By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Sometimes these weekly missives are about time and the progression through it of a menu, a chef, an address. Sometimes they're about history, which isn't the same as time, because time is smooth and steady, and history is, well, bumpy. History is the story of peaks and jags in time, and food often captures these chronological features quite handily.
Sometimes they're about an event. Most often they're about me, because I am afflicted somewhat with egomaniacal leanings and enjoy being the highly opinionated filter through which these many meals slip. And sometimes -- although rarely, I must admit -- they're even about the food. Food in all its myriad connections to time and space, history, people and me. When I talk about politics or culture or myth, immigration or zombie movies or punk rock, or love and lust and hatred, I'm talking about them in relation to food. And when I talk about food, I'm talking about food in relation to everything else in the world.
This week is all about the food. Which is to say it's about everything, with the food speaking so clearly and in such a rich voice that it drowns out any six-string, zombie or mythic digression. And it all begins with a quivering egg of buffalo mozzarella in which anything you need to know is neatly contained.
1700 Wynkoop St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
5946 S. Holly St.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Campania tasting: $50
Sicily tasting: $50
Mozzarella caprese: $5.95
Lobster ravioli: $12.95
I've had very fresh mozzarella on only a couple of occasions, usually when it's been pressed upon me by flamingly OCD cheesemakers of the sort who insist, often violently, that fresh milk cheeses have an ideal life expectancy that is measured not in days, but in moments.
"Here!" they will shout. "Here! Eat it now! Quick, before it dies!" And then they will hand me a spoon of ricotta, a nipped bud of mozzarella still wet from the bowl, a ropy finger of queso fresco.
And they're right. There's nothing on earth quite like a very fresh cheese -- still warm from someone's hand -- for teaching you to appreciate the value of powerful and unrecoverable instants. And there's no better proof that a restaurant understands the gravity of such moments than the codifying of such an experience permanently onto a menu.
At Venice Ristorante -- the new Venice Ristorante, in LoDo -- the fresh-cheese gimmick is worked nightly on the Campania regional tasting menu. Course one, insalata di rucola e pomodori: tender, beautiful leaves of baby arugula dressed in balsamic vinegar from Modena, soft Tropea onions, tomatoes, green olives and two half-orbits of delicate buffalo mozzarella so young that its middle is just one step removed from liquid and its surface puckered around individual grains of salt and shards of black peppercorn.
Course two, mozzarella caprese: sliced and quartered tomatoes, sweet Italian basil, dried oregano and Tuscan olive oil with cow's-milk mozzarella, stiffer and older, slightly matured -- by minutes, maybe, hours at the most.
Course three, ravioli parmigiana: handmade ravioli filled with liquid buffalo mozzarella shot through with puréed tomato and ripened with aged parmesan. The ravioli are bathed in a gorgonzola cream sauce, its depth and muscle coming from the veins of mold allowed to develop in the gorgonzola over months, sometimes years, and opened by the knife and the heat of the pan. Course three is the antithesis to course one, showcasing the strength, complexity and wily strata of flavor bestowed by age, how the old can shape and bolster the new. And it is, of course, unconscionably delicious -- the kind of thing you just want to eat and eat until you die, a flavor so composed and haunting that the more you consume, the hungrier you get.
Thus, time and age as described by food. And Venice itself -- the room, the restaurant, the name -- as descriptor of a very personal and specific history: both Denver's and mine.
Owner Alessandro Carollo's first restaurant -- his first Venice, opened five years ago on Yosemite Street in Greenwood Village -- was the first place I reviewed in Denver. I loved it in part, if not in full, and was absolutely intrigued by the gut-punch honesty of the food and the overspilling crowds it attracted.
Soon after Carollo opened Venice, Adega -- the hugely expensive, hugely ambitious and (almost) unerringly brilliant home of chef Bryan Moscatello -- debuted at 1700 Wynkoop Street. Adega was the restaurant that put Denver on the 21st-century food map, the place that ushered in the city's grubnik, white-tablecloth renaissance.
Flash forward four and a half years. Adega is gone, Moscatello is cooking collards and grits on the East Coast, and Carollo now oversees a family of three restaurants. To accommodate the crowds, he opened a second Venice, on South Holly in Greenwood Village, and turned his original restaurant into Chianti. And then in 2005, he took over Adega's abandoned home and opened his newest, biggest and most impressive restaurant yet. Christian Delle Fave stands the exec's post here as he did at the original Venice, with chef Gustavo Amaro running the service from the line.
To my eye, this new Venice does not yet fully inhabit Adega's old space; it seems to be acting almost like a temporary caretaker, afraid to move the furniture or put its feet up on the table. The bar, lit from within and styled like a giant slab of ice, is still here. The enormous, green-lit wine room that was Adega's trademark and namesake is still here, too, filled now with Italian vintages off Venice's surprisingly broad list. The bones of the place are unchanged, and the Venice staff walks the floor as if constantly on the lookout for ghosts, breaking out only in moments because this space is not yet completely their own. The kitchen makes and serves fresh mozzarella because moments -- when they are what you have -- truly matter. Time and place, space and address.