Salvatore Galati could be the ideal restaurant manager.
He's personable. He's easygoing but serious about the restaurant business; he's knowledgeable about wine and food and passionate about both. He knows how to make people feel welcome. He's traveled extensively, and he understands that there's a world of difference between canned and fresh sardines. He's a little goofy and always entertaining: Watching him is like watching an Italian Jim Carrey, all gangly limbs and comic expressions. There's something about him that suggests that at any moment, he could break into a little jig or fling himself down on the floor next to your table to ask how your meal is going--both of which he did during a recent dinner. And since he's in charge of the music, too--including the live bands on Thursday and Friday nights--you never know what kind of mood he'll set. One night it's hard-edged blues, another it's Colombian salsa.
Yes, Galati could be the ideal restaurant manager. Too bad the restaurant he manages isn't ideal--yet.
Last September the Momo brothers--Raoul, Carlo and Venunzio--hired Galati to manage Mediterra, the remake of the downtown space where they'd introduced Teresa's Cafe a year before. The brothers had started the first Teresa's (named after their mother) in Princeton, New Jersey, before coming west to open another Teresa's in Boulder, along with Pizza Colore in downtown Denver and Cucina Colore in Cherry Creek North. Unlike those restaurants, though, the Teresa's at 15th and Lawrence streets never found a following. In the meantime, the brothers had started Mediterra, a successful tapas bar and Mediterranean-cuisine restaurant in Princeton, and they thought the same concept might work here.
For Denver's Mediterra, they kept Teresa's interior, so appealing to the younger crowd that likes clean lines and an uncluttered look (the better to see and be seen), as well as the exposition kitchen. And then they decided to bring Galati in to run the show. (When talking to his staffers, the manager even refers to the period right before the dinner rush as "showtime.")
Carlo Momo discovered Galati reading an Italian newspaper and drinking an espresso in the Princeton Teresa's. The 27-year-old Galati had just arrived from Italy, where he had sold both of the restaurants he owned near Venice. "I always get asked the question of how I owned restaurants so young," Galati says. "I started in the business when I was sixteen, working for my girlfriend's father, who had restaurants. I just fell in love with the business. And then when I was twenty, I left home. And let me tell you, in Italy, when you're twenty and not married and you leave your house, you're weird as far as other Italians are concerned."
So he needed to support himself, and buying a restaurant seemed like a good idea. He got a little help from his girlfriend's father, scraped together everything he'd saved from slaving away eighty hours a week in other restaurateurs' kitchens and dining rooms, and bought his first place. Soon he had a second. After a few years, though, he sold both restaurants. He wanted to travel and see the world.
He'd made it as far as Princeton when the Momo brothers tapped him to manage first the Teresa's there, and then the original Mediterra.
And then Galati got his chance to see Denver.
He says he likes the city so far, although he's surprised by what Denverites will and won't eat. "I can't put foie gras on the menu, or haricots verts, because then people are asking all the time what they are--or they won't ask, and then they won't try it," he explains. "It takes a while for customers to try new things." He likens the city's dining scene to a Ferrari: "It's like the city is this beautiful car; it's a power engine with beautiful interiors, but whoever's been driving Denver, this Ferrari, has always driven a Fiat before or something. They don't know what they have."
What Mediterra has is a good concept, a great manager--and some serious production glitches. While the menu is an ambitious assemblage of innovative fare, the kitchen can't cook a simple piece of salmon right.
Fortunately, it did right by the grilled sardines ($8) appetizer. Although Mediterra calls itself a "tapas bar," the offerings are more like appetizers in the traditional, sizable American sense than the now too-famous Spanish tidbits--but these appetizers are nothing like the traditional American chicken wings and potato skins. Galati's not afraid to introduce Denver to something new, and the sardines definitely qualify. Nobody else in these parts offers fresh sardines, and certainly no one else offers them with a shaved fennel salad and a salsa verde of vinegary tomatillo halves that were all crunch and munch beneath four tasty, fresh fishies. (A recent review of Mediterra in one of the dailies claimed they were canned, but I've never gotten a sardine out of a can that was splayed down the center and still wearing its tail.)
