Nearly a year ago, Elise Wiggins left her longtime position as executive chef at Panzano to pursue her vision of opening the Italian restaurant she'd always wanted. And the day has finally come: Cattivella opens to the public tonight at 10195 East 29th Avenue. It's the first eatery to debut in the new Eastbridge Stapleton shopping center.
True to her vision, Wiggins has created the kind of restaurant that reflects her many experiences traveling, working and eating in Italy. There's the wood-fired pizza oven that will be used for far more than just pizzas; even beans are slow-cooked in glass flasks nestled in hot embers. There's the adjustable wood grill that gives meats (much of it brought in whole and butchered on site) and vegetables a rustic, old-world depth of flavor. And there are the housemade breads and pastas that separate Cattivella from the standard bistro or trattoria.
Little touches, too, speak to Wiggins's experience. An unusual contraption at the back of the open kitchen turns out to be a press used to separate fat from the fried bits of meat called ciccioli (similar to chicharrones) that result from the lard-rendering process. Wiggins uses the lard for cooking and baking and presents the ciccioli, an Italian festival and street-vendor favorite, on the antipasti menu. A small cooler under the counter contains primal cuts of beef dry-aging for weeks for customers who want a little something special in a steak. And an entire gluten-free menu offers housemade pasta and pizza options without sacrificing quality.
Hospitality and a sense of community are equally important to Wiggins, who has modeled Cattivella after restaurants where the chef/proprietor welcomes guests with small bites straight from the counter, and those waiting for tables spill out onto the sidewalk with wine glasses in hand. She'll have little freebies for customers who wander back to her station in the vast open kitchen, and when the weather's nice, a spacious wrap-around patio with a garage window that opens onto the bar stands in for the street outside her favorite eateries in Italian villages.
"I want to make sure we dissolve that line of formality," Wiggins says of her brand of hospitality, and that includes hiring the right staffers and training them properly to interact with guests. "Everyone here is super-friendly and loves to talk about food."
And talking about food will be a big part of the experience at Cattivella, whether the waitstaff is explaining daily seafood specials on the Macellaio (butcher's choice) section of the menu — which could be fresh oysters, mussels, lobster or king crab — or helping diners navigate some of the more esoteric dishes, from snail-shaped pasta called lumache to a pie-shaped, cheesy wedge called focaccia di Recco, which has little in common with the focaccia bread most of us know.
The wine list, by the glass and bottle, is kept brief and selected to pair with food. The beverage team is happy to describe selections, and on Mondays they'll wander the room offering pours from large-format bottles.
When you come for dinner or weekend brunch, you'll find just the right seats to match your style, whether you want to be in the midst of the action in the dining room, at the bar or the long chef's counter, or off to the side where you can watch salumi boards being built. "There's not a dead seat in the restaurant," the chef points out.
Part of that is because Wiggins will also host regular cooking classes, something she's done since her days at Panzano. You'll notice that there's a single TV screen in the house, but it's not for sports. Most of the time, it will display live kitchen-cam images, but during cooking classes, it's there to make sure all participants have a view of the action. "I personally love to learn and I love cooking so much, I want to make it approachable and easy to understand," she says.
Cattivella opens tonight for happy hour at 4 p.m.; regular hours will be from 4 to 10 p.m. nightly (and an hour later on Fridays and Saturdays), with brunch served on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 8:30 a.m. Keep reading for more photos of Stapleton's newest restaurant.
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