Boil and serve: That's as far as most of us go when preparing pasta. If we're feeling ambitious, we might bake a lasagna or make our marinara from scratch instead of buying it in jars. But creating noodles from raw ingredients? That's surely the job of large-scale producers with fancy, expensive equipment.
For many Italian restaurants, though, handmade pasta is the only way to go, even if the process is labor-intensive and repetitive. Ty Leon, executive chef and co-owner of Restaurant Olivia, which just opened in place of Cafe Marmotte, at 290 South Downing Street, believes in the power of pasta; he and his culinary team turn out ten varieties for Olivia's menu and nightly specials.
Leon graduated from Denver's Johnson & Wales University in 2011 and, after working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Saratoga, California, returned to Colorado and rose quickly at Mizuna, where he became executive chef while still in his mid-twenties. In 2018, he left the restaurant to open Bistro Georgette at Avanti Food & Beverage with fellow Mizuna alumni Heather Morrison and Austin Carson. Since Avanti serves as an incubator for budding restaurateurs who might soon move on to bigger things, a full-service French restaurant seemed to be in the cards for the trio, so it made sense when they took over Cafe Marmotte last September. The real surprise came when they announced that they'd be converting the four-year-old neighborhood French eatery into an Italian restaurant rather than an expanded version of Bistro Georgette.
But Leon had pasta on his mind well before the team transitioned Cafe Marmotte to Restaurant Olivia. He'd already mastered pie crusts at Bistro Georgette, serving exquisite hand pies in both sweet and savory styles, while professing a love for all things made with flour. From there, he began a year-long quest to learn pasta from some of the top kitchens in the country, staging at Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon; Flour + Water in San Francisco; and Lilia in Brooklyn for about a month each. "I wanted to see how their kitchens ran, but also to learn from the best and see how to produce multiple kinds of pasta consistently," he explains. "One of the most important things I learned was to keep it simple."
Simplicity and pasta seem almost synonymous, since at its most basic, pasta dough is made with nothing more than flour and water. Leon makes this style of dough for his spaghetti, turning out batches early in the morning to allow the noodles to dry a little before they're cooked. He also makes two kinds of egg-based dough — one that requires just the yolks for fresh noodles, and one that includes yolks and whites. The latter is used for ravioli and other pocket-style pastas that need to be a little sticky to keep them from bursting open when cooked.
Technically speaking, there's a fourth style: gnocchi, which Leon mastered during his stint at Lilia. "The gnocchi is the trickiest," he notes. "We use ricotta, parmesan, flour and eggs. I have to teach everyone how to make them, so ricotta is a little easier than potato."
The pillowy gnocchi, lightly pan-crisped, show up dressed with romanesco (like green cauliflower) pesto, walnuts and fontina fondue. The menu also lists cappelletti ("little hats") stuffed with braised rabbit, tortellini filled with butternut squash, and plump agnolotti with prosciutto and kale. Noodle dishes include spaghetti with lobster, mascarpone and black truffle; ruffled mafaldine with meatballs; and garganelli, delicate tubes that are hand-rolled rather than extruded like penne. The restaurant goes through about thirty pounds of pasta a night.
Business has really picked up since the switch from French to Italian, Leon says. Still, regulars will recognize the creamy French onion soup from the Cafe Marmotte days, now served with cheesy risotto balls for a French/Italian mashup. The chef points out that there's also a foie gras appetizer that owes little to Italian tradition but is a favorite with guests nonetheless.
With so much pasta on the menu, it can be easy to overlook Olivia's other entrees — but Leon says that his veal Milanese is a can't-miss dish. Rather than a traditional thin-pounded cutlet, he cuts thicker slices and cooks them to temperature. The pleasingly crunchy breading is still there, but the dish eats more like a steak, especially with its accompanying veal demi sauce.
Leon is usually in the kitchen by 8 a.m. (or earlier) every day but Monday, when Olivia is closed, repeating the same process over and over: making dough, mixing fillings, forming tray after tray of specific pasta shapes, striving to make each as perfect as its neighbor. That might sound mind-numbing, but the act of focusing on each step, tuning out the outside world and creating a vast variety of flavors and textures from a single medium, is how craftsmen move from mere competence to the level of artistry. When a dish of cappelletti, with skins so thin that the centers are darkened from the meat within, arrives at the table, their precision and regularity could easily be chalked up to conveyor-belt automation, but it's Leon's devotion to learning and perfecting that yields such tempting and tasty results.
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You don't need to show the same devotion to make decent pasta at home, though. According to Leon, with a little practice, home cooks can get a feel for the dough and adjust it on the fly to get the right firm-yet-silky texture. Once you find a good recipe, it's important to use the freshest yolks possible, he says, and to mix the wet and dry ingredients thoroughly before adjusting. Save an extra yolk in case the dough is too dry, he adds, then knead it in at the end. Most recipes recommend letting the dough rest for a half-hour or more before rolling it out; Leon agrees that this step is critical.
But if you don't have the patience to make handmade pasta, don't worry: Chef Ty Leon has more than enough of both to go around.
Restaurant Olivia is now open from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 303-999-0395 or visit oliviadenver.com for details and reservations.