I eat a lot, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. It's my job, after all, but sometimes even I am amazed at my rapacious capacity for putting on the feedbag.
Like a couple of weeks ago, when I was down south with Laura eating pancakes — just a light breakfast of a short stack, fresh fruit, a couple of eggs, some bacon, four or five cups of coffee. We'd taken our time, reading both morning papers, making the waitress come back again and again to top my go-juice, and mocking the junior road company of The O.C. seated behind us with their popped collars and retro Sixteen Candles sweater vests.
By the time we'd finished, I was ready for a nice nap, maybe, or possibly some gastric bypass surgery. Not being the sort of fellow who goes to the gym (ever), runs unless being chased or deliberately lifts anything heavier than absolutely necessary, my primary method for speeding digestion and burning calories is to walk. Were this Ireland rather than Denver, I'd be the dandy fellow in the cable knits and stout shoes strolling pleasantly down a spring lane. Were this Paris, I'd be a boulevardier of the old school — wandering les arrondissements in spats and a cape, swinging my walking stick at street urchins and secretly wondering how long it would be before I was crippled by gout.
But this being Denver, I most often find myself walking through strip malls. And though not quite as romantic or fashionable as strolling the Rue de Rivoli after supper at Le Meurice, odds are good that my walks between breakfast and lunch or lunch and second lunch or second lunch and early dinner will take me past someplace where I can briefly fortify myself before continuing on. Often, I don't have to walk more than a few steps before finding a doughnut shop, taco stand or sushi bar worth spending an hour in. And this, I think, is a dignified and wholly decent way for a grown man to get his exercise — much better spiritually and emotionally (if not necessarily physically) than pulling on leg warmers and aerobicizing or getting all sweaty on one of those machines that has you climb imaginary stairs. The only stairs I'm interested in are real ones that have a nice bar or maybe some barbecue at the top.
Anyway, after Laura and I had finished our breakfast, we set out on a walk and, within a few dozen paces, came across San Lorenzo Ristorante, which was just opening its doors for lunch. It looked pretty — shaded windows, bright lemony-yellow walls and crisp white cloths on all the tables. It also had a stack of menus laid out just so on a small table in the foyer, the perfect come-on for a big, hungry boy — as attractive as a red light to a lonely pervert or a lighted cross to those in need of absolution.
"Wait a minute," I said to Laura. "Let me just grab one of these and then we can go."
I grabbed one, but we didn't go anywhere. Instead, we stood together on the sidewalk, each holding an edge of the single page, reading and — despite the fact that our breakfast was just a few hundred feet gone — lapsing into a sudden starveling silence.
Carpaccio di bue dressed in lemon and oil, whole peppers stuffed with cheese and prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella with fresh tomatoes and roasted peppers draped with marinated Italian anchovies, grilled salmon with roasted potatoes, garretto d'agnello — spring lamb braised in red wine, served with grilled eggplant and potato purée. Laura touched a finger to the listing of ravioli di zucca e noci (handmade green ravioli filled with butternut squash and served in a sage cream sauce) while I focused on the bianchi e neri just below — black-and-white ravioli filled with shrimp in a simple lemon and marjoram beurre blanc.
Later, I would speak with Craig D'Alessandro, who owns San Lorenzo with his wife, Consuela, and he would tell me that he sees this happen all the time — people frozen in place by his menu, by the simple arrangement of words on a page. "In the dining room," he would say, "sometimes people will just sit there for ten minutes, reading."
This was among the best, most beautifully evocative menus I've ever seen — like haiku, with each of the simple descriptions carrying more weight of feeling and longing than a few syllables should reasonably allow. But unlike poetry, unlike haiku, D'Alessandro's menus are transitive, evanescent, changing not by season or whim, but by dictum — every week, come what may. There are constants (the Bolognese lasagna and spaghetti di mare, the Isabelle salad with baby greens, radishes and fennel) as well as dishes that cycle on and off the board like themes, returning and then going away again. But D'Alessandro forces himself to consider the menu and change it once a week to keep the kitchen sharp, to keep himself and his guys from getting lazy.
