Now, That's Italian
It's been almost two years since I've had decent Italian food. I've just recently come north from the culinary hinterlands of New Mexico, where a good red sauce is as hard to find as a cloudy day, a competent driver or a virgin bride. There were nights when I would have walked a hundred miles for a plate of honest-to-Jesus linguine or killed for a big, fat meatball sandwich. Cannoli? Forget it. I was once served a cannoli that was filled with Reddi-wip and Hershey's chocolate chips, and the restaurant (which for now shall remain nameless) had the nerve to call this a "handmade New York favorite" on the menu. I showed them another New York favorite -- and I only had to use one finger to do it.
Now, I'm originally from New York, born of solid mutt-Irish stock but raised on a steady, working-class diet of spaghetti with meat sauce, homemade gnocchi and a half-dozen varieties of parmigiana. My very first job, at age fifteen, was in the kitchen of a little mom-and-pop ristorante where I was responsible for boxing and turning the pizza dough and answering the phone for a clientele that spoke English just about as well as I spoke Italian -- which is to say, badly. From the moment I was old enough to chew until the day I left home, I ate Italian food at least twice a week, and never, ever, did it occur to me that there was anything but good Italian food out there. I mean, how could anybody do it wrong? Didn't everybody grow up eating like this?
Much to my surprise, I would come to find out that, no, everyone did not grow up eating like this. When I moved out on my own and started to travel, I discovered that some people grew up eating chicken-fried steak, or kimchi, or enchiladas. Some folks didn't have the slightest idea of what a pasta arrabbiata was, or why you must brown your meat in the same pot you're using to make your San Marzano sauce, or how a really good Alfredo should taste.
And much more recently, I discovered that all those poor souls who don't know a puttanesca from a primavera had moved to Albuquerque, with the express purpose of denying me that most basic and necessary sustenance: good Italian food. It was a conspiracy; I was sure of it. That's why now, I live here.
More to the point, that's why last week I was dining at Venice, chef Alessandro Carollo's three-month-old restaurant in Greenwood Village. Walking in a half-hour early for a six o'clock reservation, I was so badly in need of an Italian fix that I was ready to chew the bumper off a Ferrari. But the place was packed, so I waited.
It was worth it.
Carollo knows his Italian food; there's no doubt about that. Formerly of Il Fornaio in LoDo and Tuscany in San Diego, previously in the kitchen of the Grand Hotel in Florence and, before that, the classrooms of the Italian Culinary School in Venice, Carollo has half a world's worth of miles and meals under his belt. And now he has a restaurant of his own, where he can put all that experience to good use.
Venice's roster is pure Italian. Carollo's not about to try to sneak lemongrass into something or surprise you with a sudden detour from the culinary canon he grew up with. The menu is filled with good pastas, excellent appetizers, and desserts that I wouldn't miss even if I were stuffed to the larynx with ravioli and had to chop them into lines and snort 'em.
That said, I had two very different meals at Venice.
My six o'clock dinner last week was with Pippi, my culinary partner in crime. The wait wasn't really that long -- it just felt that way, because I could smell the calamari frying from the parking lot, and I was ravenous. The restaurant is small and crowded, with just enough space between the tables so that you don't feel like you're sitting on the lap of the guy next to you, but not much more than that. And there's no lobby, just a front door that opens straight into the dining room. But still, the few minutes spent standing and drooling over other people's dinners were not wasted.
Not only did I salivate over some good- looking meals, but I also got to see a wonderful display of this year's style in trophy wives for elder businessmen. It seems frosted hair is big this season, as are giant, gaudy gold bracelets and pastel pantsuits. For a moment it felt like I'd walked into a wrap party for unpaid extras from GoodFellas.
