A Bitter Ending

A space odyssey: Tiramisu is the latest occupant of this old hotel.
Anna Newell

The term "tirami su" is Italian for "pick-me-up," an apt label for a confection filled with enough sugar, chocolate, espresso and liqueur to elevate the blood sugar of a dead person. A relatively recent creation, tiramisu (sometimes seen as one word, sometimes as two, and sometimes with an accent over the u) comes complete with several colorful stories about its history, including one theorizing that an already existing dish was renamed "tiramisu" by Venetian courtesans worn out after too much sex. The dessert's actual invention can be traced to "zuppa de duca," or "the duke's soup," first made in Siena for a visit by the Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici III. Although the dessert later became popular with the artsy-fartsy set in the duke's hometown of Florence, it did not make it to this country until the 1920s. Since then, it has become one of the most common desserts on American menus, whether the restaurant offering it is Italian or not.

Most major cities boast a restaurant named Tiramisu, too. Denver got one last year, when Patrizia Rossi and Roberto Ravarra opened Tiramisu in the space briefly occupied by the disastrous La Brasserie and, before that, by the popular La Coupole. For nearly a decade, La Coupole filled the charming old Hotel de Paris on the edge of downtown with a true Parisian bistro, all lacy curtains, twinkly lights, jazz, good French food and one of the best patios in town.

Until recently, Rossi was working in a very different setting: the back of a bar called Somewhere Else, in a horrible spot in an old office building painted purple and turquoise that lurked behind a Diamond Shamrock on East Hampden Avenue. Despite her hideous surroundings, Rossi did an admirable job, turning out an intriguing lasagne and some excellent chicken dishes. Ravarra, meanwhile, did time as chef at the now-defunct Vino Vino, which had been tragically reworked as a next-door sidekick to Dante Bichette's awful steakhouse after the former Rockie partnered with Stewart Jackson in what had been Cliff Young's.

Typical of first-time restaurateurs, Rossi and Ravarra have had their hands full just trying to keep Tiramisu going, and they haven't had a chance to fix up a dining room already neglected under the La Brasserie regime. Sure, they've put up a new sign and rearranged some of the chipped chairs and tables to fit more in, but those tables are covered with linens that don't quite fit, and you can see the vinyl underneath. The entire place has taken on the patina of time -- and not in a good way. Everything looks dingy rather than quaintly aged, and we were never seated at a table that didn't wobble.

The food and the service wobble, too.

The menu is filled with dishes that vacillate between cucina rustica and contemporary Italian, with an emphasis on homemade pastas and recognizable ingredients such as Gorgonzola, lemon and asparagus. Although the dishes apparently were designed to make a point about the benefits of simple home cooking, their haphazard execution made it seem like someone in the kitchen was simply following a cookbook, unsure of how things should look and taste. The service was even more clueless.

Lunch left us wondering if anyone was actually running the restaurant, because we stood at the entrance for several minutes waiting for someone to notice us, then followed the hostess around as she tried to decide where to put us. We finally -- and inexplicably, considering that the place remained half empty throughout the meal -- wound up jammed next to a table of six. Our server mispronounced everything we ordered, repeating what we'd said as though we were the ones who were wrong, and then proceeded to disappear for most of the meal, leaving us to flag down busboys in order to get more drinks and bread.

All of which we would have forgiven had the food been well prepared (we love this space, even dingy), but it wasn't. We started with a gloppy, overpoweringly garlicky Caesar (and an expensive one, at that) and an insalata di arugula that contained enough sour lemon vinaigrette to make our tongues hurt (the cherry tomatoes were gushy, too). The housemade strozzapreti (small bundles of wound pasta that could "choke a priest") al telefono was so bland that I wondered if there had been a mistake. Although the menu promised "fresh Roma tomato sauce," the sauce had no discernable tomato taste, and there wasn't enough of it to wet the pasta; instead, the dry nuggets were held together by mozzarella, which made each bite like nibbling a pizza made out of Styrofoam peanuts. The second entree was no better and even blander: The orecchiete con gamberi e asparagi featured "little ears" pasta tossed with six rubbery shrimp, the ends of asparagus (where were the tips?), more overripe cherry tomatoes and a lot of fresh basil, which provided the dish's only flavor.

The only thing that perked up our meal was dessert, and we had to practically assault our server to get the plate of profiteroles filled with ice cream and covered with chocolate.

On a second visit, the hostess again looked surprised to see us. The place was even emptier this time, which could be why we were given our choice of tables. But our server was the same slightly dazed fellow, and the salad - this time insalata di Capri - was another loser, with anemic tomatoes, mozzarella that might have been fresh at one time but was no longer, and so much salt that we could have rubbed margarita glasses in it. On the other hand, the zuppa del giorno, in this case pasta e fagioli that was more fagioli (beans) than pasta, was one of the more flavorful items we found at Tiramisu, with a beefy, pleasantly salty stock lurking beneath the puréed and whole beans.

Since the kitchen was out of the spinach pappardelle alla verdi, the cook had made do with plain pappardelle -- and surprisingly, this dish was another rare Tiramisu success. The thick, wide noodles had been paired with big bubbles of feta, kalamatas, artichoke hearts, pieces of fresh tomato and fresh basil; the simple ingredients combined to become much more than the sum of their parts. But the lasagna dell'ortolano was another miss, with homemade spinach noodles, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms and cheese adding up to nothing more than watery green stuff.

Because those first two meals went so badly, I decided to try Tiramisu yet again. Sadly, this last supper was even more disastrous, from chewy calamari fritti -- we called it calamari Mcfritti -- to cold gnocchi gratinati, whose dryness made biting into the little pillows just like...eating pillows. The risotto alla pescatora was "served 'al dente' just like in Italy," according to the menu, perhaps under the mistaken belief that "al dente" translates to "tooth-breakingly crunchy," which is what the crunchy-centered rice was. (By the way, in a restaurant of this caliber, the scallops should have been the sea version, not the bay.)

After all this disappointment, we weren't surprised to find the restaurant's signature dish extremely unappealing. We tried the tiramisu twice; both times, it came coated in so much bittersweet cocoa that we were afraid to breathe in. There was also too much mascarpone and not enough of the stuff that picks you up, such as liqueur or coffee.

Tiramisu, the dish, summed up our sentiments about Tiramisu, the restaurant. What should have been a pick-me-up was nothing but a letdown.

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Pagliacci's Italian Restaurant - Closed

1440 W. 33rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211


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