Move over, spaghetti and meatballs. As a native of Sicily, Francesco Spatola knows there’s more to Italian cuisine than red sauce and pasta. “Sicilian cuisine,” he explains, “is the result of the cultural overlapping of Greek, Spanish, French and Arabic cultures over thousands of years.” At Spatola, the restaurant and wine bar that he opened this summer in the former home of Julia Blackbird in West Highland, this baker-turned-chef is committed to showcasing Sicily’s rich gastronomic heritage. Find out, in the conversation that follows, what led him to branch out from Dolce Sicilia, the Italian bakery he’s run for more than a decade, and what to expect from his new restaurant.
Westword: You’ve been busy with Dolce Sicilia since 2005. What led you to open Spatola, and why was now a good time?
Francesco Spatola: I’ve been thinking about opening a restaurant for the past four to five years. An opportunity opened up with this location, so the timing and location came together for me to move forward with the restaurant concept.
Italian restaurants are making a comeback in Denver right now. What are you trying to do at Spatola that’s different?
Although we are a traditional Italian restaurant, we are trying to broaden people’s understanding of regional Italian cuisine to include Sicilian-style dishes. We will continue to introduce dishes that highlight Sicilian flavors, influences and ingredients.
Are there dishes a t Spatola that diners can’t find elsewhere?
You may find dishes with the same name on another menu, but our ingredients, preparations and processes will be reflective of my unique experience growing up in my family’s bakeries and restaurants in Sicily. The menu at Spatola offers diners unmatched authenticity in a casual and relaxed atmosphere.
Americans tend to think of Italian cuisine as little more than red sauce and pizza. But each region has its own characteristics. What is Sicily known for?
The cuisine of Sicily takes its inspirations from the land, sea and mountains. We are most known for our use of fresh fruits and vegetables like eggplant, olives, tomatoes, lemons, blood oranges, grapes, almonds, capers and peppers. We combine these with the fresh bounty of the Mediterranean Sea, like tuna, swordfish, shellfish, sardines and cod. The mountains give us the livestock that provide full-cream sheep’s milk to make our famous ricotta and pecorino cheeses.
If Spatola were in Sicily, would the menu be the same?
The menu would be slightly different in Sicily; there would be more fish and seafood, because it is so readily available there. That being said, the menu at Spatola is meant to feel like you are eating in any of my family’s homes in Sicily — fresh food, rustic yet refined.
On a recent trip to southern Italy, I think I ate my weight in the stuffed, deep-fried rice balls known as arancini. Are they a bestseller on your menu? What are the other bestsellers?
Arancini are a very good seller. Our other bestsellers are the linguine frutti di mare, the rigatoni alla Norma and the pasta al forno.
Quick bio: Where were you born, when did you come to the U.S., and why did you choose Denver?
I was born in Campobello di Mazara, Sicily. I came to the U.S. in 1990. I initially came to visit relatives, enjoyed Colorado and made it my home.
Why did you decide to start baking/cooking, and how long have you been in the business?
Baking and cooking run in my family’s blood. I started helping my uncles as a young boy in their bakeries, restaurants and hotels. They taught me their trades of baking and cooking while using the local products grown in our diverse geography and climate.
What led you to open Dolce Sicilia?
After spending many years in a corporate bakery setting with very little freedom for creativity, I decided it was time to pursue my passion for Italian baking.
How many kinds of pastry do you make at the bakery? Are there pastries you make only at holidays?
We have about thirty different pastries on a daily basis at the bakery. We do offer additional Italian specialty items like panettone, pandoro, struffoli and pastiera during the holiday season.
What about sfogliatelle? Do you still make them?
Sfogliatelle is the cousin of the lobster tail. We do make sfogliatelle, a clamshell-shaped flaky pastry dough filled with ricotta cheese and orange candied fruit.
What is your earliest food memory?
My earliest food memory is watching my grandma cooking braciole.
What do you miss most about Italy?
I miss the saltiness of the ocean air, the smell of citrus wafting, the beach I grew up on, the food and my family.
Do you have a signature dish?
At the moment, my signature dish is the pesce spada with Sicilian salmoriglio sauce.
If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
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Are there any hidden-gem restaurants in your neighborhood?
I enjoy an occasional meal out at Spuntino.
Best tip for a home cook:
Buy fresh and local ingredients.
What’s your favorite wine to drink in the summer?
I enjoy a bottle of grillo in the summertime.
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
You could’ve asked me how many times the Italian national soccer team has won the World Cup.
Spatola Ristorante & Wine Bar is located at 3434 West 32nd Avenue; for more information, call 303-477-4820 or go to spatolarestaurant.com.