Via has had a tough run. In the summer of 2005, it took over the former home of Brasserie Rouge, whose sudden death is still spoken of in hushed tones by those in the industry -- no doubt for fear of bottom-feeding lawyers overhearing the stories and then trying to horn in. But beyond its cursed space and the association with terrible and highly public failure, Via also had the misfortune to open in LoDo, a tough neighborhood already crowded with high-end Italian, right down from Coors Field, where nightclubs and sports bars soak up most of the available parking, if not trade.
Owners Venanzio and Anthony Momo -- who also own Cucina Coloré in Cherry Creek, which gives them some experience in dealing with tough neighborhoods -- didn't make the situation any better by bringing in a floor staff that couldn't get it together. On any given night, half of them seemed stranded in some weird attitudinal middle ground between fine-dining service and neighborhood-trattoria informality, while the other half acted like they were sleepwalking through their last night at work and just not caring what the fuck happened. And the kitchen wasn't any better.
Actually, the kitchen was worse. Since I have a fairly low opinion of most front-of-the-house employees to begin with, I wasn't surprised to find a bunch of B-team plate-carriers and wannabe fashion models offering their schizophrenic and uneven approach to service at Via. And since I am always quick to blame any front-of-the-house issues on back-of-the-house laziness or lack of leadership, the kitchen was doubly at fault. Not only could it not get the staff moving or even interested enough to learn the menu, but the food (handled with a distinct lack of joie de vivre by quasi-celebrity chef Rollie Wesen, who took over when Via's talented opening chef, Andrea Frizzi, moved on) was a hackneyed Manhattan-Italian muddle, tame at best, uninspiring at worst and just plain dreary the rest of the time. Neapolitan pizza ovens? Big whoop. A slick and fashionable bar pouring Italian cocktails? Limoncello aside, the Italians are not widely known for their alcoholic innovation -- and with good reason.
In this city -- and particularly in this neighborhood -- there are plenty of hip, annoyingly cloying singles bars with dull restaurants attached. None of them move me enough to want to walk a block, much less eat there more than once. And after my first meal at Via, I proceeded to ignore it to the best of my ability.
But soon enough, word came that Wesen had been cut loose and Anthony Momo himself had briefly taken to the stoves. Still, what Via really needed was a Chef-with-a-capital-C -- a blooded pro. Not a placeholder, not an owner stepping in, not some white-jacket "executive" who'd spend all his time cost-cutting and conceptualizing from the office, but someone who could truly run a kitchen from the line. It would help, of course, if that guy was also certifiably crazy. Because the way I looked at it, any decent chef would have to be desperate or half nuts -- or both -- to even consider walking into Via.
Lucky for the Momos, they found themselves both a serious chef and a madman in James Mazzio, who took over the galley in November 2006 knowing full well that he was taking command of a ship that was already sinking when he stepped to the bridge.
Why? Because he's crazy. Because he's incredibly talented. Because if one thing has defined Mazzio's entire culinary career, it's been an almost ludicrous sense of bad timing. In 1999 he won the Food & Wine Best New Chef award for his work at 15 Degrees -- a restaurant that closed before he could accept the honor. Mazzio then opened Triana in Boulder, walked away just as that stretch of Pearl Street was getting hot, and came up with a truly original concept in ChefJam, a combination cooking school/display kitchen/restaurant that started up just as Colorado's restaurant economy was going into a tailspin. That's when Mazzio left Colorado for Chicago, where he took on a chef's gig for a restaurant that didn't yet exist and spent a year waiting for its owner to get his shit together before giving up and coming home. And then what line did he walk onto? Via's -- with its battered staff and reputation and menu perfectly suited for a suburban Iowa strip mall.
I asked him once why he'd done it.
He told me he thought it would be fun.
Double bat-shit crazy, all the way.
In deference to his obvious psychological maladies and the very real problems he inherited at Via, I took my time returning.
Five months after Mazzio moved in, Via still has the look of a restaurant that's not quite sure what it wants to be. The kitchen -- white-tiled and clinical -- runs deep along one wall. The dining floor, which is about a third the size of the original Brasserie Rouge dining room, is a mix of hardwood floors, butcher-block tables and sluttish red accent lights. The bar is long and sleek, with flat-screen TVs and windows walled off by bottles of Italian soda. The wall opposite the kitchen is made of stacked logs behind glass. There's an overflow dining room separated from the main one by a beaded curtain. The bathrooms are out the back door, down two hallways and next to the machine room. The look is part Parisian bistro, part yuppie pick-up joint, part unprepossessing Italian farmhouse restaurant, part lumberyard. And for a serious restaurant, it looks an awful lot like everything but.
