It's a Date

Submitted for your consideration: two fairly similar restaurants, at least as far as food quality, efficiency and atmosphere go. But while one keeps packing them in, the other waits for the phone to ring.

The busy restaurant, Il Fornaio, is like that girl who moved from New York to your hometown of Dumpsville during eleventh grade. All the guys went insane over her provocative, big-city looks while ignoring her average personality. She was aloof to all, but everyone remained enthralled by her.

The not-so-busy restaurant, Sostanza, is like the pretty but not drop-dead-gorgeous sweetie you'd been dating for a few months and really liked--until Miss Thang arrived. While you keep panting over the new kid in town, your old girlfriend, trouper that she is, has been waiting patiently for you to come to your senses.

And waiting, and waiting.
Sostanza is not entirely innocent in all of this, of course. When the restaurant opened last summer, it had quite a few problems, many of which were caused by alleged chef Marco Casas (at least, that's one of his many aliases). General manager Michael Herrick says Casas passed himself off as Italian (according to state records, he was born in Argentina), set up an absurd, unworkable kitchen and then proceeded to get the place in legal trouble when the Department of Excise and Licenses discovered he had lied about a prior felony conviction. Sostanza was forced to shut down for a week as punishment, but by then Casas was long gone, as were untold numbers of disgruntled diners who had been turned off by the dishes of questionable Italian origin (the names of which were ridiculously misspelled on the menu), the uneven cooking, and the general sense of unease that comes from a waitstaff obviously frustrated by what's going on.

But once Herrick's wife, Colleen, a professional chef and experienced troubleshooter, stepped into the kitchen in December, things improved substantially at Sostanza (the name even means "substance" in Italian). Since then, the food has been worthy of the impressive setting: warm, earth-toned walls, colorful flower arrangements in cobalt vases and trompe l'oeil wall paintings in a late-1800s building that once housed horses for the Denver City Railroad Company--the floors were lovingly restored to their hoof-scraped natural beauty--and is now a toasty, upscale Tuscan villa complete with imported wood-fired oven.

Out of that oven come Sostanza's rustic breads and pizzas, both of which are done exceedingly well. Particularly good was the pizza alla Francesca ($9), a thin, crusty pie topped with fresh basil, mozzarella, garlic and sliced romas, just enough of each for balance and a good proportion of moist to dry. Add two orders of the insalata Caesar ($6)--sporting an anchovy-loaded vinaigrette that was fishier and more tart, in a good way, than most Caesar dressings--and the pizza made for a nice, light dinner for two.

On another visit, we wanted something with a little more sostanza. So we started with the calamari ($7), squid evenly coated with herb-seasoned breadcrumbs and served with a jalapeno-ignited dipping sauce, then jumped into a bowl of risotto del giorno ($15), which that day contained wild mushrooms, plenty of morels and a hint of buttery richness. What it didn't contain was even more telling: The tender, creamy rice wasn't glued together with the parmesan so many kitchens rely on and that gums up the works a few minutes off the heat. Even without the cheese, the risotto was very filling.

So was the agnello alle erbe ($27), a rack of herb-flecked lamb that came with a big pile of herbed roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables. The lamb chops, medium-thick and cooked until the edges had just started to caramelize, had been drizzled with a mild mint vinaigrette, which gave the meat that characteristically complementary lamb-mint pizzazz but also added a sharpness that I liked better than the traditional sweet jelly flavor. The vegetables sported strong grill marks and flavor, and the potatoes had that ideal balance of crisp outer shell to spongy, mealy interior.

By our third visit, we were ready to take on everything from antipasti to dolci, starting with the animele con piselli ($11), sweetbreads with prosciutto and fresh peas--otherwise known as heaven on a plate. Jumbo thymus glands had been tossed with shavings of Parma ham for an ultra-rich combination of sweet, meaty and salty. The carpaccio di manzoi ($11) was also tasty, although the charred beef tenderloin had been thickly sliced, which seemed at odds with the carpaccio concept and made for a lot of nearly raw meat to chew.

Still, we polished off our starters quickly and moved on to the ribollita ($5.50), the soup named after the Italian word for "reboiled." In Tuscany, Sunday supper is often beef boiled with vegetables, the leftovers of which are then cooked again the next day with beans and thus "reboiled." Sostanza's ribollita had that same next-day distinctiveness, with intense cooked-down flavors that had soaked into the bruschetta planted at the bottom of the bowl.

The soup's warm, homey quality was echoed by the gnocchi di melanzane ($12), a baked casserole of eggplant gnocchi that was just shy of mashed-potato consistency; each little dumpling had barely retained its shape and was almost bursting with the mild, rich nip of eggplant underscored by the slight acidity of a light fresh-tomato sauce. Technically, the gnocchi should have been better formed--usually in the baked (as opposed to boiled) version of this dish, the dumplings are cooked in milk for a while first to help them retain their pillow-like contours--but the result here was so soft and appealing, so full of the best of Italian flavors, that I was transported to some past life where my grandmother came from Siena rather than Kilarney.

What a disappointment, then, when the other entree proved a total bust. The conchiglie alla vodka ($12) put the conch-shell-shaped pasta in a tomato cream sauce supposedly containing pancetta, scallions, green peppercorns and vodka, but none of those ingredients were present in any discernible way. In fact, the sauce, which I had to spoon out of the bottom of the bowl from beneath the mound of semi-dry shells, was utterly bland. No hammy saltiness--or salty hamminess, for that matter--from the pancetta, no oniony singe, no peppercorn nip. Nothing but a very light tomato taste in a thin cream, and there wasn't even enough of that to moisten each shell.

