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Small Is Beautiful

It's hard enough starting a restaurant from scratch, but taking over an established, much-loved place can be even more difficult. Some customers are so loyal to the old regime that they refuse to give the new one a try. Others pretend to keep an open mind, but any changes clearly stick in their throats. And then there are the diners who complain that not enough changes have been made--then proceed to whine when their old favorites disappear from the menu.

So you can hardly blame the couple who took over Ranelle's in January for taking their time--particularly when it's hard to so much as move a chair in this tiny, twenty-seat spot on Sixth Avenue without someone noticing. Original owner Ranelle Gregory opened the Northern Italian eatery in 1992 to almost instant success, but she got out of the business entirely at the end of last year after her second Ranelle's, on Downing Street, failed to live up to the first one's reputation. She sold the Downing location to Canino's, and the Sixth Avenue site now belongs to GYnter and Marie Nussbaumer, a Swiss pair who worked for hotel restaurants in their native country for 25 years before coming to Denver.

Initially, the Nussbaumers kept chef Jason Elrod--Sean Fowler, Ranelle's first chef and the one who earned rave reviews for the place, had moved on long before--and left the menu intact, a move that seemed to placate Ranelle's habitues. Seven weeks ago, though, James Cavanaugh took over as head chef. A Florida native who most recently worked for Denver's Bella Ristorante, Cavanaugh plans to rework the menu in the coming weeks. But he promises to retain the dishes that Fowler created, mainly because he thinks they serve as the backbone of Ranelle's repertoire. "They're good recipes," he says. "They're based on authentic Northern Italian cooking. And they work, especially in this tiny kitchen."

The smallness of the restaurant has always been part of its charm--although there's little space for maneuvering, the tables are situated so that diners aren't exactly in each other's laps--and the bright, airy decor is magnified by the little-dressed windows that let the light pour in. When darkness falls, the feel is one of being at a small dinner party. An intimate party, at that: Our table sat beneath the wine rack, and waitresses had to ask us to lean in or grab a bottle for them several times during our dinner in order to keep the full dining room supplied with vino. Cavanaugh says some people request that table because they like to know what everyone else is drinking; I suspect the majority of the people seated there pray for a teetotaling crowd. Otherwise, they can expect a few interruptions.

But Italian food is good conversation food, so we always were able to jump back into discourse after these distractions. Particularly conducive to relaxed catching-up with friends was the antipasta alla Ranelle's ($14.50 for four diners), an inviting array of meats and cheeses that continued the previous Ranelle's commitment to fresh, top-notch ingredients. One of the primary benefits to dining in such a petite cafe is that the storage space in the kitchen is usually proportionate to the eating space--which means that not much food can be kept around for long. According to Cavanaugh, almost all perishable items are delivered daily, and the antipasta's components change depending on what he has available. On this visit, the platter contained several good-quality meats, such as prosciutto and the Italian smoked sausage mortadella; salmon slices that had been marinated in balsamic vinegar; grilled white anchovies; two slices of bruschetta; and four cheeses: cambazola, parmigiano-reggiano, goat and fresh mozzarella. Not knowing the bruschetta came with the antipasti, we had ordered more of the same ($4.50)--but there can never be too much grilled bread covered with oven-roasty tomatoes, fresh basil and olive oil, anyway.

Ranelle's menu continues to be set up Italian-style, but as at most Italian trattorias in this country, the portions are such that the kitchen doesn't really expect anyone to order a primi pasta course and a secondi meat course. Especially not if they start with salads, as we did. The insalata del carello ($4.50) was overpriced for what was essentially a lot of mixed greens coated with a simple red-wine vinaigrette; the day's special ($6.95) brought mixed greens with crisp-tender asparagus spears in a pineapple vinaigrette that came close to deserving the asking price. Another special, the fruit soup ($4.50), wasn't what we expected, but we found ourselves pleasantly surprised. Instead of the anticipated puree of fruit, perhaps enhanced by cream, we received a clear broth with the consistency and, to some extent, the flavor of the liquid from a sweetened can of fruit. In it floated several slices of kiwi. The soup was weird, but it was refreshing on a hot day.

Although Cavanaugh uses fruit quite a bit on his summer specials menu, he has a light touch with it that's most welcome. The Chilean sea bass ($18.95), for example, featured a piece of drab, overcooked fish saved by a tangy citrus salsa. There was nothing Northern Italian about it--Cavanaugh is given free rein with the specials--but it was a smart dish despite the lackluster fish. After carefully perusing the menu, I'd opted for the pork in a sauce of apples, vermouth and cambazola cheese ($19), only to learn that someone else had hogged my pig. (Dining in such a small space also has its drawbacks: The kitchen can prepare only so many orders of an entree.) Instead, the kitchen substituted lamb, which worked surprisingly well. Three well-trimmed chops had been pan-roasted and then swathed in the incredible, fruit-based sauce--one of Fowler's creations that Cavanaugh considers a keeper. Also sticking around is the spaghettini al pomodoro, con basilico, olio e aglio ($9), and rightly so: The deft balance of fresh tomatoes, basil, olive oil and garlic seemed simple, but it offered a textbook example of what this classic preparation should taste like. The fettuccine primavera ($9.50) won't be around much longer, because Cavanaugh isn't a fan of the dish, but I thought it praiseworthy: The homemade pasta (Cavanaugh also makes the pappardelle and other, larger noodles on the premises) was covered with a lusciously thick, rich sauce packed with broccoli, carrots and yellow squash.

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