for Cirkiel. The Backspace project, building a balcony at Parkside, landing on Esquire's 'Where Men Eat' list. And the hot dog thing.
In the summer, issues with a vendor called the Best Wurst on the sidewalk in front of Parkside boiled into a very public permit-renewal fight. Cirkiel wanted the cart to move; the cart's owner wanted to keep the corner. The uproar died down after the Best Wurst agreed to move 40 feet east, but not before a Facebook group formed around it. People called Cirkiel a bully, a brat and worse. 'I've learned a lot about people and a lot about Austin,' he said. 'It was a very good learning experience.'
Cirkiel's been close to cooking for all of his 35 years, even from his birth in Kansas City, where his parents had a vegetarian restaurant. When the family moved to his mother's hometown of Austin, they lived on a farm off Springdale Road, where they had cows and chickens and made their own butter.
'We had a foreign exchange group come when I was a kid, and they were all from Thailand, and they brought all their spices,' he said. 'The two adults that were with them cooked all their meals. And so I spent all the time cooking with the adults as opposed to hanging out with the kids.'
Cirkiel's Austin connections run deep. His great-grandfather's liquor store stood on South Congress Avenue where Botticelli's is now, and he's worked in restaurants here ranging from Austin's Pizza to Hyde Park Bar & Grill.
Food brought him together with his wife, Bria Cirkiel, to whom he's been married eight years. They met at a friend's house during a dinner party. He was doing the cooking. 'She grew up in West Texas, and she didn't eat any vegetables as a kid. None. Bread, meat and potatoes and pasta and that was it,' Cirkiel said. 'And she had, I think, it was carrot soup. And so that was kind of the 'in,' was that she had vegetables and she liked it. Her mom used to always say that was how she knew it was meant to be.'
The couple has two kids, ages 3 and 6. The 3-year-old is about the same age as Parkside; the two even shared a due date at one point.
Bringing the heat
The Backspace has some stylistic resonance with Parkside, linked by a fondness for exposed bricks and the design touches of Michael Hsu and Kasey McCarty. Austere iron-styled lamps hang from a 16-foot-tall pressed-tin ceiling, and windows across the back hold panes of stained glass in watercolor swooshes of green, blue and gold, with Jupiterian red spots.
With its long front bar and seating for only 30 people, the Backspace looks like a cross between a saloon and an ice cream shop, dominated by a pillar of oversized, desert-colored bricks around the Cirigliano Forni wood-fired oven from Naples, the opening impossibly small for the big things expected from it.
'Neapolitan pizza is premised on the fact of a high-moisture dough, and high-wet dough needs a really high oven to cook out the moisture,' Cirkiel said. 'A Naples pizza oven has a low dome, and so the heat stays really close to the bottom so that it gets really hot.'
How hot? Try 900 degrees. Hot enough to melt the pot-metal trim on a classic car. Hot enough to cook a pizza with a char-speckled crust both thin and chewy in 90 seconds. (Cue Homer Simpson: 'Ninety seconds? But I want it now!')
Parksiders will oversee the Backspace, a team led by Cirkiel and Parkside chef de cuisine Justin Rupp, with Trevor Chapman and general manager Harlan Scott.
Cirkiel said the menu will carry a streamlined menu of pies, each about 11 inches in diameter for about $10, plus 10 kinds of antipasti with meats and cheeses cut with a vintage Berkel slicer designed so the blade doesn't heat up and melt the fat in prosciutto, soppressata and other delicate meats. The Backspace will make its own marinara, mozzarella and sausage, he said.
Along with classic margherita pizzas and what Cirkiel calls 'a play on pepperoni,' the Backspace will turn out pies with:
• House fennel sausage with mozzarella, roasted peppers, garlic and Parmesan.
• Amatricano with tomato, red onion and guanciale.
• Bianco with arugula, mozzarella, ricotta and pecorino.
• Mushroom with mozzarella, tomato, capers and basil.
• White anchovy with gaeta olives and cherry tomato.
Desserts will come from new Parkside pastry chef Steven Cak: a chocolate budino, tiramisu and a goat-cheese cheesecake, served in Italian mason jars. The wine list will be 100 percent Italian, Cirkiel said, and they'll have Peroni beer on tap.
The plan is for the Backspace to be open from 5 p.m. to about midnight 'or until the dough runs out' Wednesdays-Sundays, adding lunch service early next year.
For Cirkiel, having Parkside and Backspace so close together has its advantages. 'The great thing is, I can walk 20 feet from one (cooking) line to the other, to watch it.'
507 San Jacinto Blvd. For updates on the opening, call 474-9899.