When Kevin Wirtes and Rich Garcia first met as IT professionals at The Hartford five years ago, they bonded over a shared interest in cycling. And as their friendship developed, they realized they had more in common than they'd imagined.
Wirtes had a professional-level collection of whiskeys and bourbons at home. Garcia had rigged a makeshift brick oven on the deck of his townhouse, turning out wood-fired pizzas baked at nearly 1,000 degrees. And during long bike rides, they'd talk about their mutual goal to open a restaurant.
"I guess we were both looking for the right partner to do that, and we both felt like it was a good match," Wirtes said.
But the idea didn't materialize immediately. The two would meet up at each other's homes to write their business plan, a task that proved daunting at times. "I'd stop and say, 'This is stupid. I feel like a dumb little kid talking about a dream'," Wirtes said. "Rich would just say, 'Just keep doing the motions. See what happens.'"
The concept evolved as they worked. The initial plan was a burger and bourbon joint, but a realtor in Middletown dropped a hint that city residents were looking for more pizza restaurants. Garcia, the aspiring pizzaiolo, called his business partner.
"He said, 'I think we should do pizza,'" Wirtes said. "And I said, 'I was just going to call you to say the same thing'."
In the snug 50-seat North End space on Main Street that would become Krust, the friends stayed as committed as possible to their original plans for a comfortable and relaxed establishment, a place they themselves would want to visit. After months of renovation, Wirtes and Garcia opened the pizzeria and bourbon bar on Jan. 17.
"We had this vision: awesome wood-burning and mixing that's happening in this small vicinity. You can sit 10 feet away from the oven, where your drink was just made, watching the pizza…it's very intimate," Wirtes said.
That wood-burning oven throws light and warmth throughout the cozy room done in varying textures of wood, as guests sitting at the 14-seat polished yellow pine bar watch Garcia sling pies into 800-degree heat. His pizzas start with Neapolitan-style dough: high-gluten flour, water, yeast and salt, which "cold rises" overnight before proofing at room temperature the following day. The red sauce is another nod to Naples tradition – uncooked crushed San Marzano tomatoes and salt.
Krust currently offers 10 red and white pies priced at $11 to $14, ranging from the simple (fresh mozzarella, olive oil and sea salt) to more gourmet options. The Sunny Side pizza is topped with pancetta and egg; a smoked pizza offers deep savory flavor from smoked mozzarella, fresh garlic, ricotta and parmesan. The Honeymoon is Garcia's take on a Hawaiian pie, with pancetta and pineapple.
One of the biggest sellers is the Brussels pie, with roasted sprouts, fresh mozzarella and onion. Garcia, who calls himself a "Brussels sprouts pusher," points out that many customers have bad childhood memories of the vegetable, particularly if served boiled instead of caramelized to crisped sweetness at high heat. "I was going to name this the 'conversion' pie," Garcia said, laughing.
Guests can create their own "blank canvas" pies, choosing from a medley of cheeses, meats and roasted vegetables. Gluten-free pizza is available for an additional $4.
The restaurant's other focal point is Wirtes' area of expertise: the backlit shelves holding more than 150 bottles of whiskeys, bourbons, ryes and Scotches. Wirtes did his best to replicate his home collection at the pizzeria, he said, replacing bottles unavailable from Connecticut distributors with worthy alternatives.
"Kevin could tell you something about every single bottle up there," said Garcia.
And Wirtes hopes to share his level of knowledge with Krust's diners. "We wanted this to be an educational place, a place where someone's coming around to talk about the bourbon or whiskey you're drinking. If you know something about what you're drinking, it only adds to it. A lot."
Wirtes and Garcia, fans of classic cocktails, decided they wanted to perfect timeless recipes for drinks like the whisky sour flip, using real pasteurized egg whites and housemade sour mix. The bar presents a dozen such libations, like the Highball, Negroni, mint julep, gin and tonic, Sazerac and John Collins.
These join a half-dozen takes on Manhattans, a separate lineup of martinis (including a 'Hot Basil' recipe with cucumber vodka, habanero bitters, marinara sauce, basil and crushed red pepper) and house creations with mellow corn whiskey, muddled fruits and juices. Wirtes suggests the top-selling Southern Yellow with Knob Creek, The King's Ginger liqueur, fresh sour mix and ginger beer to first-time whiskey drinkers, he said. (Its name pays homage to Krust's woodworker and designer, who used Southern yellow pine for the bar.)
The partners were careful to price the cocktails affordably at $6 to $11, they said, hoping that would encourage patrons to explore the bar menu. There's also a careful selection of eight craft beers on tap, along with a dozen wines by the bottle and glass.
Though the bar has rare spirits to entice aficionados (Pappy van Winkle 20-year, if you can get there quickly enough to enjoy the limited supply,) Wirtes says Krust attracts an "A to Z" clientele of varying interest levels.