James Mazzio isn't a new kid on the block. A Food & Wine Best New Chef recipient, he's been earning his keep in the restaurant business since long before some chefs in town were born. After climbing his way up the proverbial pot rack, he landed at Boulder's now-defunct 15 Degrees, where he earned the national nod back in 1999. So it comes as a surprise that his Red Star Deli, one of two adjacent ventures launched in the Icehouse last spring, sits atop a half-flight of stairs.
Stairs! In both food and retail, they're practically the kiss of death, as many Cherry Creek chefs and store owners know all too well. What's worse, these are interior stairs: You reach the deli by opening a heavy glass door, going through a sterile entryway, and then heading up. With no storefront, no patio, no visible tables and only a small sandwich board propped on the sidewalk to draw you in, the place is so hard to find that even people who are looking for it sometimes miss it. (And just imagine how many other hungry souls pass by.) So what was a veteran chef like Mazzio thinking when he chose this particular spot out of all the available spots in town for his deli?
Turns out he wasn't thinking — not about the deli, at least. What he was thinking about was how cool it would be to take over the expansive yet compartmentalized space that housed Mise en Place Cooking School, which went on the blocks last year, and of the potential it held for such culinary shenanigans as pop-up dinners and chef meals. All of that would later materialize in the rustic, sunny inner space dubbed Studio F. But what to do with the tiny outer area, the one you pass through to get from the second-floor hallway to the exhibition kitchen? "It could've made a cool lounge," notes the chef.
Lucky for us, Mazzio loves sandwiches. So instead of comfy chairs and low tables, the space now holds Red Star Deli, all 800 square feet of it. Decor consists of the glass deli display; a shelf with cutlery, coffee and a soda fountain; and a red, black and white sign listing the twenty or so offerings. Nothing fancy, but then again, Red Star operates more like a take-out than a sit-down joint. All sandwiches — whether ordered to go or eaten at tables or in overstuffed armchairs through the large, open doorway to Studio F — are wrapped in brown paper, with a pickle tucked inside.
The deli opens at 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, when it has a small offering of breakfast goodies like egg sandwiches on Texas toast and lox on an everything bagel. Ignore those and get the breakfast burrito instead. Some burritos are made by assembling separately cooked parts, a time-saving trick that stunts flavor development, but Mazzio makes his like an omelet, sauteing potatoes until they're brown, then adding chorizo, three eggs and pepper Jack, and leaving enough pan drippings in the final mix to infuse everything with goodness. Each bite of this overstuffed affair blends spicy sausage, gooey cheese, crumbly potatoes and eggs. Grab a second salsa — you'll need it, 'cause this boy's big.
Cinnamon buns, muffins and coffee cake are still listed on the website's menu, but if you stop by looking for any of these, you'll be disappointed. Red Star stopped serving them shortly after opening, due to low demand. The loss is ours, from what I've seen of pastry chef Ginger Reynolds's peanut butter cookies, extra-marshmallowy Rice Krispies treats and dense brownies. Content yourself instead with that burrito and a cup of Lavazza drip coffee, so dark, robust and steaming hot that it might make even the most stalwart Americano drinkers rethink their anti-airpot bias. (I know it did me.)
At breakfast, you might find yourself whispering so as not to disturb the chefs doing prep work in Studio F. Come at lunch, though, and you'll find pumping music, workers calling orders, and a line. Don't sweat the wait: It gives you time to decide. (And if you're truly pressed, call ahead.)
Try the pastrami, with tender slices of spicy, house-smoked brisket, not-too-briny sauerkraut and Russian dressing, or the BLT&E, an updated triple-decker of parsley-spiked egg salad, crisp bacon, lettuce and tomato. Just make sure to ask for a second shmear of egg salad; there's a lot of starchy real estate to cover on that Texas toast. The smoked chicken, with sweet maple-cured bacon, thick tomato slices, butter lettuce, honey mustard and guacamole, has become somewhat of a Red Star signature, thanks to its 1-2-3 kick of smoke, sweetness and spice. So has the Cubano, with pork smoked over the same oak and cherry wood used to smoke the chicken, Black Forest ham and baby Swiss. Super-thin pickles provide just enough vinegar to snap your tastebuds to attention. Both might vie to become your new BSF.
New Orleans transplants might have a word to say about the muffuletta, which is traditionally served cold on a large round loaf but here comes hot on an Italian roll as crisp as a baguette, thanks to a stint under the panini press. They shouldn't gripe too much, however, because the scratch-made olive spread, with five kinds of olives and hot and mild giardiniera (pickled vegetables and pepperoncini), is fantastic. Similar to the muffuletta is the Italiano, with the same four meats (parmacotta ham, mortadella, capicola and salami) plus pepperoni, aged provolone and more giardiniera. Just as the olive spread makes the muffuletta, the red-wine vinaigrette makes the Italiano. All sandwiches come with a choice of potato salad (my vote), macaroni salad, coleslaw or chips.
Vegetarians, be warned: The menu is meat-centric, with just a couple of sandwiches for non-carnivores. Twice I tried to order one of them, the eggplant parmigiano, and was told the deli was out, which left me sorely disappointed — not because I'm a vegetarian, but because it promised "Mazzio's red sauce," and I'm betting that red sauce from an East Coast Italian boy like Mazzio is good enough to lap up. Pescatarians have a few more choices, including the terrific Cajun shrimp salad, with crunchy celery, herbs and spicy mayo sandwiched between layers of salty, housemade focaccia. (All other breads come from Bluepoint Bakery, which, coincidentally enough, once occupied a below-ground space in the IceHouse.)
That snafu over the eggplant parm aside, disappointments are rare at Red Star. The lemon vinaigrette is so puckery, it overshadows the arugula salad it comes with, and the curried chicken-salad wrap would benefit from more grapes and fewer radish sprouts. Once I was overcharged, and another time I couldn't find a fork to save my life. But these are minor quibbles. With so much good happening under this award-winning chef's watch, I encourage you to don your hiking boots and march up those stairs.