Pity the poor noodle. On kids’ menus, it’s often slicked a ghastly shade of orange or puddled in tomato sauce packing as much sugar as a lollipop. Grown-up versions get a little more respect, but as ramen cognoscenti are quick to point out, the broth, not the noodle, makes the bowl. Even in Italy, where there are more words for pasta than Inuit words for snow, the noodle isn’t considered worthy of a main course but simply serves as the precursor to the meat.
At Dio Mio, a small eatery that opened in RiNo last fall, Alex Figura and Spencer White are trying to correct pasta’s second-class status one handmade noodle at a time. But rather than taking an overtly refined approach, as you’d expect given their backgrounds in kitchens where success was measured in awards and Michelin stars, they’ve set up shop in a minimalist fast-casual spot, with unadorned white walls, black chairs and pieces of paper that dangle from the ceiling like half-folded airplanes. Freed from the burdens of high-end, high-overhead operations, they seem thrilled to let loose and use food as a springboard for play. “We’re experimental chefs at heart,” they proclaim on the Dio Mio website.
Don’t come here expecting an upscale Noodles & Company — though if you arrive early enough, you’ll find families camped out with coloring books and parents downing glasses of house red. (The refosco isn’t technically the vino della casa, but it counts as such, well priced and perfectly drinkable.) Instead, you’ll find a level of helpfulness rarely seen in counter-service spots, thanks to front-of-house manager Hallie Bauernschmidt, whose smile alone can light up the room, not to mention bring order to it when the line grows long. Previously of Lower48 Kitchen and Comida, she multi-tasks with ease, introducing newcomers to the system, taking orders and letting you add nutella semifreddo to your tab without having to get back in line.
The menu lacks the range of Noodles & Company, too: This kitchen’s adventurousness happens largely within the framework of seasonal Italian cuisine. There’s no pad Thai, no soba, no attempt to re-create every noodle dish known to man. Instead, you’ll find a compact menu of starters and pastas, cooked to order by White and Figura and often delivered by them as well, with all the flourishes and flavor trills you’d expect from highly trained chefs.
Thus the olives you want as you settle in with a glass of wine are none other than fruity green Castelvetranos, those darlings of high-end restaurants everywhere, with candied orange and whipped feta. Chopped beets on a bed of tahini-spiked ricotta are sprinkled with sunflower seeds and mustard greens to even out the sweetness. Spectacular tomato-almond pesto, made with ricotta and fried almonds to deepen the flavor, turns cauliflower into a table favorite, even if the florets come out more crisp than tender. The global outlier is squid-ink spaghetti, jet-black and laced with spicy kimchi and pork belly. Although slightly out of step with the otherwise Italian menu, the dish makes intrinsic sense and is a good one to share with the table.
To successfully break the rules, Figura and White must first demonstrate that they know them — and they clearly do, doling out classics you’ll want again and again. Sometimes that means getting out of the way and letting quality ingredients talk for themselves, and they speak loudly in a starter of crusty sourdough, burrata and prosciutto accented with aceto balsamico di Modena, aged for twelve years until the grape sugars coalesce into something good enough to drink neat. Anchovies add appreciable umami to the bagna cauda drizzled over broccoli rabe. Cacio e pepe, a deceptively simple concoction made from starchy cooking water, pecorino romano and pepper, has slightly more pepe (pepper) and less cacio (cheese) than the versions I loved in Rome, but quibbling over a recipe like this is as Roman as it gets.
Of all the doughs the kitchen agonizes over (how much water does it need today? When’s the right millisecond to yank it from the water?), pappardelle is the most swoon-worthy. These wide, yolk-only noodles would be good straight out of the pot; they’d be great with just butter and parmesan. But here they make a real statement, swirled with Sunday gravy that gets its meatiness not from large amounts of ground beef, as Americans would make it, but from oxtail braising liquid, ground pork and pork bones simmered with tomatoes, the tools an Italian grandmother would use. Like all pastas on this menu, pappardelle is sauced the Italian way — i.e., scantily. With noodles as good as these, you want your sauce to be a condiment, not a distraction.
Sometimes, however, Figura and White seem so giddy with their newfound freedom that they take their experimentation a step too far. On its own, the classic pasta dish called rotolo would be something to savor, with strips of pasta looped in ever-smaller circles, a savory cinnamon roll bursting with mushroom duxelles, caramelized onions and parmesan fonduta. But then the kitchen adds a poached egg on top. This might be the first time in culinary history that a runny yolk hurts more than it helps, adding an unbearable richness and puddling unappetizingly with the plate’s spinach purée.
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And things really get out of hand with the mint fazzoletti, a freewheeling entree that would’ve been right at home at Lower48 Kitchen, the critically acclaimed but largely misunderstood restaurant where Figura and White (then chef/owner and sous-chef, respectively) met. The dish is built around thin sheets of pasta verde, tinted an arresting hue from spinach and mint blended into the dough. In Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, the region famous for prosciutto and Parmigiano-reggiano, similar green sheets are favored for lasagna. Here they’re cut into ravioli-sized rectangles and piled high in a bowl with items you’ve probably never seen on pasta before, at least not in this combination: lamb ragù — milder and less tomatoey than it sounds — Kalamatas, mint and pistachios. If executed differently, the dish could be a standout. But instead, the noodles are piled high, turning into a sticky mound. Mint leaves are left whole, so one bite makes the next few taste like toothpaste. Chopped, dehydrated kalamatas overpower when heaped in a briny pile. And the lamb ragù, which tastes less like lamb and more like nearly disintegrated pork, is incorporated sparingly, as if it were caviar.
The last thing we want is these two chefs playing it safe, since the bulk of the menu shows what exciting things they’re capable of when they follow their instincts. Still, if they rein themselves in just a bit, every dish — not just well-executed classics but the highest-risk/highest-reward ones closest to their adventurous hearts — should live up to the restaurant’s name.
No more poor noodle, but Dio mio: “My God!”
3264 Larimer Street
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 4-10 p.m. Saturday.
Select Menu Items:
Cacio e pepe $13
Mint fazzoletti $15
Squid-ink spaghetti $15