Denver has lost a number of old-time red-sauce joints recently, including Patsy’s, which closed last month after nearly a century. Taken together with the rise in gluten-free dining, you might think it’s time to say arrivederci to Italian food. Instead, the scene is more competitive than it has been in years. Big names like Max MacKissock (Bar Dough), Paul Reilly (Coperta) and Elise Wiggins (formerly of Panzano, with Cattivella in the works) are upping the ante, with mozzarella bars, handmade pastas and menus that require a translation app to navigate.
So the popularity of Italian food is not in question. But what about humbler spots? Is there still a place for a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant that welcomes neighborhood families and has room for a group that drops by, without a reservation, for limoncello on the patio? Francesco Spatola thinks so, which is why he opened Spatola Ristorante & Wine Bar after already running Dolce Sicilia, his Italian bakery in Wheat Ridge, for more than a decade.
Tucked in the former Julia Blackbird’s space on a busy stretch of West 32nd Avenue, Spatola strikes a balance between the old guard and the new. Instead of the old guard’s well-worn (some might say banged-up) booths, you find a fireplace, paintings of the Italian coast and a flower-bedecked patio. Instead of the new guard’s trendy fennel pollen and squid-ink pasta, you find a menu that, while written largely in Italian, is full of recognizable fare, from mushroom risotto to chicken marsala. Best of all, you find Spatola himself, sometimes in the kitchen, sometimes smiling as the hostess leads you to your seat.
Spatola (the man) is what could make Spatola (the restaurant) a success. After all, who better than this charming Sicilian to create the Italian restaurant of your dreams (or memories), the kind of place you’d want to stumble across if you’d just landed in a small town in Italy and, travel-weary, needed a bite to eat? Spatola knows that’s where his niche is, the window of opportunity between today’s impeccably executed high-end fare and the tired Italian-American of the past. “The menu at Spatola is meant to feel like you are eating in any of my family’s homes in Sicily,” he says.
Spatola has the street cred to pull it off — not just from his tenure at Dolce Sicilia, where he puts out one of the town’s best loaves of ciabatta, but from his experience at relatives’ restaurants in Sicily. But it’s one thing to work in someone else’s restaurant, or even to run a bakery. It’s another thing entirely to run your own restaurant — and so far, given the restaurant’s inconsistency, what Spatola offers most is potential.
If only meals proceeded as auspiciously as that complimentary basket of Dolce Sicilia ciabatta, with thick, flour-dusted slices dabbed in a pool of extra-virgin olive oil, herbs and garlic that oscillates between fruity and pungent. Bread this good should be appreciated, contemplated, consumed with the moment of silence that mozzarella di bufala, aged balsamic and prosciutto di Parma are awarded. Follow up with arancini, as good as any you’ll find in that ristorante of your dreams. Fried balls of risotto, far lighter than they sound, break open to reveal liquid centers of cheese and prosciutto cotto. Flag down your server for more bread, if necessary; the tomato sauce they’re bobbing in is as good a foil for that ciabatta as the oil.
With entrees on the horizon, you’ll need help narrowing down the long list of pastas and proteins, listed as primi (first course) and secondi (second course). Pay no mind to these categories. Pastas are generously sized and not available in half portions, so unless you’re dining with a teenage boy, you’ll want to pick one or the other. What a difference it would make if Spatola himself would amble from the kitchen into the dining room, giving advice on what’s good tonight, talking up the Sicilian specialties and steering you to the right wine for whatever you end up choosing. Instead, you ask the server for advice but he’s already walked away, as if waiting tables were a new experience and he doesn’t quite have his sea legs. Another might tell you that “everything here is good,” a white lie if there ever was one. Chefs are always tweaking something; good servers will let you know what stands out and what to avoid. This is especially true at this restaurant, where in recent weeks, Spatola — a baker at heart — has been spending less and less time in the kitchen, much less the front of the house interacting with guests.
Depending on the night, you might end up with a fine plate of pappardelle alla Bolognese, more Americanized than the nearly tomato-less sauce that originated in Bologna, but pleasantly wine-forward all the same. Pasta al forno is appealing, too, with creamy pockets of ricotta, mozzarella and béchamel tucked beneath a mound of penne. Caponata, a chunky tomato-eggplant side dish, would make a great vegetarian entree if paired with polenta, though the rules would have to be bent a little, polenta being more Northern than Southern Italian. A cannolo, with chocolate chips studded on the ends and a crackly shell, makes a good finish to any meal.
But servers should know, or be willing to check, which pastries are in the display case; it’s a shame to spot something delicious on the way out the door. And that could be after a dinner featuring a tough piece of swordfish, or burrata with hard tomatoes — a crime in peak tomato season. Elsewhere, sauces, whether on veal piccata or gnocchi, might be thick and uninspired, or wildly over- or under-salted. And a Siciliana salad sounds like the essence of the island, with oranges, fennel and bottarga (cured fish roe) — but the lone slice of citrus looks like a garnish you’d find on the rim of a glass, and the fennel and bottarga are somewhere else, presumably in the kitchen.
Which is where Spatola needs to be more often, working with staff in both the front and back of the house. More training might work wonders for his namesake restaurant, like a good night’s sleep after a jet-lagged visit to the ristorante of your dreams.
Spatola Ristorante & Wine Bar
3434 West 32nd Avenue
Siciliana salad $12
Pappardelle alla Bolognese $18
Pasta al forno $16
Veal piccata $20
Pesce spada e salmoriglio $22
Spatola is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Find out more at spatolarestaurant.com.