My husband, Bill, and I are seated in one of the three tiny, connected dining rooms that make up John's Restaurant, a 28-year-old jewel of a Boulder bistro. The decor is English country cottage -- with oak beams, lace curtains, small lamps in brass sconces and old-fashioned prints on the walls -- but the effect is homey, rather than dated. Billie Holiday sings softly in the background.
I've been going to John's for years -- whenever the household budget allowed it -- and this time I've asked chef/owner John Bizzarro and his wife, Nancy, if I can have a taste of more than one entree, just to jog my memory. I'm expecting an extra nibble or two, but Bizzarro's response to my request is a dizzying parade of dishes -- small portions, but each one a thoughtful and harmonious composition. Before the salmon came a garlicky, slightly bitter rapini with penne pasta, feta, olives and crisp, buttery crumbs. This was followed by a gorgeous, mushroomy, salty-smooth risotto, flavored with black truffle. (Bizzarro loves mushrooms and foraging for mushrooms; I've heard him rave in the past about wild Colorado chanterelles.) Our risotto plates were whisked away and replaced with portions of gnocchi verde made with spinach and ricotta (and containing no trace of the traditional potato) and napped with parmesan cream sauce. The recipe, I later learn, came from John's Sicilian grandmother.
The waitress gave us a few moments to breathe, then brought a salad of fresh greens, bleu cheese, walnuts, pecans and tart Granny Smith apples. To refresh us, she said.
Next came the first salmon dish, curry-crusted, the richness of the flesh mitigated by a minty buttermilk sauce; a fat white scallop coated with black sesame seeds; the raspberry-pomegranate salmon. After that, two separate shrimp preparations: for Bill, Shrimp Nancy, dusted with Southwestern spices; for me, a lemony picante-style dish involving pieces of tender artichoke heart and olives.
John Bizzarro's tastes have always been eclectic. He grew up in a big Sicilian family, in which "food was a big deal and everybody cooked." As a young man, he traveled to Europe, and what he encountered amazed him. "In America at that time it was all steak and potatoes," he says. "Julia Child hadn't gotten on TV yet. Good restaurants were dark, masculine places with dead animals on the walls and pieces of meat on flaming swords. It was a man's world."
In Europe, he ate at marketplaces, on fishing piers, in blue-collar joints and at people's homes. He rented a farmhouse in Perugia, Italy, for $15 a month and worked with the farmers. And he came to a decision: "People in America have to taste this stuff."
The waitress sets new plates on our table: pork medallions with cranberry relish, garnished with slivers of fennel. We groan; she laughs. But our duty is clear. Soon we've polished off the pork (its savoriness zinged up a notch by orange zest) and wiped the plates clean with bread. We lean back, sighing happily. That's when the tiny lamb chops appear.
The Bizzarros came to Boulder in 1969 so that Nancy could attend the University of Colorado. From the highway, they looked down on the city for the first time. "It looked like Italy," remembers John. "The university reminded me of Florence. There was farmland all around."
"He said, 'I want to cook in this town'," Nancy chimes in.
"There were no celebrity chefs back then," John says. "Our goal was just to get a little place and cook some great food in a little town."
He began by offering prix-fixe, seven-course dinners at what was then Nancy's Restaurant. There was only one serving, and everyone ate together. "It was like a dinner party," says Bizzarro. "People were dying for European food. Though at first they didn't even know what avocados were."
A customer suggested the Bizzarros start a restaurant, and rented them the building that houses John's. The aim was a restaurant with relaxed, friendly service that served exquisite food with a minimum of stuffiness. "This is a chef's restaurant, designed for a chef to play in," explains John. "The kitchen is bigger than the dining room."
Play he did. John's has now operated continuously for 27 years. The Bizzarros' children grew up with the restaurant, and daughter Stella now makes all the desserts. "We're feeding grown-ups with families who used to eat with my kids in the kitchen when they were kids," says John. "We've got three generations of diners."