After prowling for more than a year to find the perfect space to open his first restaurant, Mario Nocifera, a former Frasca Food & Wine alum who commanded the front of the house at the nationally recognized Boulder restaurant for two years, finally dried the ink on a space last week at 2020 Lawrence Street, a mixed-use loft, restaurant and retail development just a bat's swing from Coors Field.
The 3,800-square-foot build out, which is scheduled for completion in early fall, will actually be run by two past Frasca pros: Nocifera and his executive chef and business partner Alex Figura, both of whom have incredibly impressive backgrounds that extend beyond Frasca: Nocifera worked at the Little Nell in Aspen, along with Frasca co-owner Bobby Stuckey (the two were housemates); Charles Nob Hill, a now-closed San Francisco restaurant that was owned by celeb chef Michael Mina; and the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton, where he was the manager and maître d' of the swanky hotel's restaurant. Nocifera is currently running the front of the house at Fruition. And Figura is no slouch either, having solidified his chops at Blue Hill at Stone Barns -- and Blue Hill Farm -- in Pocantico Hills, New York; Osteria and Verti in Philadelphia; and El Cellar de Can Roca, a three-star Michelin-rated restaurant in Spain.
"Alex and I met at Frasca, and his skill set is just amazing, plus we have a great chemistry and a very similar approach to the hospitality business. When we worked together at Frasca, it really made me realize that we saw to eye-to-eye," says Nocifera.
Together, the duo will open Lower48, a restaurant that obviously references the Lower 48 States. But the name, says Nocifera, pertains to more than just the generic term. He was reading Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, a book by Paul Greenberg that explores the four primary fishes that dominate most restaurant menus: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna -- and the problem of overfishing -- and Greenberg, who researches, among other things, salmon fishing in Alaska, continuously identifies the Lower 48 States within his text. "It's an important cultural book that everyone should read, and his references to the Lower 48 States resonated with me, and the name and concept came after reading the book," he explains.
The restaurant, he adds, will focus on regional classics -- tried-and-true Americana. The menu, a medley of small plates and main dishes, says Nocifera, is a "unique layout that casts a wide net and is seasonally-driven." Figura, he notes, is a "wizard with vegetables and pastas, pasties and breads, and artisanal breads will be an integral part of the menu."
And there will be plenty of space in which to enjoy Figura's food. There are seventy seats in the dining room, a twenty-seat bar, a patio, a chef's counter and a private dining room, which Nocifera promises won't be run-of-the-mill. "The private dining room is a convertible space -- we can open it for bar seating, or we can open it for overflow from the dining room. It doesn't feel isolated -- it's not like your at the kid's table. We want it to feel as good as the main dining room," he says.
An exhibition kitchen and a community table will round out the space, which Nocifera notes will "incorporate different aspects of Americana without being too kitschy" -- railroad motifs, for example. "It will definitely have its own personality and identity," he continues, revealing that he's hooked up with a local mill worker to ensure that the aesthetics adhere to that premise. "We're working with a mill worker, who's working really closely with people who have reclaimed items, and we already have an amazing piece of mahogany -- it's the most beautiful wood you've every seen in your life -- that we'll use for our community table and bar." Natural materials and conversation-piece lighting will also come into play.
Figura's dishes will be complemented by a serious wine list and cocktails. "I like to enjoy wine with food, so there will be a strong emphasis on wines and a thoughtful and approachable cocktail program with proper ice and fresh ingredients," divulges Nocifera. "Our aspiration is to provide great beverages with food and to make sure that there's thoughtful synergy."
And Nocifera says that he can't get started soon enough. "I've been in this industry my entire life -- it's the only business I know and love -- and I'm at a point in my career where it doesn't make sense to work for anyone else; doing it for myself is a better opportunity, and I'm so excited to do the right thing in Denver, to provide a quality product in a cool room that embraces artisanal thought processes," he says.
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When Lower48 opens -- September is the target month -- it'll be open for dinner six nights a week. "We'll be closed either Sunday or Monday, but we're still figuring that out," admits Nocifera. "All I know is that I think this is a really cool neighborhood -- it's part of the urban core but just a little removed and gritty -- and I can't wait to open my first restaurant."