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Charm School

A vintage year: Joel Diner and his wife opened Pesce Fresco last August.
Mark A. Manger

Next to the word "charming" in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Pesce Fresco. Everything about this bistro-style wine bar -- from the small but well-chosen menu of contemporary dishes to the warm, comfy dining room to the large and well-chosen wine list -- appeals to the senses in the most delightful way.

Particularly charming are owners Joel and Merrilee Diner (that's a great name for food folks), who opened Pesce Fresco (Italian for "fresh fish") a year ago this month. One of the Diners' first smart moves was rescuing chef Dale Filson -- a Culinary Institute of America grad who'd worked at Sfuzzi, the Cheesecake Factory and Bella Ristorante -- from certain culinary death on the chain gang. "He wanted out of the big corporate structure," Joel says.

Another smart move was putting Joel in charge of the wine list, a fun, fairly priced roster that offers over 200 bottles of vino, two dozen of which are available by the glass. After spending more than a decade as a wine distributor and owner of a liquor brokerage and import business (Platinum Beverage), Joel knows a few things about wine. "I've always wanted to have a restaurant, though," he says. "But after I got my degree in hotel and restaurant management at DU, I also wanted to have a family, and that can be very hard in the restaurant business. So now my kids are grown, and it was finally time for us to have our dream."

When Joel met Merrilee at the University of Denver, she was studying marketing -- but judging from the decor of Pesce Fresco's dining room, Merrilee has some decorating talents, too. "She did all of the interior work," Joel says. "Isn't it amazing how you forget where you are?"

And how. Tucked at the Quebec Street end of an Arapahoe Road strip mall, Pesce Fresco occupies a compact, cozy space that was most recently Saffron and now looks completely different. The low lighting and dark fabrics, coupled with a judicious placement of tables, make for discreet, relaxed meals during the day and romantic, intimate dining at night.

The food fits the setting. Filson, with input from the Diners, has concentrated on rich, intensely flavored dishes that seduce the palate. Next to the word "decadent" in the dictionary, there should be a picture of his Gorgonzola cheesecake, one of Pesce Fresco's signature items and the kind of delight that people like me dream about in the wee hours. Oh...my...God... The twelve-ounce ramekin, hot from the oven, was filled to the top with a dense, still-creamy cheesecake with a strong but not overpowering flavor of the nutty glory that is Gorgonzola; on top were balsamic-caramelized onions and on the side a pile of mushroom tidbits that had been coated in a thin batter and fried until golden and crispy. It was rich, rich, rich -- so rich that it was almost unbearable to keep eating, but so good we couldn't stop.

Fortunately, few dishes at Pesce Fresco go so far over the top -- but they're all right up there. The appetizers were particularly good, the perfect thing to enjoy in a place where sipping different wines and hanging out in the tiny but smoke-free bar is very much encouraged. (As the eatery becomes more popular as a wine-tasting stop, more by-the-glass options, along with some wine flights and special tasting opportunities, would be a nice addition.) After taking a few minutes to digest that cheesecake, we noshed our way through the smoked salmon -- delicate and sweet, garnished with capers, fresh arugula and a creamy dollop of lemon-kissed mascarpone -- and soft mussels in a sherry-sweetened, garlic-heavy butter sauce. A grilled portabello was another wowie-zowie of a starter: The tender 'shroom was beautifully charred and topped with wonderfully salty, greasy shoestring potatoes as thin as matchsticks.

No self-respecting Italian-themed eatery would skip a Caesar, and Pesce Fresco's dressing did a nice job of balancing the salty and garlicky elements. The spinach salad was impressive, too, slightly wilted, with Gorgonzola crumbles and toasted pine nuts providing sharp contrast to a warm dressing made with pancetta. On one visit, the zuppa di pesce --the chef's fresh seafood soup of the day -- was a mini cioppino, with shrimp and fish swimming in a slightly spicy, tomato-tinged liquid; on another, it was a heavenly, New England-style clam chowder with a blessedly thin base (no wallpaper paste here) and plenty of just-out-of-the-shell clams.

Filson's rich combinations continued with the main courses. The most stunning entrée was the lobster ravioli, a plateful of impeccably cooked, lobster-filled pasta squares smothered in a heavy crawfish cream sauce whose richness was cut by the slightly bitter taste of artichokes and the bite of green onions. Also dramatic was the angel-hair pomodoro, which showcased what Filson could do with a straightforward, classic Italian dish. Fresh tomatoes had been cooked down to a fluid status with olive oil, fresh basil, onions and garlic, all in such precise proportion that no one element stood out; instead, the sauce on the al dente angel hair tasted like Italy itself.

But Filson didn't restrict his cooking to Italy. A minted saffron tomato broth suggested the Middle Eastern section of the Mediterranean; its gentle flavors worked well with the large, juicy, oily filet of sea bass. A thin, well-grilled New York strip steak came in a textbook demi-glace enriched with mushrooms and merlot. And dessert options included an Austrian Sachertorte -- it was invented by Franz Sacher in 1832 -- that contained raspberry filling instead of the traditional apricot, but otherwise stayed true to the original vision of brick-dense chocolate covered with a thick chocolate glaze. The house specialty, though, is a limoncello parfait, an almost frozen custard spiked with the lemon-infused vodka drink. And the housemade ice cream was gelato all the way, with even the plain vanilla an ultra-creamy, tongue-teasing treat.

As at any cozy little mom-and-pop place in Italy, the owners remained a friendly presence throughout our meals. At the end of our first visit, Joel was at the door to thank us for coming and invite us back. On my second visit, he came over to the table and, recognizing that I'd been in before, introduced himself (I told him my name was Tiffany) and then chatted a bit about our wine, a ripe berry pie of a 1999 Seven Peaks Shiraz. At the end of that meal, he thanked us for returning. "It was so nice meeting you," he said.

Charmed, I'm sure.

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Pesce Fresco - Closed

6600 S. Quebec St.
Englewood, CO 80112

303-290-9705

www.pescefrescobistro.com


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