Other appetizers weren't nearly as stunning, though. The "assortment" of Mediterranean cheeses with serrano ham and seasonal fruit ($7.50) contained about two ounces each of Manchego, Asiago and Provolone, and while Galati later told me the Manchego was curado rather than viejo (the difference is in age, with the viejo being older and drier), the pieces we ate were indistinguishable from the Asiago, which is a hard cheese that approaches Parmigiano-Reggiano in texture and flavor. To work right, the cheeses need more variety in texture and flavor, and I would expect the "seasonal fruit" to yield more than two lonely strawberries. The ham on the plate, however, was pure hog heaven, the tiny bites slick with olive oil and bearing a sharp, addictive flavor.
There was no flavor at all to the piquillo pepper filled with goat cheese ($7.50). The pepper, it turned out, was not the sweet Spanish piquillo, but a regular old red pepper; Galati says he's had trouble importing the piquillo and so instead roasts a bell. But this pepper didn't even have a good roasted flavor, much less the bite of roasted vegetables promised on the menu. The only taste I could discern came from the wad of watered-down goat-cheese stuffing.
The kitchen struck again with that overcooked salmon filet. It arrived floating atop a sea of scallion-strewn calamari stew ($15.50) that was sided by chorizo-studded basmati. I couldn't resist ordering the dish, knowing that such an unusual combination would either be interesting or a complete bomb, and I was relieved when it was the former--although I still don't know how or why the combo works. The squid was soft, bolstered by a tomato broth; the rice was properly cooked and enhanced by the small amount of chorizo that had been added to it; and each component played off well against everything else, even the salmon. But the waiter had made a point of asking me what temperature I wanted the fish, and the medium-cooked salmon I got was well past the rare I'd requested. Nevertheless, it was flavorful and fresh, grilled evenly for just enough char to heighten the taste without making it a charcoal briquette.
Our other entree sounded much more straightforward: fat, homemade ravioli filled with roasted eggplant ($13) in a killer cream sauce pungent with walnuts and sun-dried tomatoes. While the nuts were the predominant ingredient, they combined with the others to create a rich, wonderful presence, and we somehow managed to eat every last drop without keeling over from the richness of it all.
If we had known how outrageously rich and exquisite the tiramisu ($6) was going to be, though, we never would have eaten all the ravioli. My husband had ordered the delicious tartufo affogato ($6), an imported ball of vanilla gelato--well, it didn't taste quite as good as gelato; I think it was an inferior brand--encased in chocolate gelato and sprinkled with chocolate. He was enjoying it thoroughly until he stuck a fork in my tiramisu, and then it was all I could do to get my plate back. "How could you sit here eating that and letting me make do with this?" he asked.
Tiramisu, once a respected, tried-and-true Italian staple, has become something of a joke at most restaurants. But not at Mediterra. The requisite coffee, liquor, zabaglione and cake components had melded into one smooshy entity, with the achingly toothsome texture that made the dessert famous in the first place.
Infamous might be the word to describe the ravioli Amatriciana ($7.50) I had on my second visit. When this dish was created in Amatrice, Italy, the sauce was a tomato with onions and bacon (pancetta) that had been cooked in oil and then showered with grated pecorino. But in Rome, anything cooked Amatriciana has chile peppers added. And Mediterra's Amatriciana sauce tasted like the kitchen had made a stop in Thailand on its way home from Rome; it was so hot it scorched my tastebuds, and I couldn't tell if the dish contained anything other than the peppers.
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So the tagliatelle ($8) with chicken and arugula in a garlic cream sauce came as somewhat of a relief: sturdy, unoffensive, but rather boring and lacking any oomph. The Caesar we'd ordered on the side ($5.75) had far more garlic flavor, and while bereft of anchovy, the dressing was snappy and tart and the romaine beneath it very cold and crisp.
Galati, who says he came up with the Caesar recipe, often dons chef's whites during lunches and sometimes even during dinners. "I love to help in the kitchen," he says. "I love to taste the foods and work with the dishes."
Maybe he should be back there more often. Until Galati gets the kitchen under control, Mediterra's "showtime" won't be prime time.
Mediterra, 1475 Lawrence Street, 623-2300. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-midnight Friday; 4-11 p.m. Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday.