Natalia Spampinato Bittersweet 303-942-0320 500 East Alameda Avenue
"I was pretty burned out on school by the time I got to college," recalls Natalia Spampinato, Bittersweet's pastry chef, "and I really missed cooking when I was living in the dorms." A Denver native, Spampinato had graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at George Washington High School, where long hours of studying and multiple Advanced Placement exams were the norm. She'd worked so hard there that when she enrolled at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, she found she had time for a job at a coffee shop near campus, baking pizza, cookies, scones and cupcakes. That was how she reconnected with her childhood, filled with memories of home-cooked meals and baking bread with her dad. "It was his grandmother's recipe," she says. "A simple milk-based sandwich bread we tied in knots and brushed with butter."
After a semester, Spampinato returned to Denver and took a job at André's Confiserie Suisse doing what she really loved: creating desserts, breads and other European baked goods. Her plan was to enter culinary school, but the owners of André's convinced her otherwise. "They said, 'Don't go to culinary school; we have room to train you here,'" she remembers.
At André's she learned classical European techniques: tempering chocolate, working with fondant, baking breads and croissants, and making Austrian and Swiss pastries with names too difficult to recall. After almost two years there, she saw an ad for an assistant pastry chef at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder and applied, never expecting a call back. But instead, chef and co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson hired her after one interview. "I'm still not entirely sure why they gave me a job," Spampinato admits. "I didn't even meet the pastry chef." She spent the next year and a half making breadsticks for Frasca's daily dinner service, turning out seasonal fruit tarts and learning to run a Pacojet machine to create ice creams and sorbets. "And a coffee milkshake -- that was one of my favorites," she adds.
She also got to go on the Frasca staff's annual trip to Italy, where her favorite experience was actually outside that country. "We went to a winery in Slovenia for a day," she explains. "We ate dinner at the guy's house on the farm."
That jaunt aside, Spampinato's love of Italian food and culture was by now firmly established, and she eventually took a job as pastry chef at Il Posto, where she stayed for five years working for chef/owner Andrea Frizzi. Her résumé also includes stints at other well-respected eateries in town, including TAG, Panzano and the Hi Rise Bakery.
She was working at Cafe|Bar, a place that she says probably shouldn't have had a dedicated pastry chef, when she heard about the opening at Bittersweet, where she's now been for the past three months. "They let me do pretty much what I want," she says of its owners, chef Olav Peterson and his wife, Melissa Severson. "I really enjoy doing bread for the restaurant," she adds, and desserts are also a big part of Bittersweet's menu. So we recently talked with Spampinato about her current dessert obsessions and where she gets her inspiration.
Keep reading for a Q & A with Natalia Spampinato.
Mark Antonation: What do you like most about your desserts at Bittersweet? Natalia Spampinato: I prefer planning out a whole plate. I'm changing my chocolate dish to a chocolate mousse in a dome mold covered in chocolate ganache. It's served with black currant ice sorbet and chocolate rocks.
What are chocolate rocks? They're chocolate cookies that I crumble and coat with a layer of chocolate and then dust with cocoa powder.
Do you have any favorite kitchen tools or equipment? Liquid nitrogen. It's so convenient to have for ice cream -- I can make it smoother. I can have something frozen and ready for dessert service in under an hour.
Are there any current ingredients that you're playing with? There are a few chocolates from Valrhona -- a caramelized white chocolate and caramelized milk chocolate. The flavor is so complex. Usually I hate white chocolate. I also like working with different grains -- fresher and more organic grains instead of just bags of ConAgra.
Are there any desserts you hate making? I really don't like making tuiles. I think they're outdated and don't taste very good. I try to stay away from anything trendy, and from anything too old-fashioned.
Is there anything you'd like to put on your menu that people might find strange? I like to make buttermilk ice cream -- which some people find weird. At Il Posto, I made the bombolini every day. I'd try to put in savory fillings like avocado or candied fennel. I love to do tomato desserts in the summer, and corn. I wouldn't put strawberries on my menu right now.
People say that chefs and bakers have different mentalities. Does that make sense to you? Yes -- I can't live without a scale. Some of my recipes go down to half a gram. I like to be precise. And I really have no interest in working with raw fish or chicken.
Do you cook much at home? I barely do any cooking at all. If I have some leftover bread dough from the kitchen, I make pizza at home. And I like making pasta.
What's your favorite dessert that you don't have to cook yourself? One of my favorite desserts I don't make myself is actually this breakfast pastry my mom makes for Christmas every year. It has cherries and almonds and cream cheese wrapped in croissant dough. It's been my favorite for as long as I can remember and I'll never let my mom take it off the Christmas menu.
What are your favorite restaurants in town right now? I love Work & Class. And the Truffle Table and Uncle. Babette's in the Source -- they have the most unique bread.
What do you like to do in your spare time? I like to go to yoga classes three times a week. And I could spend all day reading in the Tattered Cover, looking at cookbooks.
What are your current favorites? The Meadowood cookbook [A New Napa Cuisine]. I love the Manresa cookbook [Manresa: An Edible Reflection]. And Tartine by Chad Robertson -- he makes great bread.
Have you traveled much since your trip to Italy with Frasca? I've been to Italy twice; the first time was to Spain and Italy. I ate at Benu in San Francisco and Manresa in Los Gatos. And Eleven Madison Park with one of my best friends. The service was just perfect and the food was beautiful. We take trips based on restaurants.
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Do you have any plans for future visits? What are a couple of the top spots you'd like to hit? I don't have any specific plans nailed down yet, but I just got the cookbook from Meadowood, so I'd really like to go check that out. Saison is another I'd love to eat at. And I haven't been to many restaurants in Chicago, so I'd love to spend more time out there and try some of Grant Achatz's places. And Eataly, too. I've been to the one in New York; it's one of my favorite places and I'm ready to go back. I'll have to start nagging my travel team about our next trip.