Cafe Society

A Family Affair

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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.

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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