"It's daunting," says Alex Seidel of taking over the 35-year-old Frontroom Pizza. The neighborhood pizza joint at 13795 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood announced that it would be closing on January 9, but the doors won't stay shut for long.
Seidel — a James Beard Award-winning chef, owner of Mercantile and Fruition and one of the founders of Chook Charcoal Chicken — has lived in Frontroom's neighborhood for almost twenty years. "I used to love coming here all the time, and supported it," he says. Originally from Wisconsin, Seidel was a fan of Frontroom's thin, tavern-style pies that reminded him of home.
But after the original owner sold the place a few years ago to Bruce Prior, "it went downhill a little bit," Seidel says, adding that while Prior has a background in real estate, "he would probably say that restaurants are not his forte." Then, during a chance meeting at a neighboring business, Prior and Seidel got to talking, "and I just said, 'If you ever need help or you're looking to sell, let me know,'" Seidel recalls. "So he did call."
Prior will now be Seidel's landlord, and in two to three weeks (if everything stays on schedule), the building will reopen as Roca's, short for "rocambolesco," which means "fantastic" and "bold" in Italian, Seidel explains.
Though Seidel is best known for upscale dining, his experience opening the fast-casual Chook, which now has three locations and a fourth opening soon in Cherry Hills Marketplace in Greenwood Village, has given him a new appreciation for providing a neighborhood with a place to enjoy high-quality food at affordable prices. So he doesn't plan to raise prices much — if at all — at Roca's, while also making the switch to fresh ingredients and a more refined dining experience, complete with full service and a host.
Currently, all of the hot food at Frontroom is run through one oven, so Seidel is adding a new stove and hood system. Pizza will remain a focus, though the dough will now be made using a natural starter (a move that's in line with the current sourdough crust trend). "I was a little nervous to do that here," he admits, "but I was like, 'You know what? If we're gonna make dough, let's just make it. It's not any harder, but it's just that much more flavor."
Italian deli Carmine Lonardo's, and Frontroom's salad bar will be sticking around — albeit with a marbled makeover.
One big change will be fresh pasta made in-house using an extruder; the pasta will be served with classic, simple sauces including puttanesca, vodka sauce and Bolognese. "I started in Italian restaurants, a long, long time ago," Seidel explains. "I've always had pasta on my menus because it's always been part of me. But this is the first time I get to actually come back and do a little pasta restaurant since, like, thirty years ago."
The interior is getting an overhaul, too. Black and white checkered tile will be added to the floor. There will be new chairs, refurbished booths, pops of brass throughout and a new, five-seat bar, perfect for sampling the wine selection. "This is actually my first wine program that I've ever done," Seidel notes, adding that he's bringing in some authentic Italian wines as well as classic domestic varietals. A selection of local beers will pour from a new tap system — though buckets of PBR, Miller High Life and Coors will also be available.
Former Chipotle chief marketing officer Dan Fogarty, who helped create the branding for Chook, also helped with the brand and design for Roca's. Heading up the kitchen will be executive chef Tim Bender, who was the opening chef at Comal Heritage Food Incubator and reopened the nonprofit Osage Cafe as its executive chef in late 2020.
Cristian Crostelli, who is from Italy and owned Italian restaurants there and in Puerto Rico, had been living in Austin, where he sold freshly made pasta dishes from a food truck; now he'll be leading the front of the house at Roca's. "He just brings a lot of knowledge to the team, a lot of authenticity to the team, but doesn't have that stuffiness," Seidel explains.
While some of the current employees plan to stay on through the switch to Roca's, Seidel expects to add about twenty more. "I'm hoping that we build a strong, strong team," he says. "But I do foresee a challenge in the hiring space. It's been everywhere."
Despite the challenges and some concerns about how longtime Frontroom regulars will react, Seidel is excited about the future of what he hopes will become a neighborhood staple in its own right. "The goal is just to improve the quality and update the recipes," he concludes, "and still be a great little place in the suburbs for people to go have a good meal with their family."