But dessert was flawless. The slice of lemon cake ($5), which can be soooo boring, had a strong, zesty citrus punch trapped in its moist, crumbly body; the chocolate truffles ($5), two big balls of chocolate with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, were exquisite, decadent, evil--you name a chocolate-related adjective, and they fit it.

Overall, Sostanza is a dependable date. But the times I've visited--peak times--the place has been half full. And lunch got so slow that the restaurant dropped it altogether. Fortunately, Sostanza continues to offer lattes and pastries in the morning, which makes for a charming way to start the day. The dining room is quiet, peaceful and dim, so your eyes can adjust to reality a little more slowly. Later in the day, Sostanza sets up tables on the dock facing Union Station, which adds a nice urban hum to the already good people-watching from the restaurant's huge windows.

Just a block away, Il Fornaio offers a comparable view, minus the train station, as well as outside seating along Wazee Street. This expansive, magnificent space opened last December as Denver's link in the Il Fornaio chain (fifteen restaurants strong), which started in Italy in 1972 as a bakery (Il Fornaio means "the baker"). The bakery remains an important part of the operation--some Il Fornaios even have an espresso bar at their retail bakeries--which means you can buy Il Fornaio's excellent ciabatta, pagnotta and sfilatino anytime.

Or you can get a basket of the breads delivered to your table when you dine in. Lunch here does a big business, full of people almost as fabulous as the decor--sort of New York meets Rome, with lots of enormous, faux-weathered urns, wheaty dried-flower arrangements, wall murals of the Italian countryside and wine bottles scattered about. The only thing hipper than the surroundings would be the waitstaff, many members of which look as though they're just using this job to learn Method, which they'll use when they get that big modeling gig. Not one of the people who waited on us during our two visits was very approachable, except for the busboy, whose only modeling chance might come if Il Fornaio needs someone for a brochure shot of a busboy.

But even if the service was detached, it was proficient--with the exception of our server at lunch. We barely touched the carpaccio ($6.95), which was so salty I thought I'd never make it through a second bite. Not salty like when you accidentally pour too much on popcorn. Not salty like when you shake too much on your fries. Salty like when you grab a shaker, take off the cap and start drinking the contents. We couldn't figure out why anyone would salt a dish that already contains the natural saltiness of beef flesh and the natural saltiness of grana cheese and the natural saltiness of capers cured in brine. But there they were, visible grains of salt all over everything. The waitress caught me dipping the meat into my water glass to wash it off, and she saw that we didn't eat more than a few bites, but she couldn't have cared less. We didn't eat all of the calamaretti ($7.95), either, but not because it was too salty--it was simply dull. There was too much flour and not enough seasoning on the baby squid, and the marinara dipping sauce was all spicy heat with nothing behind it.

We weren't thrilled with the Caprese salad, either ($8.95). Nine bucks was too much money for six daubs of fresh mozzarella on six teeny pear tomatoes with six small basil leaves. The gnocchi entree ($12.95), on the other hand, was excellent: plush baubles of potato dough tossed in an exemplary sauce that was just light enough to be right for lunch. By leaving some on my plate, I still had room for the tiramisu ($5), an impressively creamy and sumptuous version that was everything this dessert should be--seductively squooshy, strong with coffee and liqueur, and so rich that you swear you can't finish it but are compelled to anyway.

At dinner the food was more consistent--and more consistently good. Except for the insalata invernale ($6.75), which seemed to be nothing but frisee, endive and radicchio tossed with grapes, walnuts, (too little) ripe gorgonzola and vinegar. But the minestrone di verdure ($4.95) was amazingly flavorful, especially considering that the soup's base was a vegetable stock. Large pieces of carrots, zucchini and potatoes had been cooked until soft in a tomato-enhanced broth; the outcome was a surprisingly down-to-earth dish for such a fancy-schmancy place.

The ravioli ($12.95) fit right in, though. A plateful of sizable pasta squares had been filled with bits of roasted duck, oven-dried tomatoes (they were a little soft and light to be sun-dried, as the menu promised) and mascarpone, then smothered in a saffron cream sauce. Just shy of being too luxurious, the disparate flavors--sweet duck, tart tomatoes, rich cheese--were well-matched to the mellow sauce. My only objection was a personal one: I like all of my pasta al dente with the exception of ravioli, which makes a wall in my stomach when it's not cooked enough. And this wasn't.

Like the duck, the roasted chicken ($12.95) benefited from time spent on Il Fornaio's big wood-fired grill. Half a bird had been marinated in lots of lemon, then cooked until the skin had just begun to blacken and everything was imbued with that sharp lemon tang. A wonderful side of sauteed spinach and a not-so-wonderful side of Tuscan white beans (they weren't cooked enough) rounded out the plate.

We finished off the meal with a slice of flourless chocolate cake ($5.25), which turned out to be the typical too-heavy-and-dense version, with a good chocolate flavor but no real distinction. But the affogato al caffe ($4.95) was delicious, even though the espresso completely overtook the white-chocolate ice cream.

All in all, I'd say the food at Il Fornaio and Sostanza is about a tie. Maybe it's Il Fornaio's distinctive atmosphere that keeps people coming back here--and keeps them from trying Sostanza. Given the choice, I'd probably return to Sostanza, where the staff was so much warmer and the surroundings less overwhelming.

I'd go for the grill you left behind.

Sostanza, 1700 Wynkoop Street, 292-4682. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Il Fornaio, 1631 Wazee Street, 573-5050. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.


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