The action is heating up at the Icehouse, 1801 Wynkoop Street, where the Icehouse Tavern could open as early as June 1. It's another project by the Momo brothers, who'd owned Via, the previous occupant of the space, and run Cucina Colore in Cherry Creek.
And James Mazzio, Via's last chef and a man with a very impressive resume, will be back in the kitchen. As Mazzio tells it, "We're just standing outside one day, and Venanzio [Momo] is saying, 'I want to close Via, what should we do?'" Mazzio told him, "I think we should try to fit the building, fit the surroundings. How about Icehouse Tavern?" Turns out, the two men were thinking the same way -- of creating a bar and grill for "people who want to meet after work, people who want to meet after the game," he says.
"We're doing simple comfort food, comfort food the way I came from it," Mazzio explains. "Solid ingredients, nothing too foofy, good techniques -- and hearty portions of the stuff. I don't think anyone is doing what we're thinking about to this level."
In addition to creating the menu, Mazzio is also rehabbing the space that has held numerous restaurants (among them Cucina Cucina, Anita's Crab Shack and Brasserie Rouge) over the last two decades, gutting it and recreating the room to be less slick, more comfortable. The fireplace is gone; the bar is now in the middle. "I redid the deck, I'm redoing the bathrooms myself, too," Mazzio says. "When you put your own blood, sweat and tears into the place, it makes it really feel like yours."
Blood, sweat, tears and smoke. Mazzio has taken out the pizza ovens that were a hallmark of Via, and added a smoker to the kitchen. "They wouldn't let me put it outside," he says. "People would think the building's on fire."
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Mazzio knows what it's like to be hot -- and get burned. His first role as top toque was at Boulder's 15 Degrees, which earned him recognition from Food & Wine as one of America's top ten best new chefs. That was in 1999. Two years later, he'd moved on to Triana, which he left to start his own catering company. After that, he was off to Chicago. In the meantime, Via, which had opened in 2005, was going through several chefs:Andrea Frizzi, Via's talented opening chef, left to open his own place, Il Posto; quasi-celebrity chef Rollie Wesen, who replaced him, didn't last long; and for a while, Anthony Momo was doing the cooking. Then Venanzio called Mazzio, who decided it was time to come back to Denver.
By late 2006, he was working with the Momo brothers on their various ventures, based at Via (where he earned a rave from Sheehan). Soon Mazzio added a gig consulting with Neighborhood Flix. But the movie house/restaurant closed last fall, and Via was having trouble, too. "Everyone and their mother was opening up Italian down here," Mazzio says. But no one's mother is doing comfort food.
So now Mazzio and the Momos think they may have finally found the best fit for the space. "We surely hope that this will be the last," he concludes.