At the end of this year, Andrea Frizzi will shutter his Il Posto on East 17th Avenue and start anew in a fresh space in RiNo, just around the corner from Vero, the Milano pizzeria he recently launched in Denver Central Market. Il Posto’s new digs are dazzling, a sleek upgrade from the simplicity of the tiny spot Frizzi oversaw for nearly a decade — but he promises not to lose the Il Posto charm in the move.
Frizzi recently sat down with us to talk about how a winding road through Italy, Washington, D.C., and the Ozarks eventually led to Denver; why opening Il Posto in 2007 nearly broke him; and why American food culture is so liberating.
Westword: How did you get into this business?
Andrea Frizzi: I’m from Milano, and I’m from the business: My family had a salumeria for 35 years in Milan. From the day I was born, I was raised in the back of the store. I don’t have a memory that doesn’t include that store. My father worked the counter, my mother worked the kitchen. We sold salumi and fromaggi and prepared food. My mother had a specials menu every week: Wednesday was stuffed peppers, and Friday was roast chicken. She was a great cook. The idea was for me to take the business over and stay there. In Italy, after middle school, your high-school choice is prep high school. It’s a country of workers; people don’t get to college much. You go to high school to prepare for a job. I chose to be a cook. I went to high school to be a cook and graduated first in the class. But I wasn’t in love with the job yet — it was just my life. My father realized that the only way for me to get really good was to work for someone else. I wasn’t lazy, but I was complacent. He sent me to work in a place that was very tough; it was old-school. I learned structure and discipline, and I also learned how good I was very quickly. That gave me confidence. I was a shy kid, and I became less shy. I felt very good about myself. I was there for four years. And then I got to a higher level of cuisine and became a sous-chef somewhere else, under a big chef. I kept getting better and better until I clearly could not go back to my father’s store. Parents in Italy are very protective. Mine are different; they are very open.
So what made you leave Italy for the States?
I was working in a high-end pastry shop with a restaurant attached in downtown Milano. I was cooking with great people, but I felt I needed more. In Milano, in Italy, it’s difficult to really grow. My mentor was the chef of the Four Seasons in Milano, and he was a consultant in the U.S. He called me and my friend. Well, actually, he called my friend and said, “I have a job in D.C. for an executive chef.” My friend had a girlfriend and didn’t know if he wanted to leave, so I said, “I’ll go.” He said, “You have to leave in four days.”
No problem. The owner of the company said, “We’ll send you a ticket, fly you to New York and send you to D.C., and if we like you and you like us, we’ll see.” I flew TWA to Manhattan, and they sent me a limo and put me up in the Park Hyatt hotel. My room had a jacuzzi, and you could use the phone in it, so I called my family from the phone from the tub while I watched Monday Night Football. I didn’t speak any English. Anyway, the company called me and said, “We fired the chef, so we’re going to take you to D.C.” The restaurant was called Bice. I had nineteen people in my kitchen. I was so in love with everything, and I worked so hard. It was crazy. I lived on 16th Avenue, a mile from the White House. I worked with them for two years and then realized I wanted to be my own man. So I opened a consulting company.
Is that how you made your way to Denver?
My first client as a consultant was a restaurant in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was helping out this great guy who owned a place called Ole Jose, which was that classic crazy Mexican restaurant that is not Mexican. He wanted to open an Italian restaurant. He was fascinated with Barbaresco and Barolo. My English was still kind of beginner, and I was training these people with very thick Southern accents. I did that job, and he was so happy that he took me to the Ozarks. That’s when I started fly-fishing. It was me and a couple of redneck guys drinking barolo and barbaresco and fishing. It was America for real. I would go to a greasy spoon in the morning and have biscuits and gravy. I started to write a journal of my travels. I got stuck in an ice storm in Fort Worth. I stayed in a La Quinta. I had dinner at Denny’s. I met all these people from Dallas. But I realized I wanted to move to New York and play with the big guys. So I got a house in Queens and lived in Sunnyside. I got a call one day from a company in Princeton, and they offered me an in-house consulting gig. They told me, “We have a restaurant in Denver called Cucina Colore, and it’s struggling. Can you go see our food?” That was 1997. Cherry Creek was pretty okay already. It was August and it was 90 degrees, but I was not sweating. It was clean. There were a lot of young people. My father is from the Dolomites, so I liked the mountains. I thought, this is amazing. I could see this thing was going to blow up some day. Every time I came here, I felt happy. Eventually I moved to Seattle with my now ex-wife, and I hated Seattle — the environment, weather, people, suburban mentality. My marriage was collapsing, and the company called me and said, “We want to open a new restaurant in Denver. Come help us.” So I opened Via for them [at 18th and Wynkoop]. Then I realized after the opening that Denver was ready for real Italian, but that group didn’t have the courage. The day I decided to quit, a friend came and said, “I have a location on 17th.” I had only $13,000 at the time, but he said, “You can do anything you want.” I went to see it, and he gave me a Letter of Agreement the next day. I signed the lease February 4, 2006, and opened Il Posto February 2, 2007.