A few minutes later, I knew I had. We were seated next to a couple sharing what appeared to be their 130th wedding anniversary and very loudly discussing the trouble with people of the Jewish persuasion. Only they weren't using the word "Jewish," but rather a slur rhyming with "bike." Charming, right? Actually, only the husband appeared to have problems with "bikes"; the wife seemed merely embarrassed by the mention of them. I should also add that Pippi, coming from a family of partly "bike"-ish descent, was ready to put a cocktail fork in this gentleman's eye, and a gross display of physical violence was barely averted by the timely arrival of our server.
At this point, our evening took a decided turn for the better. Our server came bearing a basket of chewy, still-warm bread, and behind her, an eager young man waited with bottles of olive oil and a good, sweet, stinging balsamic vinegar. It was a small basket of bread, unfortunately, and gone in roughly thirty seconds, but replaced nearly as fast. For such a cramped, bustling place, Venice provided excellent service -- informal, yes, but also friendly and alert. If I dropped a fork, someone was there to replace it before the thing hit the ground, and the instant the rocks went dry in my water glass, someone was at my shoulder refilling it.
First course was a salad of delicate fresh-milk mozzarella and whole basil on top of fat slices of tomato so fresh and red they seemed almost obscene. This was what I'd been dying for these past two years. Simplicity. Bold, independent flavors. Bright colors. Usually, I'm a gentleman when it comes to sharing, but not this time. Of the four tomato-basil-mozzarella stacks on the plate, I ate three and a half. Plus the entire contents of the second basket of bread. And most of the third.
Entrees arrived with perfect timing, which meant just before I started stabbing pieces of eggplant off other people's plates when they weren't looking. For me, it was handmade lobster ravioli with rock shrimp in a lobster cream sauce; for Pippi, veal scallopine al limone. But hungry as I was, I didn't clean either of our plates.
Neither entree was awful, but they weren't precisely right, either. The ravioli were nicely stuffed with a well-balanced mix of flavors, but stiff past al dente and topped with a bland sauce that didn't sing, dance or do tricks. It just sort of sat there, a bright pinkish-orange against the heavy white plate. The texture was silky smooth, but the taste was a mush of tomato, lobster and cream, with no real punch. I had similar concerns about the veal scallopine. The sauce was thin and tasted slightly burnt -- even though it hadn't been on the heat long enough for the capers' flavor to open up and add the sting that it so badly needed.
The veal itself, however, was perfect: juicy and tender enough to cut with a fork. But complementing a good meat with a weak sauce just made the whole dish more disappointing.
We moved on to dessert with some trepidation, but our meal got another boost from the excellent cannoli. The shells were crisp and the filling wonderfully textured, not too sweet and studded with little bits of dark chocolate. Also, the ends of the cannoli were capped with those nasty, sickeningly sweet maraschino cherries that I absolutely love.
So we ended the roller-coaster ride on a high note, well-stuffed for under forty bucks (not counting drinks and tip) and mostly satisfied.
My second dinner at Venice had all the potential for disaster but turned out even better than the previous one. First, I was seated just after a table of twenty. Second, this was a Thursday night, fairly late, and the place was packed even before the twenty-top showed up. Third, my dinner companion was late. I expected a nightmare. I got a fantastic meal that was the stuff of dreams.
It began with a beautiful carpaccio -- raw beef, sliced paper-thin, covered in shaved parmesan cheese and served with fresh lemon, capers, olive oil and a bed of crisp greens. One has to be very careful with raw meats these days, but Venice poses no dangers. This carpaccio was absolutely fresh, properly handled, skillfully made and, as served, more than enough for two.
Next, a linguine fruitti di mare with scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams in a good, heavy red sauce that I could still taste an hour after I'd finished. I don't know if Carollo had been saving up his spices for the start of the weekend or what, but this dish had all the kick I'd been expecting two nights before. The sauce was bold and thick, the seafood immaculately fresh and so perfectly prepared that no one flavor raised its fists against a neighbor, and the linguine was cooked just right, stopped an instant short of al dente -- which is just the way I like it.
What's more, considering the crowd and the hour, I enjoyed wonderful service yet again, never wanting for anything and surrounded by a staff who knew what they were doing:
Serving customers truly good Italian food.
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