Lala's is a shining light in a former black hole
By last year, the vacant restaurant space at 410 East Seventh Avenue was beginning to take on an odor, an invisible miasma of failure that was blamed on everything from the economy to the parking situation to the weird little jog that Seventh Avenue takes coming off Broadway — but it was really just the stink of too many ghosts crowding the dining room, the lingering spirits of bad ideas haunting the galley. The specters of Transalpin, and Sacre Bleu, and Vega, and Sparrow, and a couple of other restaurants that came and went almost too fast to notice. No sane restaurateur was going to take the place now, because restaurant people are, for the most part, highly superstitious creatures. Chefs, especially, but experienced owners, too. Without a very compelling reason or a very good out, no one in his right mind would sign on for this space.
Enter Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria, which took over this address in August, brought to life by the very sane restaurateurs who own Govnr's Park, right around the corner. Govnr's Park has a historic hold on this neighborhood, having commanded a nice view of the crossroads since the mid-'70s and the loyalty of regulars for nearly as long. Their theory in opening Lala's — which reportedly got its name from the nickname of the daughter of Walter Cheesman, who built the Governor's Mansion, just up the street — was simple: They wanted a place where they wanted to go, an Italian pizzeria done in the style of actual pizzerias in Italy, with the kind of convivial vibe that's the dream of the Italian experience for those visiting from far away. They wanted a place where people would get up and walk around and chat with their neighbors, share food and wine and good times, and spend lots and lots of money without ever really realizing it as the shared plates and salumi platters stacked up and were whisked away by smiling, fast-moving servers.
It was not the worst idea in the world. Not the most wildly original, either, but at least the motive was pure. They would open the restaurant they wanted and then hope like hell that the neighbors and friends who'd been so loyal over the years would discover that they wanted the same thing.
Stepping into Lala's for the first time was really like stepping in for the tenth time or twentieth, and I was instantly hit by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I've spent a lot of time in this dining room; reviewed its former occupants twice and written about them dozens of times; had formative and seminal nights at the bar and eaten some of the best food in the city here, as well as some of the worst. So as I walked through the door with the same hostess stand and the same odd little light-projection on the floor of the restaurant's name that I'd seen so many times before, all those memories, all those meals — the ones I'd loved and the ones I'd hated and the ones I'd only heard about second- and third-hand — piled up on me and, looking out over a room I know so well, I saw only another restaurant's skin stretched thin and tight over the bones of those that had come before.
The pea greens of Sparrow that replaced the icy whites of Vega have been painted over again, replaced now with the French mustard yellows and earth tones of the respectable trattoria and wine bar. There is wood and there is metal and, just on the other side of the gleaming, open pass, there is the yellowed brick of a pizza oven — but the new bosses haven't changed the arrangement of tables, the disbursement of seats, the curves of short walls that break the floor. Squint a little, and with the right eyes, you can see a waiter delivering this newfangled thing called "tapas" to Transalpin's customers; or the phantom of some tattooed girl with big hair running lines along the far end of the bar from back when clever heads called this place "Sacre Blow" and all the tables were mirrored; or a younger, meaner, more desperate Sean Yontz bashing his way into the Vega kitchen. You can still see the energy of Sparrow running like a circulatory diagram on the floor — servers walking the paths that other servers once walked — and sense the thousands of nights of service that have been run through this space like a kind of lingering static.
And yet Lala's is completely different. It took me a minute to shake off the triple vision I was experiencing, but once I did, I saw the wisdom in not screwing around too much with the bones. This space has been refined and re-refined a lot over the years. Doomed owners have dumped barrels full of money into it. And for the most part, the problems were never physical; they were almost always spiritual, conceptual or culinary. Especially culinary.
Wisely, Lala's has focused on the food. It has a small menu, elegantly spare. There are salads and snacks, nibbles and bites and pizzas. And that's pretty much it. Every day and every night, the kitchen runs up a few specials: pastas, risottos, a nice duck ravioli, whatever the cooks can get their hands on, whatever they have knocking around, whatever moves them right then and right there. Every day and every night, they list the available meats and cheeses for the salumi plates (Spanish lomo, Provençal salame, three-milk blended soft cheese and handmade burrata) and offer a large flatbread and dips and spreads that's such an old idea (I was doing that in one of my own kitchens more than a dozen years ago) that it has almost become new again — a recovered treasure of culinary thrift and smart menu design. There is no expectation of greatness here (as there was at Vega), no pretension (which powered Sacre Bleu) or laziness (the ultimate cause of Sparrow's death). The roasted garlic is basic, the cippolini onion and chickpea a rather clever adaptation, the white-anchovy tapenade with tomato and onion a serious hit of what someone halfway across the world in an actual Italian pizzeria might really be eating at the same moment it first touches your tongue, and the warm olive spreads a bright and sour example of how the simplest things can often be the best.
My first time through, I ate a sandwich that wasn't really a sandwich at all, but a piadine — an open-faced quasi-sandwich served on baked pizza dough and eaten however you can manage it. Imagine an Italian version of a Mexican huarache, cover it with lettuce and spill half of it down the front of your shirt, and you're in the ballpark. I'd gone with the moto guzzi and wound up scooping up the chicken and goat cheese with my fingers, wrapping bites in shredded leaves of romaine, popping bits of gold and crimson beets into my mouth and then eating the flatbread and olive tapenade like dessert. I'd also ordered the meatballs, and two massive ones arrived in a small trencher. They were fantastic: made with veal and lamb and pork, slathered in the house red gravy (heavy on the tomatoes, light on everything else).
On subsequent visits, I've eaten my way through the rest of the menu. The plates can be as simple as the stunted Caprese — made with buratta rather than mozzarella, just cheese and fresh tomato and balsamic vinegar — and the melon with prosciutto, the meat touched with olive oil, the fruit glazed with a fig balsamic vinegar. And they get no more complex than the Roman artichokes (fried whole, in jackets of excellent batter) with a peppery aioli and pesto and greens, or the fritto misto, which flanks the calamari with fennel bulbs and lemon and caper berries and olive.
I've stopped by Lala's looking for nothing but a glass of Rioja and a long, narrow plate of lomo, prosciutto and cheese, meaning to eat only a bite of this or that, and ended up devouring half a pizza — Denver's best flatbread pie, hands-down, the only nearly-cracker-crust that interests me in this town. The pizzas, too, are simple: good ingredients, unfucked with. The Lombardi has cheese, prosciutto and arugula, nothing more. The margherita: house red sauce, housemade mozz, some schiffonade of basil and a touch of Italian Parmaggiano. The only pizza I've found (thus far) that crossed the line between brilliant simplicity and fawning over-complication was the quattro formaggi. Four cheeses? That's at least one too many. It smelled like feet, and I tossed half of it away.
It's been a long time since there's been a restaurant in this space that I could say I liked without reservation. Like I like Lala's. Obviously, not everything here is perfect: The bar can be a little slow; the menu, even in its brevity, a bit repetitive (all flatbread, all the time); and then there was that foot pizza...
But I have been watching this space at 410 East Seventh Avenue for all of my six-pushing-seven years in this town. In it — in the course its various owners have charted, in the grand openings and miserable closures that have marked its calendar — there has been sketched a brief history of our industry over the past decades. From high-flying to lowbrow, fine dining to neighborhood grub, this single space has been a bellwether, a benchmark of where we are and where we've come from. And now, with Lala's firmly in place, looking healthy and preaching community and simplicity and a complete lack of pretension, maybe it will be a glance forward, too — a look at where we might end up in a couple more years and what we might have to do to get there.
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