By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
After the first three courses of the Campania menu, three courses remain. They are a let-down only because they are merely excellent, not quite rising to the sublime perfection of the ravioli. There's gnocchi con Bolognese, potato dumplings cut in the Roman style -- off a long, rolled tube, like a plate of tiny, sauce-covered thumbs -- and dressed in a pancetta-studded sauce smoothed by the holy trinity of a proper mirepoix. This is followed by scalopine ai capperri, a blessedly tender veal cutlet in an oddly gray sauce of bitter capers, woody artichoke, whole-clove garlic and pinot grigio sharpened with lemon. The tasting concludes with a plate of profiteroles in a chocolate scuro, the pastry puffs filled with an undropped chantilly cream (nice trick, that) and covered with a frozen dark-chocolate sauce like ice cream's sophisticated cousin.
On another night, I order the lobster ravioli. Four years ago I was stymied by this dish. Then, the ravioli were filled with lobster that was almost a pâté, cut with rock shrimp and therefore robbed of its texture, and bathed in a simple, pale and pinkish sauce that began with lobster stock -- heads and shells -- and finished with tomato, cream and butter. The preparation was luxurious for the strip-mall restaurant that Venice was at the time, but underwhelming as lobster ravioli, the dish that it was supposed to be. Over the years, however, I continued to order it, and the kitchen continued to tinker with it. And now, in this million-dollar room in LoDo, under dim, flattering lights, on a table crowded to the point of busy distraction with plates and stemware and flowers and bread baskets and oil-with-balsamic and a profusion of silver reminiscent of the olden days when everyone at the table got crab picks and salad forks and demitasse spoons regardless of what they were having for dinner, the lobster ravioli has come into its own. The sauce is rich and smooth, set with lovely, fat chunks of tail meat, each ravioli large and floppy like a woman's hat, wrinkled at the center and filled with rough-chopped lobster expressing, finally, the full, blunt luxury of excess.
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
So I try to trip up the kitchen by going with something that really speaks to its strip-mall roots: a simple chicken marsala. My tactic doesn't work. The marsala has that magical equipoise that makes a sauce seem almost to float on the plate, remaining unwed to its attendant meat until the two touch the tongue together. I then try the gnocchi in pesto cream sauce and wash it down with an arrogant Sangiovese super-Tuscan. Both are brash and powerful and overcompensating at first taste; both mellow fast on the table and show impressive subtlety after even just a five-minute time-out.
And on yet another night, I return for the full Sicilian tasting -- again six courses, most of them seafood, as is only fitting.
My waitress warns me that the cooks have been being generous lately, overloading even the tasting plates. "I hope you're hungry," she says, smiling.
"Starved," I reply. "Except for breakfast and lunch, I haven't eaten all day."
She takes this as a joke, even though I don't mean it that way.
Insalata fresca is the first course: field greens with sliced garden tomatoes replacing the teardrops (because that's what's available) and thick curls of parmesan cheese, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette meant to stoke the hunger and open the tastebuds. The balsamic has been aged so long it's like a syrup, black and sweet and gentle. Next, roasted eggplant salad served cold from a ring mold, sweetened with tomato, evident of char and roughed-up with strong olives. Two grilled prawns rest against the small eggplant pillbox as if napping, and a nest of microgreens sits on top like camouflage. I push away the greens, flatten the mold, eat the prawns and maybe half the salad. It's not my favorite dish, mostly because I don't love eggplant. Perhaps sensing this, my waitress clears it and flies course three, scampi fradiavolo, which I devour like a fat kid eating pie. The spaghetti is beautifully al dente, the marinara shot with Italian levels of spice (far different in tone and temper than American Southwestern tastes might dictate), and the prawns -- seared now, offering a new taste and texture from those on the previous plate -- are like a bonus, nearly unnecessary but nice to have around.
I linger now, cleaning my plate, and my waitress gives me some time. When the next course arrives, it is risotto ai frutti di mare; fat grains of Arborio rice lumped up in the middle of the plate with a gallimaufry of mussels and clams in the shell, scallops, prawns (poached now, in the sauce) and chopped concasse tomatoes. Fifth up, the spigola Taormina: a small filet of breaded striped bass, grilled skin-down over mesquite, finished with butter under the top broiler and presented nakedly over sautéed spinach. It is the surprise twist in the plot, the unexpected left hook in the streetfight, light and supple and clean in flavor to balance the three heavy, fairly complicated plates preceding it.
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