Celebrity chef Mario Batali has done some controversial things over the years, some of them humorous (wearing shorts in all seasons), others not so much (comparing bankers to Stalin and Hitler). But his thoughts on how much easier it was to get into the business twenty years ago aren't likely to count as a faux pas — fashion or otherwise.
Back then, you didn't have to have "a rich daddy or an investor," he said, adding that "it's sad to watch the cost of business push the real individualist entrepreneurs out of the game." Thankfully, his remarks — played along with those from actors, athletes and other personalities on 5,000 Manhattan pay phones as part of an ad campaign for an exhibit on life in New York in 1993 — are less true in Denver today than they are on the other side of the Hudson River. And Iain Chisholm, chef-owner of Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market, which opened last summer in the Ballpark neighborhood, is proof of that.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Amerigo Delicatus
Chisholm is an "individualist entrepreneur" if ever there was one. In elementary school, he set up lemonade stands and earned a horn for his bike by selling wrapping paper from a club he found in Boys' Life magazine. Later, after earning two degrees from Johnson & Wales and working under local restaurateur Jenna Johansen, he showed an entrepreneur's hallmark willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done — in this case, leaving the kitchen for construction, of all things. In three years, he learned the skills he'd need for the buildout of Amerigo, which he estimates saved him $70,000. He also managed to turn a few clients into investors along the way: To Batali's point, he still needed those.
Walking into Amerigo, you wouldn't know that the restaurant came together on a shoestring. Chisholm hunted for used equipment, built the bar and tables himself, and commissioned his sister, muralist Coco Chisholm, to paint the dynamic art that counterbalances the energy from the open kitchen on the other side of the narrow space. With tall windows, exposed brick walls and a patio, it's the kind of place that looks like it should open early, serving coffee and baked goods to help kick-start the morning. During the week, however, it doesn't open until lunch — and it's at lunch and dinner that Chisholm focuses on his mission of serving affordable, new-world Italian cuisine. Luckily for him, it's a mission that dovetails with manageable food costs, because the majority of what he brings in are raw ingredients.
That includes half-and-half and cream to tease into fresh mozzarella, ricotta and burrata, the cream-filled mozzarella pouches that were last summer's equivalent of crispy Brussels sprouts — i.e., the fad no self-respecting chef dared ignore. Try them on the build-your-own antipasto platter, with slow-roasted, balsamic-spiked tomatoes; butternut-squash risotto shaped into balls, dipped in panko and fried until crisp; and fragrant, almost floral capocolla, which is one of the few items not made in-house, though that may change since Chisholm's been working with salumi expert Mark DeNittis. Antipasto selections change regularly, as does the rest of the compact menu, but they typically include more than a dozen items, each priced at $2.
Many are worth it, but some, like extra-virgin olive oil or crostini, are not. Chisholm says his goal was to create a restaurant where "people look at the bill and say, 'Wow, that's not too bad, we'll come again,'" and for the most part, the prices are indeed wow-worthy, with entrees hovering around $15 and salads and desserts priced at $5 or less. But Chisholm's goal is undercut by charging for bread to go with the antipasto platter, and by sending out salads with a single candied walnut and enough greens to fill a saucer, not a salad plate.
Lunch, however, promises to satisfy both your hunger and your wallet, with fast-casual service and sandwiches like the popular turkey club on a baguette, with turkey, bacon and mayonnaise (house-roasted, -smoked and -emulsified, respectively), or the capocollo, with a shmear of ricotta and a wad of arugula that's strong enough to stand up to the cured meat. All sandwiches cost $7.50 and include fresh-fried kettle chips, the only side. Add a chocolate-chip or peanut-butter cookie; they're crisp, large and only 75 cents, and if they remind you of the ones your mom used to make, that could be because Chisholm's mom bakes them.
The best value, and the main reason for coming to Amerigo, is the pasta. Chisholm makes his own, and over the months he's tried his hand at cavatelli, ravioli, pappardelle, tortellini and linguini. The linguini is the only one you're sure to find, since it's always in the turkey noodle soup (made with stock from the club's leftover bird) and doused with red sauce and spicy sausage as one of the four ever-changing entrees. For a while, gnocchi were vying to be a second staple, but one recent night I found gnudi instead, delicious spinach-and-ricotta dumplings crisped in brown butter and slicked with a smooth butternut-squash purée. One of the four entrees is a protein, and sometimes it's worth skipping the pasta to order (deeply meaty beef cheeks, for example). But at other times you'll spend the night sneaking noodles off your friend's plate, as I did when I chose the thinly sliced and fatty leg of lamb, with a side of garlic risotto so gummy and brothy from lamb jus, it had more in common with vegetable-rice soup than the classic Italian dish.
Occasionally, pasta pairings don't live up to the quality of the tender strands, either, as when the semolina tagliatelle in my minestra drooped under overcooked broccoli and diced tomatoes that still had the core in them, or the time the red sauce with my linguini tasted like salt had been added, then mistakenly added again. Chisholm is no doubt stretched thin, as folks in start-ups often are; it's reasonable to expect these oversights to subside as he hires a sous chef and catches his breath.
Ever the entrepreneur, Chisholm realized he was turning away business on Monday nights, when the restaurant was closed but the lights were on because he was working. So he concocted a nifty Monday-night special, with a prix fixe menu consisting of just two options: roasted suckling pig or that linguini with sausage and red sauce, plus a salad, dessert and a glass of wine or beer for $20. It's a great deal, unless you want to order off the regular menu, in which case Tuesday's "Cheap Date Night" is better, when $50 buys a bottle of house wine, an appetizer, two entrees and one dessert per couple.
Denver might not be as tough a market as the one Batali described, but rents are high, loans are hard to secure, and talented restaurateurs are throwing their hats in the ring on what feels like a daily basis. Chisholm has already proved his mettle by making Amerigo a reality. Now it's time to pay as much attention to the small picture as he has the big.