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From Momo to Momo

Sometimes a restaurant owner has to kick some butt to turn a place around. It worked at Cucina Colore, the Cherry Creek North link in the Momo family chain that originated in New Jersey, stretched to Boulder with Teresa's Pizza Colore nearly six years ago and then added Pizza Colore in Writer Square before opening Cucina in August 1994.

A little over a year ago, in one of my rare visits to a restaurant when I'm not on dining duty and instead am looking to relax, I tried Cucina Colore. I wasn't impressed. The service was lackadaisical, the food uneven, and it seemed like high school kids were running the place. A week after my meal there, a slew of employees called to complain that they'd been fired unfairly--which I doubted--and that owner Venanzio Momo had brought in his brother, Anthony, to run the show. Smart move, guys: When I visited Cucina recently, it was like stepping into a new and wonderful restaurant.

Now it's time to kick some butt at the latest Momo venture, Teresa's Pizzetta Caffe. This three-month-old downtown branch, named after the Momos' mama, is decorated in the same style as Cucina--streamlined counters lined with baskets of cannoli shells, breads and other ingredients, bold colors and smooth wood accents--and the menus are nearly identical. But there the similarities end--unless you're comparing Teresa's with the disappointing Cucina of fifteen months ago.

Our first time at Teresa's started smoothly enough, with a visit from a charming waiter who wasn't going to be ours for the evening but took our drink orders anyway. Our real waiter, who was considerably less charming, brought our menus and two glasses of wine--and then disappeared for about ten minutes. That was more than enough time for us to realize that one of the wines wasn't what I'd ordered and that both glasses were sporting a shade of lipstick that neither of us wears. Oops on both counts, the waiter said when he finally reappeared and learned of the problems. He replaced the wine, took our order, brought our Caprese appetizer ($6.50)--and then disappeared again for a few years. Maybe he didn't want to hear our complaints about the terrible "vine-ripened" (hey, don't say it on the menu if it ain't so) crunchy, greenish-pink tomatoes; one slice still had a hunk of stem left on it. The tomatoes came layered with top-notch mozzarella in three little sandwiches, but one tiny leaf of fresh basil per sandwich seemed a bit stingy, as did the meager pool of extra-virgin olive oil. It looked like the kitchen had been hoarding the rest of the olive oil for the dressing on the Caesar ($5.50), which was so oily that the romaine had started to turn transparent. But nothing could have softened up the "toasted bread" croutons that topped the salad: They were impenetrable by either fork tines or teeth, and we couldn't attempt to eat them without hurting ourselves or someone at a nearby table. The house salad ($4) of mixed greens also came overdressed for the occasion in a vinaigrette of oil and balsamic, which had an off taste.

That was nothing compared to the way-off taste of overcooked garlic in the linguine al rucola ($10.75), however. Fresh arugula had been sauteed with diced romas, white wine and the parmesan-like grana padano, a promising combination ruined when the cook failed to notice the garlic turning brown. The kitchen served the mess anyway--over fettuccine, not linguine. We did get the right pasta with the linguine gambaretti ($13.50), and in this dish the garlic worked perfectly with the pan-seared shrimp, romas, flat-leaf parsley and olive oil.

With memories of Teresa's curiously uneven meal still fresh, a shopping trip to Cherry Creek found us staring into the vast windows of Cucina Colore. Although we were hesitant to subject ourselves to another odd evening, hunger and our unwillingness to walk another block drew us in. This time, we were rewarded with an impeccable experience from start to finish, and not even the presence of our toddler could dissuade the waiter from his cheerful and professional demeanor.

We started our meal with a test: the antipasti citterio ($7). When I'd eaten at Cucina the year before, the appetizer collection of Italian cold cuts, olives and marinated vegetables had been a mishmash of canned and substandard components. This platter, though, was a thing of beauty--an artfully arranged array of tangy, vinegary, sweet and salty items, including a wedge of pie that tasted like spinach quiche, huge slices of roasted eggplant and a lot of prosciutto. We followed that with a light, well-melded tomato-basil soup ($4) and a house salad ($4) that was supposedly the same as Teresa's--only this one featured a superb olive-oil-and-balsamic vinaigrette.

The execution of our entrees was just as flawless. An order of ravioli di pomodori secchi ($10.50) brought large homemade ravioli stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and fontina swimming in a creamy, but not rich, pesto sauce. The melanzane padano ($12) was a lasagne-looking stack of eggplant, ricotta, grana padano and mozzarella smothered in a sharp marinara and more mozzarella; the slice was almost too big for one person, and it came with a pile of grilled summer vegetables and some vinaigrette-coated mixed greens.

The meal was going so well that even though we could hardly eat another bite, we simply had to get dessert--and we were glad we did. The fresh peach bread pudding ($5) was heavenly, with big, slippery hunks of fruit draped over a spongy, not-too-dense piece of bread pudding, and hot caramel sauce poured over it all. Only a smidgen less stunning was the gratinata di sottoboschi ($6): berries broiled inside a super-sweet vanilla-bean-and-mascarpone custard.

Meanwhile, back at Teresa's, things had gone from bad to worse. When we returned for a second meal there, we ordered the same dishes we'd just enjoyed at Cucina. Not only did the kitchen fail us, but it seemed as though the waitstaff was even more bumbling this time around. Forget dirty wineglasses or the wrong wine: Our waiter didn't manage to bring us a glass of wine--any wine at all--even after three stops by the table. Finally, another guy brought the wine (I think our waiter was too embarrassed to return), then tried to take away our half-eaten antipasti Teresa ($6.50). In retrospect, we probably should have let him have it; although the antipasti was supposed to be similar to the platter we'd wolfed down at Cucina, the presentation here was like a cold-cut plate at a church bazaar after everyone's picked at it, with squishy olives and roasted eggplant so soaked through with olive oil that it resembled a sponge.

By now our waiter had found his courage and brought our salads. We'd skipped the soup because he'd said he didn't think it was good--but could the soup have been any worse than a Caesar ($5.50) filled with brown, yucky romaine? Or a house salad ($4) that came complete with gnawed olive pit? "I don't know how that got in there," the waiter said. He took the salads back to the kitchen and returned with our entrees. We told him we still wanted salads, though, so he trudged off again and reappeared with new salads. Then another waiter brought another set of salads. We were hardly halfway through our first replacement set (these were much improved) when our waiter came and whisked all the salads off the table. We protested, but since he'd stacked the plates on top of each other, we finally gave up and turned our attention to the entrees--which were only slightly less laughable than the salad routine. The ravioli di pomodori secchi ($10.75) had the promised sun-dried-tomato-and-fontina filling but also a dried-glue pesto cream sauce that tasted almost exclusively of cream. And the melanzane padano ($13), inexplicably a dollar more here than at Cucina, had so much mozzarella that we could hardly find the eggplant--which turned out to be a wafer-thin, dried-out slice that tasted of salt. The accompanying vegetable was mushy yellow summer squash with more mushy yellow summer squash for color; a sliver of zucchini in the mix led me to believe that some other diner had gotten all the green stuff.

I still got stuck shelling out plenty of green stuff, though, since the salads wound up on the bill--without any kind of apology as window dressing. Turn around, Teresa's: I'd say some butt-kicking is in order.

Cucina Colore, 3041 East Third Avenue, 393-6917. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday.

Teresa's Pizzetta Caffe, 1475 Lawrence Street, 623-2300. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday.

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Cucina Colore

3041 E. 3rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80206

303-393-6917

www.cucinacolore.com


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