There's absolutely nothing wrong with doing simple, straightforward neighborhood Italian food. In fact, doing just that is a noble tradition that extends further back in this country's history than does the impulse to slap down a bunch of white tablecloths, boot Dean and Louis Prima off the radio in favor of some screeching aria, and start charging 28 bucks a bowl for noodles with black truffles shaved over the top. But the trick is, if you're going to do straightforward neighborhood Italian food, you need to do it really friggin' well. And while Cucina Colore — which, for all its talk about contemporary Italian cuisine, is really just doing gussied-up trattoria fare — doesn't do it particularly well (see page 56), I know a place that does.
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For fifteen years, Cafe Jordano has elevated plain, down-home Italian cooking to the art form it truly is. Here there's no pomp, no fluffery, no overly complex reductions or emulsions or plates decorated with gothic spires of parmesan tuille. Instead, there's spaghetti that — time and again — tastes like the spaghetti you remember having as a kid, that single memorable dish that serves to define the word "spaghetti" in your mind. And when Cafe Jordano does move into the realm of originality, it's a staid and composed originality, one that has been rigorously tested, thought through, considered. The pollo alla Roberts (Bob's favorite) is a dish that could take years off your life because of the near-impossible concentration of butter and cream and fat; it is also one of the best-selling dishes on the Cafe Jordano menu, and has been for years.
I stopped in last week for some gnocchi, and they were some of the best gnocchi I'd had in Colorado — even though there was nothing more to the plate than the gnocchi themselves, a splash of chunky red sauce and a blanket of mozzarella cheese. What set this dish apart was that each individual element was done with an expertise born of years of practice. I liked the sauce for its thickness, sweetness and faint bite of basil and oregano. I liked the gnocchi for their perfect texture (not hard, but stiff, and never, ever mushy) and handmade irregularity. And I liked the cheese because who doesn't like a big slab of melted cheese? Three elements, two requiring the work of dozens of hands, all of them done well. Any dish assembled under such conditions is going to be good. And any restaurant that understands that this is all that's required to make a great dish is, by extension, going to live a long and happy life.