Following service this past Saturday, Adega suddenly went dark. It came as a helluva shock.
I mean, this was Adega. No place in the city had gotten better reviews locally or more love from the national press than this hip outpost at the corner of 17th and Wynkoop streets. Chef/partner Bryan Moscatello was the first in Colorado's crop of young uber-chefs to bring home Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chef award, and Esquire also named his place one of the top new restaurants in America shortly after it opened three years ago. Awards aside, Adega also drew the numbers. In a climate where the new, hot restaurant seemed to stay new and hot for only a weekend or two before cooling considerably and then, almost inevitably, closing in disgrace, Adega kept people coming back. True, Adega was one of the few joints in town that consistently drew a notable share of the tourist and traveler crowd, and some locals came for the wine while others came for the cachet -- but the main reason it remained such a healthy and viable restaurant right up until the moment it closed was the kitchen. It never seemed to disappoint anyone. Without fail, dinner there was exactly as good as you'd expected.
But now, Adega, c'est morte. And what's more, c'est morte in a pretty big fucking hurry. Turns out that for the past few weeks, Bryan Moscatello had been in talks with the owners -- Cathy, Tom and Mike Huff -- about purchasing Adega from them. Those talks turned into serious negotiations, and last week, Moscatello laid things out: He wanted the place as his own, and if he didn't get it, he was ready to walk away.
"I told them, 'If I'm not going to get ownership, it's time for me to move on,'" Moscatello explained when I got him on the phone Sunday afternoon, his first official day of unemployment. "And you know, I wasn't trying to hold anyone over a barrel. This was just something that I felt I needed to do for my career, to move things forward. And in the end, we couldn't come to the right deal."
He offered to stay on until the Huffs could find a new chef, until some sort of transition could be made, but they decided closing down was their best option, Moscatello said. Why? With the exception of Mike Huff (son of Tom, and the conduit through which most of Adega's capital had flowed), Moscatello was the last of the original "boys from Adega" bunch; with him gone, there was nothing left of the legendary restaurant. Particularly not when Mike Huff wanted out, too, according to Moscatello.
"They weren't necessarily doing this just to increase their net worth," he said of the Huffs' initial decision to back a restaurant. "But it wasn't just like a hobby, either. It was somewhere in between. And with nobody in it anymore" His voice drifted off, then came back. "Anyway, it just wouldn't be the same."
"They can't just get another chef," Maureen Poschman, PR person for both Adega and Moscatello, pointed out. "Adega is Bryan."
Moscatello didn't know that Adega had been closed until he got a call Sunday morning telling him that he was out of a job -- out of a job, that is, after he broke the news to his kitchen crew and the service staff that they, too, were out of work. "I've had days that were less strange than today has been," he told me. "And I don't think any of us really expected this to happen. But business was business. Unfortunately, this was just something that I think needed to happen. For all of us."
Moscatello already has some gigs lined up that he'll talk about (and other possibilities, at restaurants both in town and out, that he won't). He'll do a cooking class in Aspen this week, then head back home -- back to the East Coast -- to help out some friends with kitchens in need of high-class staffing. "I love what I do," Moscatello explained. "But for now, I think I'm just going to hang out for a little bit. Take it easy."
Mambo Italiano: Although heat usually chases me away from the cuisines of Europe and into Asia and India, that seems to be changing. Maybe I've just seen too much of Batali on Iron Chef America (and everywhere else), or watched the uncut versions of The Godfather too often on cable. Or maybe, just maybe, I've finally come to terms with the fact that if I want Italian food like I remember from back East, I'm just going to have to confine myself to restaurants run by guys who come equipped with the same kinds of food memories that I have.
Whatever the reason, I've had Italian on the brain, and lately, I just haven't been able to get enough. Well, that's not precisely true: I had much more than enough at Gaetano's, the former Smaldones joint at 3760 Tejon Street now owned by the Wynkoop family ("All in the Family," August 4). But I still managed to drop by Patsy's, at 3651 Navajo Street, which got all the love that Gaetano's didn't that same issue. And then, as an upmarket palate cleanser and head-straightener, I stopped in at Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street) just to make sure that chef/owner Frank Bonanno and his guys were still doing right by their pastas -- and they are. I had homemade mozzarella, artichokes, the potato gnocchi with lump crab and lobster sauce, and I swear to God it was better than when I reviewed the joint almost two years ago ("Way to Go," September 25, 2003) and said that -- should I ever find myself on death row -- this was what I would want for my last meal.
And then I found Tom and Dave Panzarella and their Old Fashioned Italian Deli (see review, page 52), and sank myself to the belly in their vision of old-time Buffalo and the days when the Italian Heritage festival would run for a dozen blocks down Hertel Avenue and spill over into the alleys and neighborhoods on either side. The Old Fashioned may not have the pastas that Bonanno does, but it has just the right kind of pastas for a neighborhood joint.
