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Nicole and Rick Fierro fell in love at first bite.
The two met one night while noshing at Chinook and immediately found they had food in common. Rick was managing the Washington Park Grille (for years before that, he'd been a front-of-the-house man at various Berardi ventures, including Juanita's Uptown); Nicole had just moved here from California, where she'd completed a degree in hotel management and also worked in the dining rooms of various restaurants.
But it was after Nicole and Rick hooked up romantically that their careers really started cooking: They decided to open a restaurant together. "We knew for sure that we needed to work on something that there wasn't already a bunch of," says Nicole. "No Italian. I'd spent some time a couple of years back in South America, and the culture and the food were very intriguing. We knew that Denver was lacking in that cuisine, so we started concentrating on that."
1120 E. 6th Ave.
Denver, CO 80218
Region: Central Denver
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The couple took a few trips to South America, traveling around the continent, and then brought back what they'd discovered to their own home kitchen. "Wednesday nights were South American nights for the past two years," says Rick. "And we knew we didn't want to be tied down to one part of South America, so we tried to develop recipes that pulled from all over, like Chile and Brazil and Venezuela. We went back to South America to double-check that we were doing the recipes right."
Once the recipes were right, it was time to find a home for their venture. The couple did so with a little help from their friends, particularly Blair Taylor, who'd suddenly found the Sixth Avenue spot that was once Chives American Bistro back on his hands. After running Chives for eight years (before that, the space housed the legendary Dudley's, which Taylor owned with Mel and Janie Master), Taylor had decided he wanted to focus all of his energies on Barolo Grill, and he'd leased Chives to Mark Chafee, owner of The Moondance on Market Street. But when Chafee went under last year, The Moondance closed altogether, and Chives returned to Taylor. He didn't reopen the restaurant, though, and locals watched in consternation as one of their favorite hangouts -- particularly for late-night meals -- remained dark.
So when word leaked out that the space was going to reopen, there was a citywide sigh of relief -- as well as a spark of new interest, since word also had it that this place would be South American, a fun switch in this Italian/Mexican/ Asian-obsessed town.
And the basic premise of Piscos, which opened in late October, is fun. The restaurant's name comes from a grape-based brandy, pronounced "pee-skoe," that's mainly produced in Peru and Chile but enjoys popularity all over South America -- what could be more fun than that? In addition, the Fierros retained the general setup that was so successful at Chives -- bar in the front area, booths lining the back wall, tables scattered throughout the middle section -- but redecorated it in a very tasteful, sometimes whimsical manner (a clock shaped like South America hangs above the bar), with deep, rich browns and cheery blues that evoke the rich earth of the continent and its connection to the ocean. They've filled the space with a soundtrack of Latino favorites (a lot of Ricky Martin) and a staff of cheerful folks who aren't overwhelmingly familiar with the food but get bonus points for trying hard to offer good service.
The menu is a joint effort between the Fierros and their chef, Robert Sanstone, a New York transplant and Culinary Institute of America graduate who'd previously worked at Cavaleri's and the Ship Tavern before teaching culinary classes at Emily Griffith. And the best things on that menu are the appetizers, several intriguing items offered on their own or in a value-packed sampler platter ($12 for two people, $16 for four). An order for two brought a shareable portion of four starters, along with three dipping sauces: a thinly flavored, tomato-based concoction lightly sparked by chipotles; a rich, tart lemon aioli; and an unusual but appealing Dijon-based mixture that contained honey-roasted garlic and tasted almost like a sweetened horseradish. The real surprise on this plate, though, was the French fries.
"We saw them everywhere in South America," explains Nicole. "And we've had so many people ask us why on earth we'd offer them, when it's so clearly an American favorite. But I'm telling you, they eat French fries in Chile in a big way." In fact, potatoes were cultivated in South America long before they were exported to Europe. (Columbus is credited with bringing potatoes back from his notorious trip to the New World, and while some Europeans thought they were poisonous, the French immediately took to the tubers because they resembled testicles. Really -- you can look it up.) Today South American kitchens still use spuds extensively.
Probably not as well as they do at Piscos, however. The fries, or papas fritas, were thin, crunchy and faintly greasy, sprinkled with the perfect amount of fine-textured salt on the outside and sporting just enough soft steaminess in the center. Almost as addictive were the empanadas (which were small enough to qualify as empanaditas or empanadillas, the tinier of the South American-style raviolis), filled with an alluring combination of sweetly seasoned pork, chopped pears and walnuts, and enriched with Brie, of all things, which gave them an appealing creamy, musky quality. The humitas were pretty special, too: Inside the familiar cornhusk wrapper of this farther-south-of-the-border tamale was an unusual grainy filling that included minced banana chiles and cheddar cheese. And while tamales use masa harina, humitas are made from fresh corn. (In the culinary world, there is much heated debate over which came first, the tamale or the humita, but there are no fossils of either to settle the disagreement.)