Cucina Colore has had an enviable run. As other restaurants in Cherry Creek North have come and gone, this beloved Italian eatery, with its big windows and landscaped patios, has kept cooking for more than twenty years. Founded by chef-owner Venanzio Momo, who once owned a coterie of Colore-branded outfits, Cucina fits its well-heeled neighborhood as well as any neighborhood restaurant ever could, and it does so for good reason: Momo’s given people what they wanted.
When guests complained about the char and blisters on pizzas pulled from the wood-fired oven, he swapped the extra-fine Caputo 00 flour prized by Neapolitan purists for the flour in Cucina’s original recipe. When they asked for gluten-free and vegan options, he accommodated them. But more than half the menu remains original, a staggering percentage when you consider how much Denver’s food scene has matured since 1994. “I try to change,” says Momo, “but people don’t like change too much.”
Last fall, however, Momo took a risk. When the space next door became available, he decided to expand, pouring $1 million into a major renovation. “When I remodeled the place, I didn’t want to shock the regulars,” he says. But it was a necessary gamble; Cucina Colore’s footprint was suited more to Dining — capital D — than the casual way we interact with restaurants today, with hardly enough seats to accommodate happy hour. “The formality of dining is changing,” Momo admits. “It’s at a point where it’s more about wining, dining and socializing.”
Come for dinner now and you’ll think you’ve stumbled into a cocktail party at a contemporary art gallery, with people sipping white sangria in a space dominated by Rothko-like paintings, materials that include slate and black steel, and a maple drop ceiling that arcs over the bar like a wave. The remodel — overseen by Jeff Sheppard of Roth Sheppard Architects, who designed the original space — increased overall capacity by about 30 percent and gave the restaurant a U-shaped bar with seating for 25; this coming fall the main dining room will get its own makeover, including the addition of a chef’s table. The remodeling job thus far has solidified Cucina’s role as one of the Creek’s prime places to gather.
But how, I wondered, was the food? Was Cucina Colore selling its soul to the devil, focusing so much on wooing the happy-go-lucky bar crowd that the kitchen would falter? What I found was a restaurant that still serves some heavenly dishes, even if mistakes can leave the diner in limbo.
Meals start with focaccia and a bowl of herb-studded olive oil, a welcome gesture in an industry where complimentary bread service is increasingly rare. Whether this is a sign of the restaurant’s age or simply a gesture of hospitality is irrelevant; what counted was that there was something in my stomach as I pondered the menu and enjoyed a cocktail after a long day. Some nights, mussels followed. Other nights brought artichokes, arugula and roasted red peppers ringed by bufala mozzarella, the water-buffalo-milk cheese as creamy as soft-boiled eggs. Carciofi, a salad of grana-Padano-crusted artichokes with arugula and truffle-brown-butter vinaigrette, was excellent, despite the use of truffle oil, a fallen-from-grace (and often synthetic) ingredient.
Over the years, Cucina Colore has become synonymous with carbohydrates, both in pizzas and pastas. One gluttonous night I tried both, ordering a parma pizza as an appetizer and the seafood-filled tagliatelle aragosta for my main. What followed became a recurring theme: ups followed by downs, downs followed by ups. The pizza had spent too long in the 800-degree oven; its bottom and edges were black, a color I enjoy on the occasional bubble of a true Neapolitan pie but found overbearing here. I tried to salvage the crust, scraping it with a knife like I would burnt toast. If properly attended to, the pie would’ve been delightful, the garlicky ricotta and mozzarella balanced by handfuls of raw arugula and prosciutto. I picked at the arugula, hoping to turn it into an ad hoc salad, only to realize the peppery greens had left the kitchen undressed. My pasta was far better, with strands of tagliatelle so tender, they could’ve passed for housemade. Carefully plated, the pasta was studded with shrimp, spinach, grape tomatoes and summer squash that had been evenly quartered and cooked to an appealing crisp-tender. To the side sat a four-ounce lobster tail, linked to the rest of the plate by a light tomato broth called a brodetto, with hints of shrimp stock and wine.
Other dishes were equally strong, including chicken cutlets with marsala, green beans, roasted potatoes and tomatoes slow-roasted in-house until their sugars concentrated in deep wrinkles. Hazelnut-crusted cod, light on the hazelnuts, was delightful nonetheless, with fat flakes of fish, creamy sweet-potato purée and Brussels sprouts that were mercifully blanched and sautéed, not — as current trends would have it — fried. And that’s by design: The restaurant is “timeless,” stresses Momo, “not trendy.”
That approach helps explain why the desserts were delicious, if not particularly boundary-pushing. Chocolate mousse appealed to the chocolate lovers at the table, with fresh berries, chocolate sauce and a thick Oreo crust. I preferred the peach bread pudding, with a moat of buttery housemade caramel that I couldn’t stop eating by the spoonful. Just why the dessert is made with peaches year-round, though, remains a mystery.
Sometimes, ups and downs were present on the same plate. In a dish called “pastaless lasagna” — really a nod to eggplant parmesan — paper-thin slices of eggplant were breaded and layered with spinach, ricotta and smoked mozzarella, proof that noodles aren’t necessary for standout lasagna. But the veal Bolognese the server had upsold us — the dish normally comes with marinara — was three parts marinara to one part beef, making for a disappointingly tomatoey ragù.
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The front of the house was also uneven. Some nights, servers were efficient and helpful with recommendations; other times, we listened to specials read verbatim and without confidence. Once, the hostess offered to check to see if we could move to one of the many open tables by the window, with lovely views of the landscaping, but she never reappeared. Nor did the manager follow up on his offer of dessert, which he’d extended after we sent back a bowl of mussels so fishy that nothing pleasant came through — not the sweetness of the mussels, not the shallots, the garlic or the wine.
Cucina Colore has by no means sold its soul to the devil, but — drat that fellow with horns and a pitchfork — he’s certainly in the details. Regulars may not notice or even care, given how much this restaurant means to the neighborhood, but those details will need a little attention if this spiffed-up Italian is going to reach a wider crowd.
3041 East Third Avenue
Select menu items at Cucina Colore:
Parma pizza $15
“Pastaless” lasagna $17
Tagliatelle aragosta $23
Hazelnut Pacific cod $24
Chicken rosmarino $19
Peach bread pudding $8
Chocolate mousse $8
Cucina Colore is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at cucinacolore.com.
For more photos of Cucina Colore, see our slideshow at westword.com.