Swimclub32 (3628 West 32nd Avenue) is also going Italian, with owner, wine-pusher and part-time white jacket Chris Golub and chef de cuisine Chris Dougherty replacing the menu that had been a tapas mix of modern Japanese and Spanish influences, courtesy of former chef Joel Holland. And while Swimclub will continue with the small-plate format, those plates will now be filled with foods coming out of Veneto, Alto Adige and Tuscany.
What's more, the kitchen (all 300 square feet of it) is going through a makeover, with all of its old-fashioned fire and iron being replaced by ultra-modern induction ranges and a sous vide setup that will allow the tiny galley to play around with some big flavors. Upstairs, the crew has turned the rooftop into an herb garden with cedar planting boxes crammed among the vents and HVAC equipment. Meanwhile, downstairs in his office, Golub is still struggling to get all the product and produce together ahead of the new menu's launch.
"I'm still nailing down a couple more farmers," he told me last week. "Just a couple more suppliers. You know these guys: They say they can get me a delivery every week, then every other week, then they're asking me, 'Hey, do you think you can come and pick it up yourself?' I don't know. I still need tomatoes. I'm trying to find some really bitchin' tomatoes." Right now he's getting heirlooms from some guy on Clarkson Street who tore up his whole front yard to plant a tomato garden, but that won't be enough for what Golub has in mind. He wants "Jersey tomatoes," like he used to get back East. "I called all my guys back in Jersey," he said. "But none of them will ship this far."
When I asked Golub if this wasn't a pretty radical departure for a spot that had made its name with stone-cooked Kobe beef and sashimi, he explained that when he and partner Grant Gingerich came up with the idea for their own restaurant, they initially weren't going to have a chef at all. They wanted it to be like their own kitchen, the kind of place where they could serve whatever they were in the mood to serve to anyone who was in the mood to eat it. But when he met Holland, whose ideas about food matched so well with Golub's ideas for the restaurant's wine and sake lists, he set the chefless kitchen notion aside (at least temporarily). Unfortunately, the arrangement lasted only as long as Holland did (which is to say just a few months), and for the past several months, Golub has been plotting this change.
"We want to be able to change on a whim," Golub explained. "Not according to the month, not according to the season, but according to what we want to be doing. You know, it's like when you have someone over to your house to eat, and sometimes you want to cook Italian, and sometimes you want to, like, steam a halibut with some lemongrass or something. That's what I want to be able to do. Our regulars are really excited about this. They've been waiting for it. So pretty soon, I guess I'll be putting the white coat back on and going into the kitchen."
Yeah, just as soon as someone comes through with those bitchin' tomatoes.
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Up in Boulder, the Trattoria Girasole space at 1430 Pearl Street has become Trattoria on Pearl, with owners Sara and Guillermo Casarrubias and a chef who brings some heavy credentials to the party. Daniel Cofrades has worked at Adega (he helped chef Moscatello open) and with Kevin Taylor (he held a chef's post at Taylor's namesake joint), but he's also done time at Michel Rostang (a Michelin three-star in Paris), as well as in Spain,Venezuela, Brazil and Indonesia. His menu is classic Italian, with cracker-crust pizzas and a late-night tapas lineup, but what really caught my eye was the limoncello sorbet topped with homemade, lemon-infused vodka. Alcoholic ice creams (and sorbets) definitely rank as one of mankind's greatest inventions.
More good news: It looks like a chain may finally get it right. Piatti, at 190 St. Paul Street (and the rest of the Piatti locations nationwide), has given itself a physical and philosophical makeover and become Piatti Locali -- a seasonal, market-driven, serious restaurant dedicated to community, locality and connecting with its neighbors through food. In the past, I never found much sense in burning up an evening in Cherry Creek eating bruscetta and zuppa del giorno at Piatti when I could have the same stuff done sometimes better and sometimes worse at a real local restaurant -- not just some place that was pretending to be.
But after talking with Susan Klos, Piatti's manager, I think there could be something to this Locali concept. Piatti's chef, Mario Godoy, now spends his weekends hunting through farmers' markets in Boulder and Cherry Creek, looking for ingredients. The kitchen is using Torpedo Farms pork out of Pueblo, Haystack and Bingham Hill cheese, Sun Valley tomatoes and striped bass from Alamosa. The new menu -- which went into effect in the heat of the summer and also represents the roll-out of the Piatti Locali branding -- features homemade fettuccines with Hazel Dell mushrooms, wood-fired pizzas with MouCo's Colorado camembert, and roasted chicken with Palizzi Farm veggies on the side.
While it's nice for a national restaurant to use local ingredients, what really counts is when the cooks start to feel it. "As you can imagine, the kitchen is doing great now," Klos says, explaining that the Locali change has been in the works for the past eighteen months or so, and the galley crews have been working with these new ingredients -- coming up with dishes to feature the home team's products -- since early spring. They're into it. And Godoy? Rather than rely on faxes and produce lists, he's out doing his own shopping -- squeezing the tomatoes and touching the lettuce. There's no better inspiration than that for a chef.