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Pizza and percentages at the Backspace

What can you expect from an Italian oven, a Parkside pedigree and dough with a mind of its own? Flip a coin

Mike Sutter

Shawn Cirkiel opened the Backspace in December for the very best of reasons: He wanted to re-create Neapolitan-style pizza at home, home being an underused space behind his restaurant Parkside, a home with the hearth and budget to feed a $12,000 pizza oven from Naples.

That's how strong the drive to animate our desires can be, as strong as our drive to re-create our best sense memories. Aside from maybe Cirkiel himself, nobody has hung more hopes on pizza at the Backspace than a colleague of mine whose sun-dappled memories of Naples include pizza from a little shop there.

I have no memories of Naples to taunt me, but certain things make a good pizza, no matter what its birth certificate says. Infrastructure, for one. Good bones. The right frame for deep-dish casseroling, for East Coast folding, even for the God-help-us California carpet bombing of self-righteousness (and chicken). Then comes sauce, meat and vegetables we'd eat by themselves, even if they weren't ducking under the camouflaged cover of bubbled cheese. And finally, with great pizza comes great consistency.

What our sense memories crave is consistency, for something to be the way we remembered, every time. My sentimental colleague and I caught the Backspace on two nights when the oven let us down, mollified not a bit by the fact that another co-worker and I made Neapolitan food memories of our own with two of the best pizzas I've ever eaten.

All the pizzas at the Backspace are 10 to 11 inches in diameter, running $9-$14. Cut into six slices, they're enough to feed two people with modest appetites and the good sense to order antipasti.

The Backspace never stumbled on the topside. We had mushrooms light and earthy, sausage bright with fennel and heat, ricotta and mozzarella like velvet spotlights, marinara that deserved a bowl of its own, crust be damned. How those righteous building blocks were put together was a coin toss.

On one night, we saw the pizzaiolo turn one pie straight from the oven into the trash, something he might have considered for our mushroom pizza ($13), burned to a bombed-out ruin on one edge, droopy and elastic on the other, with mushrooms and ricotta racing each other down the marinara mudslide to the middle. A margherita pie ($9), in addition to its uneven clusters of basil, was undercooked; just that simple. The crust pulled apart more like proofed-out dough than baked bread, even as the edges were acrid with chalky black oven ash.

Our pizza experience was tempered by antipasti, small dishes that made maximum use of the 900-degree pizza oven. One brought together fat white beans with soft green ripples of escarole and fatty-crunchy specks of guanciale ($5), one of Italy's glorious interpretations of bacon. Another variation, pancetta, played a similar textural and flavor role in a perfect dish of Brussels sprouts with a shower of salty, nutty Pecorino Romano cheese ($6). It came in a little cast-iron dish, the only way to serve sprouts, my favorite comeback vegetable, the one we all hated as kids but one that now recognizes few equals on my grown-up palate. And roasted beets have seldom kept better company than a salad of crunchy white fennel, a touch of orange, pecan and frisee ($7).

With alternating slices of conventional and blood oranges, a dish of octopus ($7) was a marvel to look at, with expertly cooked curls of tentacles and thick, rosy body sections. But I couldn't escape the dish's bottom-of-the boat aroma or its overwhelming saltiness.

A dessert of tiramisu ($5.50) stays with me more for its endearing little Mason jar and smooth texture than for ascendent cocoa or espresso flavors.

Given the place's rough pizza parlor feng shui and the metal-clad counter running the length of the space, I expected an apron-and-T-shirt East Coast service experience. But the Backspace is more button-down formal, the waiters clad in black, observing every formality under banks of flickering red candles, surprisingly more structured than its high-scene sibling, Parkside.

It's an enigmatic place. The soundtrack favors the oldies: Rick Nelson, Buddy Holly, girl groups. There's no signage on the front, like in the early days of Vespaio. It's almost like they don't want you to know it's there. That if you show up, it's because you know somebody who knows. The space is rustic, somewhere between a stand-up slice joint and a saloon in Aspen, with a bank of tables against the front windows. They saved the tall panes of stained glass for the back windows. The tables are wedged so tightly together that you don't get up so much as you unfold yourself through the gaps among the right-angled wood veneers endemic to places with the Michael Hsu design touch.

A couple of visits, and that would have been the story of the Backspace. Another high-concept pizza place with good intentions and disappointing execution. But consistency calls for confirmation. And confirmation has its rewards. Rewards like a crust with a scalloped, auburn collar crunchy as breakfast toast that gives way to a honeycombed interior with a constitution best described in units of tensile strength: enough to put your cutting teeth and pulling teeth to equal use. It's an animal thing, this perfect crust.

That crust formed the canvas for a pie painted with the disciplined ivory twang of mozzarella, the sweet electric red of roasted peppers and the textured earthy bronze of sausage ($13). And for my misty-eyed colleague, I'll save a good thought for a future memory that includes a white pizza ($14) with an herbal security blanket of arugula in harmony with three cheese and a breath of lemon, all of it on a crust whose higher calling rewards, above all, consistency.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

The Backspace

507 San Jacinto Blvd. 474-9899, www.thebackspace-austin.com.

Rating:6.2 out of 10

Hours: 5 p.m. to about midnight ‘or until the dough runs out' daily.

Prices:Antipasti $4 (deli meats) to $7 (prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella, meatballs). Salads $7. Pizza $9 (marinara, margherita) to $14 (bianca). Desserts $5.50.

Payment:All major cards

Alcohol:Beer and wine. Peroni beer on draft ($4.25). The all-Italian wine list carries 10 whites ($24-$54), 24 reds ($28-$140), two rosés ($30-$32), four sparklers ($30-$50) and two dessert wines ($43-$80). Eighteen wines by the glass ($7-$14), including a perfectly serviceable Trebbiano d'Abruzzo white for $7, a rustic Nero d'Avola for $7.50 and a seductive dolcetto at $10.

Wheelchair access:Yes

What the rating means:The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value, with 10 being the best.