Cafe Society

A Family Affair

In front of me sits a small cube of perfectly cooked salmon. Its pink flesh is accentuated by a pale-green bed of frisée, and shades into the red of a raspberry vinaigrette topping. There's also a sauce: a deeper-red pomegranate reduction. The elements on the plate are beautifully designed, and the tastes -- sweet, piquant, savory -- as clear and vivid as the presentation.

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."

It's a family affair in every sense. The Bizzarros are still in touch with many of the people who worked at John's over the years: waitpeople, cooks and dishwashers. John himself is on the premises every evening, accompanied by Nancy or Stella, to watch the dishes leaving the kitchen.

He has enjoyed seeing his customers become more knowledgeable and discriminating. "I'm aware, now, that we were on the crest of a culinary wave; it's been a 25-year revolution in the kitchen," he says. "There's been a melding of world cuisines. Every major culinary tradition has been explored by American chefs in the last 25 years. We cooked through all that.

"Now we have food in Boulder from Indonesia, Tibet, Ethiopia. There was none of that then. People just wanted filet mignon -- well, a lot of them still do. We gave them tripe Provençal, braised octopus, osso bucco. We said, `This comes with the dinner.' And they liked it." He smiles. "We give them some of what they want and some of what I want."

Over the years, Bizzarro has watched dozens of restaurants fail, and he's survived three major boom-and-bust cycles. "They open up and get bigger and bigger and more and more elaborate," he says. "Then they close. The mid-'80s was the last big roll in Boulder. Now we're seeing a lot of big corporate places coming here."

John Bizzarro has always been interested in experimentation. He has worked with Italian cuisine, Mediterranean, French, Moroccan, Spanish, regional American and dishes he remembers from time spent in Miami. Also food from Mexico and New Mexico. With the help of Grandmother Caroline, a Hopi elder who once visited John's, he tried some Hopi and Navajo dishes. He remembers his excitement when the first Vietnamese restaurant opened in Denver after the fall of Saigon: "It was a revelation: sweet, hot, garlicky, minty. I spent the next year exploring that taste, putting it on the plate in different ways. Thai fascinates me, too. There's something mysterious about Thai. I try to deconstruct a dish and put it back together.

"But I don't do goofy things -- you know, ostrich with raspberry coulis. What I do is always based on some recognizable culinary track but redesigned so it stays new."

He likes the openness of diners in this country to new tastes. "Europeans, if they order a dish, they want it exactly the way it's been for a hundred years," he says.

John's has been praised by several generations of reviewers, and the restaurant has devoted customers who come back year after year. Bizzarro was recently given a lifetime award by the Chaine de Rotisseurs, an international culinary association.

But though his passion for cooking is undiminished, Bizzarro has begun to think about retirement. He and Nancy would eventually like to find someone to take over the restaurant. There have been inquiries, but the inquirers have no kitchen experience, says Nancy. One of them owned several restaurants. The Bizzarros are insistent that John's remain what it is now: chef-owned and -run and devoted to quality.

Bill and I are served dessert: the bête noir. It's a rich, deeply chocolatey flourless cake embedded with fragments of Cognac-soaked amaretti cookies, and set on a spider's web tracing of chocolate sauce and crème Anglaise. We're sipping our coffee and sliding deeper into our chairs when we learn we're not finished. The waitress brings us portions of burnt-orange soufflé. I'm much too full to tackle this, but I do have to slide my fork in for a bite. And another. This is a truly sophisticated dessert, smooth and melting, refreshing as ice cream but lighter, not too sweet, and with a tiny contrasting hint of bitterness. I finish it. Also the slice of chocolate roulade wrapped around a filling of mascarpone flavored with chocolate hazelnut.

Though we try at some length later on, neither Bill nor I can decide on a favorite entree or dessert: Every preparation had been put together with such devotion to detail -- witness the tiny champagne grapes in my French 75, a drink involving gin, Cointreau and Champagne. All of the garnishes, whether a twig of sage blossom, a frond of fennel or plain old parsley, were vibrant and fresh: Some plates were adorned with delicate flower petals; the border of my shrimp dish featured tiny red and yellow pepper hearts and squares; Bill got crescents. Yet none of this felt frou-frou or overly fiddled with, but instead, airy, elegant and restrained. ("I think of vertical food as the culinary equivalent of big hair," John once said.) And the flavors were as often mouth-filling and robust as they were delicate.

Unsurprisingly, John Bizzarro was an art major as an undergraduate, and Nancy hopes he'll take up painting again when he retires. He isn't so sure about that. "I'm going to fix my truck first," John says.

He thinks for a moment, then adds: "Whatever I do, I'm going to have to figure out some way to keep feeding people."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman