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Viahas had a tough run. In the summer of 2005, it took over the former home of Brasserie Rouge, whose sudden death is still spoken of in hushed tones by those in the industry -- no doubt for fear of bottom-feeding lawyers overhearing the stories and then trying to horn in. But beyond its cursed space and the association with terrible and highly public failure, Via also had the misfortune to open in LoDo, a tough neighborhood already crowded with high-end Italian, right down from Coors Field, where nightclubs and sports bars soak up most of the available parking, if not trade.
1801 Wynkoop St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
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Cutting board: $2-$3 per item
Lobster ravioli: $17
Roasted chicken: $18
Pork chop: $19
Owners Venanzio and Anthony Momo -- who also own Cucina Coloré in Cherry Creek, which gives them some experience in dealing with tough neighborhoods -- didn't make the situation any better by bringing in a floor staff that couldn't get it together. On any given night, half of them seemed stranded in some weird attitudinal middle ground between fine-dining service and neighborhood-trattoria informality, while the other half acted like they were sleepwalking through their last night at work and just not caring what the fuck happened. And the kitchen wasn't any better.
Actually, the kitchen was worse. Since I have a fairly low opinion of most front-of-the-house employees to begin with, I wasn't surprised to find a bunch of B-team plate-carriers and wannabe fashion models offering their schizophrenic and uneven approach to service at Via. And since I am always quick to blame any front-of-the-house issues on back-of-the-house laziness or lack of leadership, the kitchen was doubly at fault. Not only could it not get the staff moving or even interested enough to learn the menu, but the food (handled with a distinct lack of joie de vivre by quasi-celebrity chef Rollie Wesen, who took over when Via's talented opening chef, Andrea Frizzi, moved on) was a hackneyed Manhattan-Italian muddle, tame at best, uninspiring at worst and just plain dreary the rest of the time. Neapolitan pizza ovens? Big whoop. A slick and fashionable bar pouring Italian cocktails? Limoncello aside, the Italians are not widely known for their alcoholic innovation -- and with good reason.
In this city -- and particularly in this neighborhood -- there are plenty of hip, annoyingly cloying singles bars with dull restaurants attached. None of them move me enough to want to walk a block, much less eat there more than once. And after my first meal at Via, I proceeded to ignore it to the best of my ability.
But soon enough, word came that Wesen had been cut loose and Anthony Momo himself had briefly taken to the stoves. Still, what Via really needed was a Chef-with-a-capital-C -- a blooded pro. Not a placeholder, not an owner stepping in, not some white-jacket "executive" who'd spend all his time cost-cutting and conceptualizing from the office, but someone who could truly run a kitchen from the line. It would help, of course, if that guy was also certifiably crazy. Because the way I looked at it, any decent chef would have to be desperate or half nuts -- or both -- to even consider walking into Via.
Lucky for the Momos, they found themselves both a serious chef and a madman in James Mazzio, who took over the galley in November 2006 knowing full well that he was taking command of a ship that was already sinking when he stepped to the bridge.
Why? Because he's crazy. Because he's incredibly talented. Because if one thing has defined Mazzio's entire culinary career, it's been an almost ludicrous sense of bad timing. In 1999 he won the Food & Wine Best New Chef award for his work at 15 Degrees -- a restaurant that closed before he could accept the honor. Mazzio then opened Triana in Boulder, walked away just as that stretch of Pearl Street was getting hot, and came up with a truly original concept in ChefJam, a combination cooking school/display kitchen/restaurant that started up just as Colorado's restaurant economy was going into a tailspin. That's when Mazzio left Colorado for Chicago, where he took on a chef's gig for a restaurant that didn't yet exist and spent a year waiting for its owner to get his shit together before giving up and coming home. And then what line did he walk onto? Via's -- with its battered staff and reputation and menu perfectly suited for a suburban Iowa strip mall.
I asked him once why he'd done it.
He told me he thought it would be fun.
Double bat-shit crazy, all the way.
In deference to his obvious psychological maladies and the very real problems he inherited at Via, I took my time returning.
Five months after Mazzio moved in, Via still has the look of a restaurant that's not quite sure what it wants to be. The kitchen -- white-tiled and clinical -- runs deep along one wall. The dining floor, which is about a third the size of the original Brasserie Rouge dining room, is a mix of hardwood floors, butcher-block tables and sluttish red accent lights. The bar is long and sleek, with flat-screen TVs and windows walled off by bottles of Italian soda. The wall opposite the kitchen is made of stacked logs behind glass. There's an overflow dining room separated from the main one by a beaded curtain. The bathrooms are out the back door, down two hallways and next to the machine room. The look is part Parisian bistro, part yuppie pick-up joint, part unprepossessing Italian farmhouse restaurant, part lumberyard. And for a serious restaurant, it looks an awful lot like everything but.