By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Stop giving him pork chops!"
The woman is hissing, eyes flashing, using her mom voice on her husband, one arm thrown protectively over the top of the car seat set beside her on the banquette seat two tables down at Cucina Colore.
"I'm not giving him pork chops. I'm giving him pieces from the sandwich. Little pieces."
3041 E. 3rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
Crab and artichoke dip: $10
Pollo e orzo: $13
Margherita pizza: $10
Pork chop: $20
Roasted chicken: $18
"He's a baby. Babies don't eat pork chops."
Says who? I wanted to say.
The husband (a Chad, I thought, or maybe a Lance — right off the pages of the J.Crew summer catalogue in his polo shirt, cargo shorts and expensively disheveled haircut) drops his hands, palms flat on the table, just hard enough to make the silverware clatter. An expression of defiance in defeat. He looks at his wife, then out the window, then at his wife again, and I just know what he's thinking: If I made a break for it right now...
I go back to my pizza — my very authentico, wood-fired, rustic margherita stone-oven pizza in its artfully not-quite-round shape, its artful dearth of toppings. I peel a leaf of whole basil off the rapidly cooling slab of cheese on one slice, transfer it to the one in my hand and bite, teeth cracking through the crust, tasting the centuries of pizza-making technology that have been tossed out in favor of the split wood logs kept in a cradle outside Cucina's back door, the chalky stone block in the oven.
I believe there are moments when, in order for authenticity to work in favor of a dish, that dish should come with a view. If it's a very authentic stick of yakitori — meaning dark-meat chicken, rib meat or inner thigh, slathered with too-sweet sauce and charred on an outdoor grill — I want to eat it under Ginza neon, surrounded by sararimen out getting freaky on a Saturday night, horking up their Sapporo in the gutter. And if it's a very authentico pizza, I want to eat it on a plaza in Rome or in the hills of Torino. It should be delivered by some rude man-child in a starched shirt who looks down my wife's shirt as he sets it on the table, and we ought to be overcharged 30 percent just for being stupid American buffoons dumb enough to come halfway across the world for pizza and a view.
At Cucina Colore, I like the slight tinge of wood smoke that's been absorbed by the mozzarella on my pizza, but the promised San Marzano tomatoes have either been replaced by some less murderously expensive genetic cousin or have come out of a can, because the sauce lacks that meaty sweetness of the fresh, honest article. My white-wine sangria (so Italian...) is full of sugar and so choked with inexpertly cubed chunks of fruit that I have to drink it through a straw, and my view is not of the seven hills of Rome, but of sleek, Creek architecture, super-saturated yellows and golds and shining, polished blond wood.
And Binky and Chad in the corner.
"What? You're angry now?"
I wonder if Chad would trade his pork sandwich for the rest of my pizza. I wonder if he'd giveme his pork sandwich if I caused a distraction, stirred up enough chaos that he could slip to the floor unnoticed and belly-crawl for the door before Binky was any the wiser.
Cucina Colore has been open a long time. Not by the way people measure time elsewhere in the world, but by Cherry Creek time, which is like dog years or wombat years — a different thing altogether. The Momo family started it in 1994, which puts it solidly in the Creek's Precambrian era, an epoch when soccer moms and day-trading dinosaurs in Dockers and wrap-around sunglasses stalked the earth. In this neighborhood, where tastes change season to season, the window for being the hot new thing slams tight after about two months, and places that have had a good, long run can be counted on one hand. So Cucina Colore's thirteen years is significant, bordering on historic. That's damn near forever in Creek time. But what confuses me — boggles my tiny little mind — is how it's lasted this long.
On a return visit, I watch the waiter show off for a window table a few down from mine. "This is the grandfather of North American pinots," he says, arching his back and proudly running his fingers down the list, running through his sommelier spiel, smiling, occasionally leaning in conspiratorially and chatting with the women sitting there.
I'm eating a Caprese salad — brilliantly red tomatoes and thick slices of fresh mozzarella electrified by green basil oil, sparked with a pungent, dark vinaigrette. It's good. Simple, but good. But then, it's hard to screw up a Caprese salad, which is among the purest expressions of Italian cuisine, of the Italian culinary mindset. Freshness, seasonality, two or three or four good flavors, all working in concert.
"Try this. It's so yummy. You have to try this."