So you’re coming up on a decade in business there, and you’re preparing to move over to RiNo, to a stunning new space. Tell me about the early days of Il Posto.
[When we were building the restaurant], I ran out of money every month. I lost my house because of that. I was so poor that people used to bring me toilet paper. I would do a cooking class and collect $60 per person. I used to go to different gyms to do trial memberships to steal toilet paper and soap. I didn’t eat for two days one time. But I kept at it. I knew I would do it. And people helped: Mary [Nguyen] from Parallel 17 heard I was in trouble and said, “I can give you some money; you pay me back.” She gave me $5,000. The first week we opened, I was $4,000 overdrafted in my bank account. The first week, I knew I had to do $21,700 to make it. We did $23,100. I knew then that I would make it. You will jump, and the universe will send you a set. But you have to have the most courage. You have to jump when it’s fucking scary.
I’ve watched Il Posto grow from a neighborhood restaurant to a beacon. How has the restaurant evolved over the last decade?
We started with simple Italian cuisine and good design, nothing crazy. I hired some really good talent, which created more challenge to develop something a little more sophisticated, with more creativity. It made me better, and it made the restaurant better. At one point, we got way too sophisticated, so I took it back to the simplicity of Italian food. I’m from Milano, so to me, the beauty is very important. Italian food is simple and sophisticated, but approachable. Now our food and menu are too tight for the space. We have to put patio furniture in the dining room to accommodate weekends. We have to say no to people or pack them in like sardines. It’s a workaround restaurant. It was good for a while, but we needed an opportunity to display our food and wine and give our staff room to work.
Is that what prompted your move?
Ken Wolf [developer of the new Il Posto address in RiNo] has been chasing me for years. I told him twice to go fuck himself. Then I came and saw the location — and realized that was it. Ken is a landlord and a developer, but he’s also an amazing human being. He’s so passionate. That’s why he created Central Market. He doesn’t do this for the money; money is the result of his passion. That’s very rare. Anyway, we realized we can take that food and have a nice bar, a very nice kitchen, a mezzanine, a nice space, without changing who we are.
It probably helps that Vero, your pizza operation, is right around the corner, at Central Market. How did that project come to fruition?
One day I was talking to Ken about Il Posto. He said, “Do you know anyone who can do pizza?” I said, “Dude. The fuck?” The next day I signed the lease. I realized we needed to be as authentic as fuck. No compromise. I got the oven, wood, everything. I had to teach all of that to everyone. I think Napolitano pizza is too chewy. I like the kind in Milano. It’s bigger and thinner, not as bubbly. That’s the pizza we’re doing. Milano is at the forefront of economics, food and design in Italy, so you see people take pizza and run with it — you get pizzas with french fries and hot dogs. I took that mentality here. We have classics, but also a weekly special. That’s what I want — an expression of Italy. I like to do the food that I want to eat.
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You were raised in a culture with an incredibly strong food tradition. What has it been like working within American food culture, especially as you’ve tried to provide an authentic taste of where you come from?
It’s liberating. You have no boundaries here. You can take ideas and run with them. That’s beautiful. It’s happening in Italy now, but it took a long time. When I go to Italy, I eat traditional and I love it. But if I lived there, I’d want to see more evolution. Here, you can do anything as long as you do it right; it’s a land of opportunity. I can take Vero and I can put it in Arkansas. People all the time say to me, “Thank you for what you’re doing.” In Italy, they’d say, “Hey, that pappardelle, not so good.” People here understand the courage. Culturally, it’s very rare to be part of that. How awesome is that?