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Submitted for your consideration: two fairly similar restaurants, at least as far as food quality, efficiency and atmosphere go. But while one keeps packing them in, the other waits for the phone to ring.
1631 Wazee St.
Denver, CO 80202-1313
Region: Downtown Denver
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The busy restaurant, Il Fornaio, is like that girl who moved from New York to your hometown of Dumpsville during eleventh grade. All the guys went insane over her provocative, big-city looks while ignoring her average personality. She was aloof to all, but everyone remained enthralled by her.
The not-so-busy restaurant, Sostanza, is like the pretty but not drop-dead-gorgeous sweetie you'd been dating for a few months and really liked--until Miss Thang arrived. While you keep panting over the new kid in town, your old girlfriend, trouper that she is, has been waiting patiently for you to come to your senses.
And waiting, and waiting.
Sostanza is not entirely innocent in all of this, of course. When the restaurant opened last summer, it had quite a few problems, many of which were caused by alleged chef Marco Casas (at least, that's one of his many aliases). General manager Michael Herrick says Casas passed himself off as Italian (according to state records, he was born in Argentina), set up an absurd, unworkable kitchen and then proceeded to get the place in legal trouble when the Department of Excise and Licenses discovered he had lied about a prior felony conviction. Sostanza was forced to shut down for a week as punishment, but by then Casas was long gone, as were untold numbers of disgruntled diners who had been turned off by the dishes of questionable Italian origin (the names of which were ridiculously misspelled on the menu), the uneven cooking, and the general sense of unease that comes from a waitstaff obviously frustrated by what's going on.
But once Herrick's wife, Colleen, a professional chef and experienced troubleshooter, stepped into the kitchen in December, things improved substantially at Sostanza (the name even means "substance" in Italian). Since then, the food has been worthy of the impressive setting: warm, earth-toned walls, colorful flower arrangements in cobalt vases and trompe l'oeil wall paintings in a late-1800s building that once housed horses for the Denver City Railroad Company--the floors were lovingly restored to their hoof-scraped natural beauty--and is now a toasty, upscale Tuscan villa complete with imported wood-fired oven.
Out of that oven come Sostanza's rustic breads and pizzas, both of which are done exceedingly well. Particularly good was the pizza alla Francesca ($9), a thin, crusty pie topped with fresh basil, mozzarella, garlic and sliced romas, just enough of each for balance and a good proportion of moist to dry. Add two orders of the insalata Caesar ($6)--sporting an anchovy-loaded vinaigrette that was fishier and more tart, in a good way, than most Caesar dressings--and the pizza made for a nice, light dinner for two.
On another visit, we wanted something with a little more sostanza. So we started with the calamari ($7), squid evenly coated with herb-seasoned breadcrumbs and served with a jalapeno-ignited dipping sauce, then jumped into a bowl of risotto del giorno ($15), which that day contained wild mushrooms, plenty of morels and a hint of buttery richness. What it didn't contain was even more telling: The tender, creamy rice wasn't glued together with the parmesan so many kitchens rely on and that gums up the works a few minutes off the heat. Even without the cheese, the risotto was very filling.
So was the agnello alle erbe ($27), a rack of herb-flecked lamb that came with a big pile of herbed roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables. The lamb chops, medium-thick and cooked until the edges had just started to caramelize, had been drizzled with a mild mint vinaigrette, which gave the meat that characteristically complementary lamb-mint pizzazz but also added a sharpness that I liked better than the traditional sweet jelly flavor. The vegetables sported strong grill marks and flavor, and the potatoes had that ideal balance of crisp outer shell to spongy, mealy interior.
By our third visit, we were ready to take on everything from antipasti to dolci, starting with the animele con piselli ($11), sweetbreads with prosciutto and fresh peas--otherwise known as heaven on a plate. Jumbo thymus glands had been tossed with shavings of Parma ham for an ultra-rich combination of sweet, meaty and salty. The carpaccio di manzoi ($11) was also tasty, although the charred beef tenderloin had been thickly sliced, which seemed at odds with the carpaccio concept and made for a lot of nearly raw meat to chew.
Still, we polished off our starters quickly and moved on to the ribollita ($5.50), the soup named after the Italian word for "reboiled." In Tuscany, Sunday supper is often beef boiled with vegetables, the leftovers of which are then cooked again the next day with beans and thus "reboiled." Sostanza's ribollita had that same next-day distinctiveness, with intense cooked-down flavors that had soaked into the bruschetta planted at the bottom of the bowl.
The soup's warm, homey quality was echoed by the gnocchi di melanzane ($12), a baked casserole of eggplant gnocchi that was just shy of mashed-potato consistency; each little dumpling had barely retained its shape and was almost bursting with the mild, rich nip of eggplant underscored by the slight acidity of a light fresh-tomato sauce. Technically, the gnocchi should have been better formed--usually in the baked (as opposed to boiled) version of this dish, the dumplings are cooked in milk for a while first to help them retain their pillow-like contours--but the result here was so soft and appealing, so full of the best of Italian flavors, that I was transported to some past life where my grandmother came from Siena rather than Kilarney.
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