Against the banquette, a woman cleverly preserved by deadly, paralytic nerve agents and what sounds like a lifetime pack-a-day Parliament habit stabs a forkful of greens and holds it up to a man I hope is her son, slumped sideways in his chair. He mutters something I can't hear.
"What do you mean, you don't eat lettuce?" She's outraged, croaking, her eyebrows locked into a permanent arc of surprise, cheekbones jutting like shelves for her eyeballs. "Who doesn't eat lettuce?"
She eats the lettuce, forking it into the painted slit in her face, chewing like one of the Sleestak in Land of the Lost — just her mandibles moving, nothing else.
Now I'm eating the same salad, the "pollo e orzo" with grilled chicken that's been dessicated on the grill, limp greens, salted ricotta and a bittersweet vinaigrette. It is not so yummy. It is chicken and leaves and vinegar — and unlike with the Caprese, those few ingredients add up to nothing more. Across the table, Laura pushes around her linguine with basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, trying to make it look like she's eaten more than she has, trying to make it look like she's eaten any. Her eyebrows work just fine, and I'd watched her take her first bite: two rainbows of surprise, followed by one dropped, slanting hyphen of concern, then two defeated slashes of annoyance.
We trade plates. She nibbles the chicken, cutting around the char. I try the noodles. They are sticky with over-blended, over-thick pesto that's gummed onto the pasta, turning it green and speckled, making it taste of licorice and nursery-school paste. It's so dry that all the pine nuts have slipped through the bird's nest of linguine to rattle around the bottom of the huge white bowl. And the sun-dried tomatoes just sit there — a counterpoint in color and texture with all the livid flavor of small, ketchup-colored hockey pucks.
At the front of the room, the hostesses keep bringing in tables, keep seating tables. The kitchen fires up a pan of garlic and onions that fills the room with the smells of good food, the promise of good food, unfulfilled. Wine bottles are opened and, down the way, a new group of women are celebrating something, chiming glasses, their laughter like bells ringing. "I remember you guys," the waiter says. The women smile, stab their thin fingers at their menus, demand more drinks, salads. Who doesn't eat lettuce?
On a Sunday night, I eat a pork chop with braised fennel, mounted (like half of everything that isn't a pasta) over a hillock of whipped potatoes. I eat tagliatelle with veal Bolognese ground so fine that the flavor of veal has apparently been transmuted into a vapor, wafting off before the heavy bowl of tepid pasta made it to my table. There's steak on the menu, sage-roasted chicken with goat cheese (and whipped potatoes), veal scaloppine with sautéed buttons (and whipped potatoes) in a garlic and balsamic reduction, pasta-less lasagna made with eggplant, sesame-crusted tuna in another vinaigrette. The blue crab, spinach and artichoke casserole is really just a crab and artichoke dip exactly like the crab and artichoke dips that exploded onto every menu in America a dozen years ago, made to be smeared across the ever-present (and very good) focaccia. There's calamari, of course. Mussels. Conchiglie with roasted chicken and broccoli.
Standing out front, catching a smoke between courses, I watch a couple help an elderly woman with a walker and an oxygen tank through the door; one of the hostesses holding it open for them. She asks the couple how their dinner was. "Great," the man says. "We bring Mom here every time we want to go out to dinner," says the woman, hunching a shoulder toward Methuselah's first wife. "She loves it."
Cucina Colore is pretty, comfortable and just casual enough without being too casual. The servers are trained to recognize return customers, coddle them, promise them the moon the next time they come in. But Cucina Colore is also extraordinarily boring. The restaurant calls its food "contemporary Italian" cuisine, but if an original idea were ever to accidentally wander through the front doors, it would immediately be beaten to death, ground up and turned into another retread salad dressing or pasta sauce better suited for the frozen-foods case at King Soopers. There is nothing contemporary about this menu. It's full of culinary hedge bets for folks who don't want and won't eat anything they haven't seen a hundred times before in a hundred other restaurants, non-threatening plates that are dull, dated, passionless, occasionally inept and would be downright embarrassing if not for the fact that Cucina Colore does such a good business feeding Grandma, Chad and Binky, the Sleestak and her son.
But not me. From now on, I plan to ignore Cucina Colore, allowing it to simply exist, half-forgotten in its pretty mediocrity, working on Cherry Creek time.