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Thirty-two steps is all it takes to get from Vietnam to Italy, Saigon to Rome, New Orient to Viaggio Italian Trattoria. Thirty-two steps if you've got legs like mine, probably fewer if you're in a hurry. And if it's raining, you won't even get wet.
Strip-mall dining is one of the minor miracles in the Denver scene. In this city, perhaps more than anywhere else in America's middle West, a sentence that uses "strip mall" and "restaurant" does not invariably include "suck." Sure, we have dead-end hellholes housed behind peeling facades in gravel-lot nowheres, addresses that have changed hands and nationalities more times than can be counted, joints where takeout Chinese food comes out tasting like oregano and rancid fryer oil left over from the Italian pizzerias that were housed in these same spots two weeks ago, and dim-witted suburban and exurban pod-cafes where a hundred sins against world cuisine are committed nightly. But there are many good strip-mall restaurants here, too.
Entrepreneurial spirit, immigration, bravery and an aching need for some people to recapture the flavor of their past and share it with their neighbors have fueled a wild and continuous real-estate boom in strip-mall and shoppette properties, turning entire Denver neighborhoods into experiments in speculative geography -- new frontiers where Russia and Korea share a common border, where the Himalayas rise over Southern India and typhoons of momo and samosa rain from the sky, where liquor stores and biker bars sprout on the left bank of the Seine, and Northern Italy is just a couple dozen paces from the heat and lemongrass breezes of Vietnam.
10203 E. Iliff Ave.
Aurora, CO 80014
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Viaggio Italian Trattoria
10253 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora, 303-750-1580. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
Crostini: $5< br>Panzanella: $5
Caprese salad: $5
Stuffed sole: $17
Grilled salmon: $16
Mustard chicken: $14< br>Veal roulade: $18
I don't know how Denver got so lucky. Maybe some mom-and-pop restaurant guide suggests that opening next to a cell-phone store or after-market car shop is good luck. Or maybe it's simply that there's so much cheap space available in strip malls. In Aurora, in Glendale, in north Denver and all along South Federal, shoppettes and plazas boil with openings and closings and brushfire border wars of every conceivable pairing. In some, China beats out Mexico even though Mexico is offering a tamale lunch, plus drink, for $2.99. In others, India wins out over Israel and Korea invades Russia, only to be devoured in a pincer move of sushi restaurants and old-Sov bakeries. In ten-unit properties along Iliff and Havana, five of the suites are restaurants (not counting the Starbucks on the corner) offering seven or eight cuisines, since the Thai place will inevitably have sweet-and-sour chicken on the menu and the Korean barbecue a sushi bar.
But in the 10000 block of East Iliff, the action -- this aggressive rejiggering of culinary cartography, this hot war of dumplings versus cannoli -- takes a different tack. Because while I can go from Southeast Asia to an Italian trattoria in just 32 steps, both restaurants are under the command of just one woman: Sue Smith.
Smith is a veteran with better than twenty years at New Orient and almost fifteen at Viaggio. She's not a cook -- at least, she wasn't when she started -- but rather a businesswoman with an MBA and a head for numbers who saw a future in restaurants. She picked up New Orient from a friend whose books she was doing when that friend wanted out of the business, then opened Viaggio a half-dozen years later. And while Smith has closed a few restaurants in her time (the deVine Cafe, which served Southwestern food on East Colfax, and more recently, Oodles on South Pearl, where the noodle joint has been replaced by Black Pearl), two decades on the front lines is admirable, just shy of astounding. The food industry is not kind to sprinters. Flashes in the pan burn out fast, and success can sometimes be judged simply by stamina.
With New Orient and Viaggio, Smith presents a united front of Vietnam and Italy, separated by just four doors. From the parking lot, I can see Korean barbecue on Smith's left flank, a Middle Eastern grocery and faux-Irish pub just around the corner, more Vietnamese and more Korean, with China and Hawaii not far off. A Fazoli's outpost just died at the corner of Iliff and Parker; a Tony Roma's bit it not long ago right up the street. Those chain closures were victories, but victory is fleeting. There's always tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
And tonight. At Viaggio on a weeknight, the dining room is empty. There's one waitress, one cook, both of them lounging around the erratically stocked bar at the back of the small, square space, just waiting for something to do. They're happy to see me walk in, and spring into fussy action immediately -- the cook retreating into the back, the waitress offering me any seat in the twenty-table dining room, bringing fresh bread, cold butter, a plate of oil and balsamic, a menu, water and a large glass of cheap Chianti, which is the only way that Chianti should ever be served: fast, cheap, and in great volume.
I skip the bruscetta in favor of crostini smeared with goat cheese and topped with caramelized onions, then wait for my panzanella. Although the bread salad is a rarity in Denver, it was almost a staple on the coasts until Dr. Atkins made ordering it (and nearly everything Italian) tantamount to suicide. The basic recipe calls for cubed bread -- generally leftovers -- thrown together roughly with olive oil, salt and pepper, onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes and basil by a smart cook who hates waste. At Viaggio, there are romaine hearts as well, which is a nice touch. As good as this salad is, though, the Caprese -- mozzarella, slices of tomato and a romaine salad drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar -- is awful. For reasons I can't fathom, the cheese tastes sour and briny, almost like a soft, mushy Romano, and the flavor hangs in the back of my throat like bile until I wash it away with a second glass of wine.