That is, until the food starts coming. I saw the first sparks of what might be life returning to the kitchen in the excellent frites, served in a paper cone reminiscent of Mazzio's time at Triana and done as shoestrings, sugared and spiced and accompanied by a side of horseradish cream. The Caprese salad was perfectly mounted and displayed with a sly sense of backhanded deconstructionism -- basil oil rather than basil leaves, good Balsamic vinegar that slid across the tomatoes like black blood. And that wood-fired, Neapolitan stone pizza oven that had been hacked into the white tile that once held Brasserie Rouge's charcuterie station was finally being put to good use: blast-cooking a rough-edged, rustic pesto pizza topped with a pesto cream sauce, mozzarella and grilled halves of artichoke heart, the tenderest bits of stem still attached. The pizza's crust was blistered, redolent with the acerbic bite of minerals and wood smoke that is the hallmark of a true Neapolitan pie.
Still, lunch was pizza and fries -- not exactly a workout for the kitchen. But when I returned for dinner on a Saturday night, the food was even better. My meal began with a "cutting board," Mazzio's version of the tired Italian antipasti plate. At Via, this takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure list of condiments, cheeses and meats that combines the best aspects of the salumi platter, the cheese course, the French assiette de maison and the appetizer menu together into one dish. Roasted peppers, a handful of olives, some fig and orange marmalade to start, then two thick-cut slabs of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, a buttery Taleggio and chunks of artisan Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano laid out opposite a balled mound of beautiful, perfectly cut prosciutto di Parma, a standing fan of bright lomo (cured Spanish pork) or fennel-cured Finocchiona salami -- all set on a solid-block cutting board, unadorned and lovely, with a little bread and herbed oil to the side. Perfect.
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I followed it with a fat, bone-in pork chop, cooked a bloody medium, mounted over mashed, butter-jacked sweet potatoes and whole-leaf spinach, then topped with a black-currant bordelaise. The currants were slightly burned, but aside from that, the dish hit the ideal balance between hard-edged Italian rusticity and precise French technique that seems to elude so many chefs. Soft, slightly bitter greens, a buttery starch, pork's fatty splendor, sweet currants and wine -- eight ingredients, max, each one ideally employed. Suddenly, I no longer noticed the crowds, the Amsterdam love-nest red-light vibe, the strange wedding of sleek and simple at the seam between the noisy bar and the dining floor. There was just me, a wood table and a pork chop.
I returned a week later for another cutting board, some wine and a tour through Via's pastas led by a French waiter who was so good as to be nearly telepathic -- his timing impeccable, his humor dark, his pride in the food palpable and infectious. Under Mazzio's guidance, the pastas have become brilliant. From a simple rigatoni with fresh mozzarella and San Marzano tomato sauce to gnocchi seared in the pan with shredded braised lamb shank, grilled carrots and melted onions, they're both classic and nouvelle, Italian and cutting-edge French. The handmade Maine lobster ravioli with rock shrimp, red-pepper brunoise and zafferano cream is simply amazing, rich beyond description and delicately capturing every flavor of every ingredient. The conchiglie with smoked chicken, sweet peas and Pecorino cream has an earthy, smoky, paprika-scented base so comforting and complex it borders on magic. And Mazzio's spaghettini with braised meatballs, sausage and garlic should be used as a textbook example for up-and-coming chefs, so they know how lovely and honest the dish can be and can guard against its corruption through lack of heart or smarts into crap strip-mall cuisine.
The story now coming out of the old Brasserie Rouge space is one of redemption -- the kind I don't get to tell too often these days, a turnaround described by salmon with braised rapini, tiny gnocchetti in a sausage Bolognese, and roasted, crisp-skinned chicken served over a risotto saltimbocca. Mazzio is bringing Via back from the brink -- one menu, one plate, one night at a time. And though Via is not yet as good as it will be (or as full as it could be), it's getting closer with every passing week.
Which could mean that Mazzio's quirk of bad timing may have finally landed him in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.