Cafe Society

Cucina Colore

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"Try this. It's so yummy. You have to try this."

Against the banquette, a woman cleverly preserved by deadly, paralytic nerve agents and what sounds like a lifetime pack-a-day Parliament habit stabs a forkful of greens and holds it up to a man I hope is her son, slumped sideways in his chair. He mutters something I can't hear.

"What do you mean, you don't eat lettuce?" She's outraged, croaking, her eyebrows locked into a permanent arc of surprise, cheekbones jutting like shelves for her eyeballs. "Who doesn't eat lettuce?"

She eats the lettuce, forking it into the painted slit in her face, chewing like one of the Sleestak in Land of the Lost — just her mandibles moving, nothing else.

Now I'm eating the same salad, the "pollo e orzo" with grilled chicken that's been dessicated on the grill, limp greens, salted ricotta and a bittersweet vinaigrette. It is not so yummy. It is chicken and leaves and vinegar — and unlike with the Caprese, those few ingredients add up to nothing more. Across the table, Laura pushes around her linguine with basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, trying to make it look like she's eaten more than she has, trying to make it look like she's eaten any. Her eyebrows work just fine, and I'd watched her take her first bite: two rainbows of surprise, followed by one dropped, slanting hyphen of concern, then two defeated slashes of annoyance.

We trade plates. She nibbles the chicken, cutting around the char. I try the noodles. They are sticky with over-blended, over-thick pesto that's gummed onto the pasta, turning it green and speckled, making it taste of licorice and nursery-school paste. It's so dry that all the pine nuts have slipped through the bird's nest of linguine to rattle around the bottom of the huge white bowl. And the sun-dried tomatoes just sit there — a counterpoint in color and texture with all the livid flavor of small, ketchup-colored hockey pucks.

At the front of the room, the hostesses keep bringing in tables, keep seating tables. The kitchen fires up a pan of garlic and onions that fills the room with the smells of good food, the promise of good food, unfulfilled. Wine bottles are opened and, down the way, a new group of women are celebrating something, chiming glasses, their laughter like bells ringing. "I remember you guys," the waiter says. The women smile, stab their thin fingers at their menus, demand more drinks, salads. Who doesn't eat lettuce?

On a Sunday night, I eat a pork chop with braised fennel, mounted (like half of everything that isn't a pasta) over a hillock of whipped potatoes. I eat tagliatelle with veal Bolognese ground so fine that the flavor of veal has apparently been transmuted into a vapor, wafting off before the heavy bowl of tepid pasta made it to my table. There's steak on the menu, sage-roasted chicken with goat cheese (and whipped potatoes), veal scaloppine with sautéed buttons (and whipped potatoes) in a garlic and balsamic reduction, pasta-less lasagna made with eggplant, sesame-crusted tuna in another vinaigrette. The blue crab, spinach and artichoke casserole is really just a crab and artichoke dip exactly like the crab and artichoke dips that exploded onto every menu in America a dozen years ago, made to be smeared across the ever-present (and very good) focaccia. There's calamari, of course. Mussels. Conchiglie with roasted chicken and broccoli.

Standing out front, catching a smoke between courses, I watch a couple help an elderly woman with a walker and an oxygen tank through the door; one of the hostesses holding it open for them. She asks the couple how their dinner was. "Great," the man says. "We bring Mom here every time we want to go out to dinner," says the woman, hunching a shoulder toward Methuselah's first wife. "She loves it."

Cucina Colore is pretty, comfortable and just casual enough without being too casual. The servers are trained to recognize return customers, coddle them, promise them the moon the next time they come in. But Cucina Colore is also extraordinarily boring. The restaurant calls its food "contemporary Italian" cuisine, but if an original idea were ever to accidentally wander through the front doors, it would immediately be beaten to death, ground up and turned into another retread salad dressing or pasta sauce better suited for the frozen-foods case at King Soopers. There is nothing contemporary about this menu. It's full of culinary hedge bets for folks who don't want and won't eat anything they haven't seen a hundred times before in a hundred other restaurants, non-threatening plates that are dull, dated, passionless, occasionally inept and would be downright embarrassing if not for the fact that Cucina Colore does such a good business feeding Grandma, Chad and Binky, the Sleestak and her son.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan