It was a weeknight in Cherry Creek North, and two Italian restaurants were open for business a few blocks away from each other. One was so crowded that at the check-in desk, the matre d' looked like a tourist surrounded by street urchins waiting to pick his pocket outside of the Roman Colosseum. The other, just a few blocks away, was as dead as a canned anchovy.
After a few moments inside the almost-empty Modena, we felt like one of those anchovies. But a can would be comfortable compared to the tense setting at this restaurant: Sound bounced weirdly around the small dining room, and tables were crammed in awkwardly, so that the few people actually eating here felt like they were on display. Although the service was very, very cheerful and friendly, beneath the smiles were clenched teeth, as though the servers feared they were being watched -- and, in fact, they usually were, by a stiff, stern-looking manager type who hovered near the kitchen, sometimes expediting, sometimes just standing there with his hands folded, watching. And everything that came out of the kitchen was so covered with parsley that it all tasted like -- surprise, surprise -- nothing but parsley.
This was not the same food Modena was serving when it opened a little over two years ago. Since then, the place has gone through more than a few changes. Follow closely. Mark Gordon, formerly of Santino's and Carmine's on Penn and current chef/owner of the fledgling Ambrosia, started the original Modena on Baseline Road in Boulder, where he cooked; his partner was Lupe Gonzales, formerly of Al Fresco and European Cafe fame. Not long after the Boulder spot was up and running, an ambitious Gordon opened a second Modena in Cherry Creek; a few months later, he sold both it and the Boulder site to Gonzales. After revamping the menu at both Modenas, last August Gonzales sold the Cherry Creek spot to Jaime Gullian, who'd owned the European Cafe and Al Fresco with Gonzales until the pair divested themselves of both ventures in 1997. And somewhere along the line, Bruce Rahmani, who now owns both Denver-area European Cafes, one of which shares a space at Brooks Towers with his Al Fresco, briefly had some money in Modena. (He no longer does.)
Modena, 2780 East Second Avenue, 303-322-9554. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Piatti, 190 St. Paul Street, 303-321-1919. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Modena's current menu is still the one introduced by Gonzales, Gullian says; the only change he made after he took over was offering individual portions of each dish as well as the family-style servings, which are large enough to feed two or three people. But while much of the fare is reminiscent of what you find at Gonzales's other restaurants (where richness sometimes stands in for flavor and simpler ingredient combinations are pelted with fresh herbs, so that all of the tomato-based dishes come out looking like Christmas trees and the creamy dishes look like mountainsides in winter), Modena's dishes somehow miss the mark. In some cases, the herbs seemed to have been put in the sauces long before they were served, which gave the sauces acrid undertones. In other cases, the herbs appeared to have been tossed on the plates as they left the kitchen, imparting a raw taste to the food, since the herbs hadn't been exposed to the heat long enough to release their flavors; the result was like eating herbs plucked right out of the ground. And other than these two disastrous herbal variations, all of the dishes tasted much the same.
The family-style servings highlighted this, since we all got to sample some of everything. The best of the appetizers were the baked lobster gnocchi ($9 for a single serving), well-made potato dumplings mixed with fontina, lobster meat (including the claws) and besciamela (Italian for bechamel), and the polenta alla griglia ($6 single), which smothered a crusty-edged wedge of soft-centered polenta in a concentrated portabello-enhanced wild-mushroom sauce. Both preparations were so strongly flavored that they managed to overcome the parsley pelting.
The rest of the starters suffered from herbal excess. The calamari ($7 per single) consisted of chewy squid in too much chewy batter, covered with far too much parsley. The zuppa di cozze ($7 single), a supposed saffron-infused white wine and tomato broth, tasted like tomato water and carried dry mussels that tasted reheated. In the chef's merenda ($8 single), the "seasonal" melon was too crunchy and underripe and was wrapped in prosciutto that was strangely slimy, as though it had either been hanging around the fruit too long, had been washed, or was simply low-grade. But the fresh mozzarella and the goat cheese included on this appetizer sampler were top-quality, and the vegetables were well-roasted.
Our entrees failed to live up to their billing. Serrano chiles were supposed to enhance the arrabiata ($16 single), usually an "angry" little pasta dish that in this instance was pretty meek, without a trace of chile heat. While the server had promised that the goat cheese was the best part of this dish, ours had only a few minuscule blobs, and those were lost in the vast tomatoey-ness of it all. All of the pasta dishes come with a choice of ziti, linguine or farfalle; we went with the bow tie for the Modena pasta dish ($18), in which apple-smoked bacon somehow overcame the tomatoes. But there was not a hint of the promised Gorgonzola, and we found only three little pieces of artichoke.
The meatball pasta dish ($12 single) and the bolognese ($10 single) both suffered from an herbal infestation and so tasted very similar. On their own, though, the tender, hearty meatballs were just fine: not too dry, not too wet, and very meaty. But the Caesar ($6 single), which we'd ordered as an entree, was so watery -- the romaine hadn't been dried, and the dressing was thin, too -- that it looked like a load of laundry ready to be hung out on the line. The veal done piccata style ($15 single) was tough, an almost impossible accomplishment. And I can't tell you how our last entree, the parsley-loaded brodetto ($18 single), would have tasted that night: The server forgot to put the order in and brought out the dish as we were getting ready to leave, so we took it home. (To his credit, he removed it from the bill.)
We did get to try the tiramisu ($5.95), billed as a single serving but large enough to easily feed two or three. Smooshy, sweet, packed with caffeine, liquor, sugar and fat, it was a standard version -- but what's not to like?
Still, even memories of that last spoonful aren't sweet enough to lure me back to Modena.
On the other hand, I'd return to Piatti in a heartbeat: My two recent meals there were a pleasure from beginning to end.
This warm, laid-back eatery (one of about a dozen links in a California-based chain) opened in 1995 and, like Modena, has gone through a few changes. Piatti's changes, however, were clearly for the better. Two years ago, Mario Godoy took over the kitchen -- he has some help from David Comon, who was sent in from the Phoenix store -- and updated the menu; at the same time, the restaurant underwent a complete management overhaul. Lee Moffett now runs the front of the house, and he does it amazingly well. So well, in fact, that it's fun to watch him work the entire room, which he does unfailingly, even if it's just to snatch an errant scrap of paper from the corner of a table or to check on a glass of wine. The service followed suit: Our water glasses were always kept filled, and silverware was quickly replaced. The servers seemed to know the menu inside and out -- they've tasted the dishes, and they relish sharing that experience -- and were proficient with the wine list. I actually saw one server run an empty wine glass about six inches under his nose and accurately name the wine the woman had been drinking.
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But this is a menu worth knowing; the food was wonderful. We started with a slightly salty, creamy, crispy, anchovy-kissed Caesar ($6.95), which came garnished with focaccia croutons that had been coated in butter and fried so that they resembled little polenta squares. The pasta dishes showed the same kind of kitchen savvy: Pappardelle fantasia ($14.95) put saffron-speckled noodles beneath a saffron-heady white-wine sauce sparked by chile-pepper flakes, with shrimp and arugula providing complementary contrasts; the ravioli con spinaci ($12.95) also featured spinach, this time inside nice-sized pasta pillows that also contained whipped ricotta and were blanketed in a delicate but still rich lemon cream sauce.
Piatti knows its way around richness. The scaloppine di vitello ($17.95) brought fork-tender veal in a divine wild-mushroom sauce thickened with Gorgonzola; a beautifully grilled square of polenta offered something to sop up that sauce. The osso buco ($18.95) -- available Tuesday nights only -- was delectable, a meat-falling-off-the-bones veal shank redolent of citrus juices, garlic, rosemary and other herbs (all of which made sense and had been applied at the right times in the cooking process) and served atop a mound of butternut-squash-sweetened risotto. Even the well-crusted pizza was special, a quatro-formaggio version ($9.50) that boasted mozzarella, fontina, parmesan and Gorgonzola as well as a drizzling of white truffle oil and sliced wild mushrooms.
The pizza was evidence that Piatti is willing to experiment in order to keep its Italian fare up to date and lively. Dessert brought more proof, in the form of the chocolate bread pudding ($5.50). A recent menu addition, the bread pudding compacted Piatti's spongy, yeasty bread into a chocolate-injected wedge, the bottom of which was melded chocolate goo. On top sat a ball of vanilla ice cream that quickly melted into sweet cream. During one of my visits, manager Moffett spent a lot of time gauging diners' reactions to this new dessert. It was easy to see that people were impressed.
And just as easy to predict that they'll be coming back.