"Well, this is definitely a step up from Red Lobster," I said to my husband as we headed into Aurora's Italian Fisherman.
But not that much higher: It turns out that the owners of both Italian Fisherman locations--in Aurora and Littleton--once worked for General Mills, which used to own Red Lobster, and all three--Larry Small, Tom Schopfer and Bill Takash--spent time in management positions at a few Red Lobster outlets. When they'd had enough of that, Small and Schopfer decided to strike out on their own, opening the Aurora Italian Fisherman in September 1993. Takash came on board soon after. Here's how he explains the reasoning behind the Italian-seafood combo: "Italian food was becoming popular, and our backgrounds in seafood made the two seem like a natural combination.
"You have to go with what you know," he adds.
And these guys clearly know something about fish, since much of the seafood we sampled on our visits to both Italian Fisherman was nicely cooked and, with one exception, very fresh. For the most part, the Italian offerings also passed inspection, although the sixty-item menu betrayed some ignorance of Italian cuisine. For example, several dishes were simply labeled "Italiana"--either no one knew their real names, or the management thought diners wouldn't care.
But where Italian Fisherman really misses the boat is in the kitchen. What was billed as mozzarella Italiana ($4.95) was actually an attempt at Neapolitan mozzarella in carrozza, a preparation in which slices of the cheese are lightly breaded and fried until molten. Unfortunately, the difficulty with serving this--and I mean the authentic version, not those previously frozen sticks--in a restaurant was immediately apparent at the Littleton Italian Fisherman. The plate hit the table lukewarm--and recoagulating cheese is about as appetizing as erasers. In order to make this dish work, the waitstaff needs to hustle to make sure it arrives hot. Fortunately, there was plenty of heat to the steamed clams and mussels appetizer ($7.95); the ample portion of mollusks was still releasing steam, and the underlying broth of saffron-strewn white wine and garlic butter kept the shellfish--and our feelings about the dish--plenty warm.
The heat had also gotten to the Atlantic swordfish ($18.99), which strayed dangerously across the line into dry country. One of Italian Fisherman's frequently changing roster of "fresh fish chronicles" (a separate menu printed with the names of the common catches, with space left for the prices to be written in each day), the swordfish was a decent-sized steak that had been draped with melted butter but pulled off the grill seconds too late. Fish keeps cooking after it's removed from the heat; that's why competent chefs undercook it. But then, our pollo piccata ($10.95) was cooked perfectly, the tender chicken breast awash in a bath of white wine, lemon and butter with capers and mushrooms.
Our first visit to the Littleton restaurant had resulted in such a mixed catch that we returned for another try. This time, the first keeper was the garlic cheese bread ($4.25), six pieces of pungent bread covered with provolone and mozzarella that had been baked until the cheeses combined into one layer. But we should have thrown back the shrimp cocktail ($5.95), whose chilled shrimp had that disgusting mushy consistency that's a sure sign of undercooking.
A kid's order of spaghetti and meat sauce ($3.99, including a drink and ice cream) came quickly after the appetizers, a good move since it would keep the kid busy. Little did I know it would also give me something to munch on for the half-hour it took my lasagne ($8.95) to appear. The kitchen should have ditched the dish altogether. While the spaghetti noodles had been tossed with a wonderfully concentrated red sauce rife with bits of sausage and meatballs and all the flavors that come from them, the lasagne was a waste. Barely warm, it was inexplicably dried out across the top, where a coating of cheese had the sickly look of wet plastic. The sausage and cheese layers between the pasta were substantial but held little appeal at this temperature. And the pool of red sauce around the wedge offered a flavor boost, but there wasn't enough of it to coat--much less heat--every bite.
With the lasagne came Italian Fisherman bread--warm, but unevenly soaked in herbed butter--as well as a choice of Caesar or house salad. At both locations, the Caesar was a bland batch of romaine tossed in a dressing that tasted slightly of mayonnaise, even less of garlic, and of nothing else at all. At the Littleton outlet, the house salad was a colorful mix of iceberg lettuce, red cabbage, carrots and tomato wedge with a poorly stirred Italian-style dressing (too much vinegar, too little oil). In Aurora, the house salad was nothing but romaine and parmesan, dressed in something tangy and flavorful. According to Takash, the head chefs at each restaurant--Chester Wright in Littleton and Richard Zimmerman in Aurora--are allowed some "creative license" that accounts for the differences between the two spots.
Luckily, the Fisherman clam chowder ($2.50 a cup) is a consistent keeper. A light touch with the heavy cream kept this hearty soup from attaining the consistency of oatmeal and let the many clams have their say. The kitchen showed similar skill with the cioppino ($17.95), a seafood-laden stew of salmon, clams, mussels, snow crab, shrimp and scallops, all swimming in a gentle tomato broth flavored with the most generous use of saffron I've encountered outside of Spain. We could actually taste the saffron--hardly typical for this expensive spice--and it added unexpected dimensions to an intense interpretation of the bouillabaisse-like meal generally credited to Italian immigrants in San Francisco (who fashioned it after ciuppin, the simple fish soup found along the Italian Riviera). Still, we had a few quibbles. First, the extra-large bowl--nothing wrong with that, of course--was so full that trying to extract a mussel sent waves of broth washing over the sides. Second, the stew contained squid (not listed on the menu) that had been cooked into radial-tire status. I'd also ordered a side of snow crab legs ($5.95 with an entree) to go with the cioppino, but they weren't worth the effort. These limbs had been previously frozen, which didn't alter the flavor (the flesh was deliciously sweet) but made it difficult to crack them open, since freezing often makes the shells soft. We would have been better off with a pair of scissors than a fork.
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The only thing wrong with the "seafood festival" ($12.95)--besides the combination platter's silly name, that is--was that the fish had been slightly overcooked. Salmon is more forgiving than swordfish, though, so we still enjoyed the fillet served with cannelloni alla Pacifico--pasta tubes filled with herbed ricotta cheese and topped with shrimp, calamari, scallops and mozzarella. I asked a waitress whether the "Pacifico" part meant that the dish was cooked California-style or the seafood came from the Pacific, and she replied that it was named that because "the seafood's on top." Whatever. The dish offered a nice mixture of flavors and textures, all blanketed in the Italian Fisherman's excellent marinara sauce, a dark red gravy with a cooked-down quality.
Italian food and fresh fish should be a winning combination--but the Italian Fisherman needs to work on those connections before these restaurants represent a net gain to the Denver dining scene.
Italian Fisherman, 13250 East Mississippi Avenue, Aurora, 752-2502. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Italian Fisherman, 9150 West Cross Drive, Littleton, 904-3138. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.