"I used to do specials," he'd explain. "But they always got put off until the last minute, and I'd have to just throw something together. And that's not, you know...that's not special."
Now, everything is special. One week he'll serve a simple ziti rustica in a tomato cream and pesto sauce, then replace it the next with a wild linguine di zafferano con zucchini e gamberoni or a duck pappardelle. He'll hook you with the black-and-white ravioli and then, the next week, break your heart by saying it's not available.
Standing on the sidewalk poring over D'Alessandro's menu della settimana, Laura and I did the only thing two people who'd just finished a huge breakfast could reasonably do: We went in for lunch.
There were flowers on the tables and a good wine list — all Italian, arranged by region. The yellow walls caught the sun coming in through the windows and softened it, gilding everything in gold. Our meal was nothing complicated: a salad of duck breast over peppery, young arugula with apricots, pine nuts, goat cheese and a honey-champagne vinaigrette; a carpaccio di spada — velvety-thin slices of raw swordfish cured in-house in a marinade of olive oil, lemon and thyme that, at first blush, was like getting hit in the mouth by a fishy brick wrapped in a slice of lemon, but cooled out after the initial shock into an intricate play of powerful Italian sashimi shot through with the astringent bite of lemon and cucumber. Really, though, lunch was just an excuse to read the menu in seated comfort and take a measure of the place. When the D'Alessandros opened San Lorenzo in December 2005, in a space that had been a second outpost of the Little Russian Cafe, Craig had already been working in kitchens for better than twenty years. After dropping out of college in Boston in 1982, he came to Colorado and started out as a busboy at Copper Mountain, moved up to cook when a place opened on the line, then got some schooling in San Francisco, cooked at Drago on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and came back to Colorado to work at Il Fornaio in the Denver Tech Center. But he'd never opened a place of his own, never been the boss.
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Now he is. He has a small kitchen crew, most of whom have been with him from the start. They all put in long days, and that ever-changing menu doesn't make it easier. But it does make everything better. "It forces me to sit down and really look at things," D'Alessandro would later tell me. "Which is the way it should be."
Laura and I returned for dinner that weekend. There were a few tables on the floor, servers speaking in English accented with beautiful, lilting Italian that made coniglio con olive nere (loin of rabbit stuffed with pancetta and rubbed with rosemary in a sauce heavy with black olives) sound so much cooler and lovelier than when I tried to say it. We started with the house antipasto, a huge, lavish plate that, like a French assiette, could have been a meal in its own right. And just when we thought we'd finished — picking through the salt-cured olives, rough tomato bruschetta and tubes of prosciutto rolled around cores of cheese and rocket, eating the canellini bean and onion salad in its bitter vinaigrette, the stuffed peppers, the delicately fried rock shrimp set atop a mound of eggplant caponata — we found a layer of finely sliced salami at the bottom that was like discovering one last present on Christmas morning when you'd thought the festivities were through.
We ate ravioli di zucca e noci, which was wonderful — earthy and sweet with its sage and squash, textured by a sprinkling of walnuts scattered over the top and napped in a restrained compound cream sauce that almost begged to be mopped up with the house-made bread — and then gnocchi in a porcini cream that wasn't. The sauce was too cheesy, overpowering and unbalanced, but it came scattered with perfectly rolled and set gnocchi flecked with bits of fresh spinach. I had the spada again just because I liked its essential weirdness, and Laura and I shared a pollo ruspante, the simplest dish on the board. It was a half-chicken (breast and leg), roasted hard in the skin, then dressed in elegant basic black: a glaze of bittersweet aceto balsamico. There were roasted potatoes on the plate, quartered hearts of small artichokes, and though it was the cheapest of all the secondi piatti on the very Italian-paced menu, it was also the most perfect, the most achingly idyllic.
I now watch D'Alessandro's menus the way I do Kevin Taylor's at wherever he is these days and Teri Rippeto's at Potager and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's at Frasca. I watch them to see when the black-and-white ravioli will come back, to make sure that the pollo ruspante remains in place, to see what he'll replace with what. Mostly, though, I watch these menus because I love reading them and can't wait to see what D'Alessandro will do next.