The crash silences the room. Heads swivel with the precision of a well-rehearsed chorus line, stopping at the white shards on the floor. For a moment, everyone in the sleek dining room at Cattivella, Elise Wiggins’s much-anticipated Italian restaurant that opened in a brand-new development in Stapleton this spring, breathes as one. Will someone be reprimanded, reminded to be more careful? Will Wiggins herself — a gregarious live wire who grows so intense during service that at times she sports a scowl — have a word with the culprit?
Not tonight. On this late-summer Saturday, Wiggins isn’t where I’ve seen her before at Cattivella, pulling pans off the heat or scrutinizing plates before they’re whisked off to diners. Tonight her crew, garbed in stylish gray aprons and tattoos, is on its own. Soon the first crash is followed by a second, as a cook, hair pulled tight and sweat beading on his forehead, sets a hot pan on a teetering pile, from which it slips with a clatter behind the pizza oven. But not even this noisy interruption ruffles the crew. These guys are already in the zone, what psychologists call “flow.” And they’re taking me along with them.
Flow comes when you’re engrossed in a good book or doing something creative, unaware of the passage of time. You also experience it at restaurants when you’re eating well and being treated well, and are subsequently surprised to find how late it’s gotten when you rise from the table. Flow is what flavors those fabled Italian meals, the ones pimped by Olive Garden commercials, the ones that resonate deep within us whether we’ve been to Italy or not, whether we’ve been part of a big happy family or not. Wiggins knows this, of course; she knows the power of Italian food to bring us together, learned over her thousands of nights in charge at Panzano, where she was for twelve years, and almost as many moments exploring kitchens big and small throughout Italy. This night, her cooks have flow and it’s contagious, washing over those of us lucky enough to hold seats at the counter, lucky enough to find ourselves fully absorbed in our unfolding meals.
There’s tangy goat cheese spread on a wooden board until it’s thin as a veil, zigzagged with pale green oil and heat-shriveled grapes. There’s black-bubbled pizza with mushrooms, tarragon and Fontina, plus pappardelle glossy with wine-rich reduction and tender morsels of lamb. Shrimp are eaten so quickly the server laughs; I know I should share, but the thought evaporates in that first sticky bite of date and charred pancetta, that Gorgonzola-speckled polenta. The most expensive item on the menu is worth its $42 price tag: It’s a special of dry-aged New York strip, juicy and charred, with shoestring potatoes, mushrooms, asparagus and polenta, the soft grains laced with prosciutto and pungent cheese.
The kitchen was strong on other nights, too, putting out dishes that were deep-throated and lusty, at times playful, always confident. In hindsight, I can see moments when time again began to swirl in flow’s eddy, when I was absorbed in the warmth of oil-cured olives, salty as the sea, lined in a serving dish carved like a dugout canoe. Moments when I was no longer listening to my husband, instead pondering bruschetta’s trellis of pea shoots and prosciutto that kept each sweet melon sphere from rolling off. When I was admiring the fruitiness of aged balsamic, squeezed drop by drop over the two-crust tart known as focaccia di Recco, and dawdling over tiramisu’s sweet mascarpone, the crackle of crostata dough tightly furled over summer berries. Food this good should have ensured that other meals at Cattivella rose above and beyond the grasp of time — and yet they didn’t, instead unraveling in fits and starts. Why?
One word: service. It’s hard to lose yourself in the moment when you’re twisting in your chair trying to flag someone down or waiting for a drink to be corrected. It’s hard to surrender when a server keeps grasping your chair in his whoosh between tables, when a check is delivered without the server asking if you want dessert, when an expensive entree is dropped off with all the grace of “Here’s that moneymaker right here!” And as good as the kitchen is, one evening I was disappointed by ravioli as big as saucers, bathed in brown butter that wasn’t brown enough to be nutty, and stared down at a dry speck pizza in need of more sauce and more than one runny yolk.
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Slip-ups happened during that memorable meal at the counter, too. In fact, I’d almost missed that meal altogether: When I’d asked the host if we could sit at the counter, close enough to see the much-hyped pasta station that we thought would be in action, he’d told us that the server for that area wouldn’t be in until 5:30 p.m., ignoring the fact that 5:30 was just minutes away. He finally agreed to let us sit there, ordering drinks while we waited for the server. Even though the pasta station was a disappointment — it was empty, as it was on other visits — the happy hour was not. Cattivella’s happy hour is surely one of the best deals in town, with fully respectable portions of nibbles, proteins, pizzas and pastas offered at prices half to three-quarters less than those on the dinner menu. (Happy hour is not served in the dining room.) Lower prices have a way of both lowering your expectations and smoothing over any snags, so you’re more forgiving when servers don’t know how much specials cost, or don’t bother to tell you about them at all. Interruptions lose their sting when you sit at the counter and marvel at the pizza-maker’s rhythmic sprinkling of cornmeal, the soft stretch of dough over fists, the nimble fingers that coerce a coherent circle out of something so elastic and sticky. Wiggins trusts the power of the show; it’s why her restaurant has a 26-seat wraparound chef’s counter, plus a short-circuit TV so the rest of the dining room can watch.
But not even the kitchen’s spectacle can make time stand still when happy hour ends and pizzas top $20 and specials double that. Then it’s just too hard to ignore the drumbeat of details that interrupt flow, turning great food into a series of staccato moments that leave you hoping that the front of the house will one day sync with the rhythm of the back. That all meals at Cattivella will flow with that enveloping nowness I’d experienced at the counter, as rare and slippery as quicksilver.
10195 East 29th Drive, #110
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 4-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Select menu items:
Happy-hour shrimp $8
Happy-hour lamb ragu $10
Happy-hour pizzas $8
Focaccia di Recco $21
Speck pizza $24
Steak special $42