DiFranco's: This tiny spot is creating big buzz — and flavors
Pea-and-ricotta-stuffed agnolotti with lemon and herb butter at DiFranco's. See also: Behind the scenes at DiFranco's
Did you see the memo? The one proclaiming that Tuesday is the new Friday? Apparently everyone around us at DiFranco's had, because on a recent Tuesday night, couples, friends and families were pouring into this shoebox-sized restaurant faster than seats at the community counter and two small tables could open up. A line soon developed, full of hungry people silently willing the folks on stools to forgo appetizers, stop drinking wine and skip dessert so that the spots would turn over and they could sit down. Dirty plates piled up, but with only two people working on this surprisingly busy night, there were no empty hands to bus — not when there was food to cook and deliver, and still more orders to take at the counter.
The scene was a perfect example of what cooks refer to as being "in the weeds." But no one around me seemed to mind. They were all too busy laughing, chatting, twirling pasta and, yes, pouring more wine to notice how fast and furious the tickets were coming in. Until, that is, the girl behind the counter ran around the register and made a statement as rare as packed midweek houses: "We're almost out of food," she announced. "I can do one meatball sandwich, maybe some penne." It's not uncommon for restaurants to run out of a dish, particularly a special, but nearly the entire menu?
DiFranco's has clearly found its niche.
And that's saying something, considering that Italian food is as common around here as craft beer and sunshine. True, we've lost more red-sauce haunts over the past few years than I care to remember, but a new crop of casual spots like Spuntino and Amerigo Delicatus has helped diversify a scene long populated by the likes of Shells & Sauce on one end and Panzano on the other. That DiFranco's is so busy despite so much competition, much of it within just a few minutes' drive, says a thing or two...or four.
First, the food's good. Places don't sell out if the food is bad. More on that in a moment.
Second, the fast-casual setting speaks to what people are looking for these days: both modern (sleek green community counter) and authentic (poster-sized black-and-white photos of the owner's grinning Italian ancestors). In a world where we've been trained to do things ourselves — make our own playlists, book our own flights and type in produce codes at the grocery store — fast-casuals give us freedom. We like that, just as we like pulling up a stool next to folks we don't know, if only to get a better view of what looks interesting. Plus, with counter service, we don't have to endure lines like, "How's everything tasting for you?"
Third, it's local. The eggs are local. Much of the meat and produce are local. Even the owner, Ryan DiFranco, is local, having relocated to Denver to work as the bar manager at Hillstone. The business-school grad got his official restaurant-industry education during Hillstone's four-month management training program, but his restaurant is as far from corporate as it gets. Many of the recipes were passed down from his Italian grandmother, mother or aunt; those that weren't came from his staff — who are trained to do all jobs, so they take turns in the kitchen, behind the counter, busing tables, etc. — or even from his personal trainer (more on that later, too).
And fourth, prices are so low, you might ask the person at the counter to repeat the total, in case you heard it wrong. But the prices aren't deceptively low, as they are at some competitors', where meat-and-cheese platters are built piece by pricey piece and salads consist of a few paltry greens. Here, portions are substantial but not oversized, roughly what you'd dish out at home.
A year before he opened his restaurant/market in May 2012, DiFranco started selling pasta sauces at a farmers' market. Now one of those sauces, prosciutto vodka, has emerged as his signature item. A simple preparation of fried prosciutto and diced tomatoes deglazed in vodka, it currently comes tossed with penne. (That might change soon, as the spring menu is due for a seasonal switch.) The night I had it, though, the odds of finding a bit of tomato or prosciutto were about the same as winning Mega Millions, making me think the kitchen should've made its "out of food" announcement sooner.
Even with more sauce, the penne wilts in comparison to the other pastas, which, unlike the boxed Barilla penne, are made in-house the morning you eat them. Fat strands of fettuccine are woven with equally fat strands of shaved, blanched asparagus and tossed with pesto, pine nuts and shaved pecorino. Beautiful pouches of pea-and-ricotta-stuffed agnolotti sing with lemon and herb butter. And tender, hand-rolled angel hair is doused with a faintly sweet tomato sauce that whispers of cinnamon as much as garlic.
Unlike at higher-end Italian spots, where pastas are considered the warm-up for cod, scallops or steak, here they're the main course. Protein can be added, though, as à la carte additions. Meatballs, made of spicy Italian sausage from heritage Berkshire hogs, are as good as you'd expect coming from a kid whose earliest food memories are of standing at his grandmother's side over a pot of red sauce, bread and spoon in hand. Just as good is the chicken cutlet, which is served without a sauce but doesn't need one, given all the flavor (lemon, oregano and parsley) front-loaded into the breadcrumbs.
The same cutlet can be had in the chicken parm sandwich, one of four bread-, not pasta-, based entrees on the menu. The satisfying sandwich is a mouthful, but it seems a shame to bury such flavorful bird under so much bread. The meatballs also come swaddled in an Italian baguette, with plenty of red sauce and whole basil leaves. After one messy bite of her sandwich, a friend blurted out, "I think it would be really hard to be vegan in Italy."
Where the kitchen veers from Grandma's territory, the results aren't such a sure bet. Polenta topped with arugula, balsamic-glazed mushrooms and a fried egg is like the blind date we've all been on: interesting at first, but not where you want to spend the rest of the night. At lunch one day, I tried to salvage a roasted-red-pepper-and-Fontina sandwich by borrowing an old pizza-parlor trick and soaking up oil with my napkin, only to give up after a few slightly-less-oily-but-still-bland bites; salsa verde should have provided balancing brightness, but the lemon and capers seemed to have clocked out early. And a so-called salad of cannellini beans, black rice, greens, shaved asparagus and another fried egg looked like a plate that had been through a buffet, with a little of this and a little of that dabbed on. Designed with the help of DiFranco's personal trainer, who works at the fitness center in the same building as DiFranco's, the salad may get a stamp of nutritional approval, but the odd mash-up won't win any culinary awards.
DiFranco's grandmother might not be here in person, but she's present in spirit as well as image (that's her in the photo, wearing a bathing suit and holding the fish). So listen when she says "Eat, eat," and finish your meal with dessert. Housemade lemon-ricotta cookies (a family recipe) are the most popular sweet, but at this point in the summer, nothing beats an icy lemon-orange granita. DiFranco says the refreshing dessert isn't selling as well as he'd like, a fact that stumps him and me both, given the puckery allure of this grown-up snow cone.
The only explanation, of course, is that someone forgot to put it in the memo.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.