When Elise Wiggins opened Cattivella in April, she made good on her lifelong goal to have her own restaurant. “Better late than never,” she jokes. At her new eatery in Stapleton, which features an open kitchen anchored by a wood-fired oven, she’s offering her signature take on Italian food, showcasing regional specialties seen infrequently here in the States. Before venturing out on her own, Wiggins built an enthusiastic following during her twelve years at Panzano and became a pillar in this town for her personality as much as her cooking. The chef treats diners like family; she says connecting with her guests is one of her favorite parts of this industry.
Here she talks about the experiences that shaped her, including frog-gigging in Louisiana swamps, working with a Dante-spouting butcher in Italy, and her desire to become the squirrel queen of America.
Elise Wiggins: I always joke that I came out of my mother’s womb with a spatula in one hand and tongs in the other. I knew very early on what I wanted to do. When I was a kid, my mama made chocolate-chip cookie dough. I was sitting on the counter and put my hand in the bowl. I can still remember how cold it was, and the texture. She baked the cookies, and we all had one — my mom, dad, sister and me. I can still remember the looks on their faces. The cookies were hot and gooey, and they were so happy. Right then and there, I realized that if I baked something, it would make a lot of people happy. My daddy to this day says, “Who knows what they want as a kid? You’re the only one self-actualized enough to know that’s what you wanted to be.”
I grew up in Louisiana, and we hunted anything that moved. Everyone hunts. Girls, guys, grandmas, babies. We would go out at night — my daddy would take my sister and me. (My mom, who was from New York, would cry, “What have you done to our daughters?!”) We’d be fishing at night, out there with all the creepy-crawlies in the swamps, and when the fish would stop biting, he’d bring out these long cane poles, about twelve feet long with a triton on the end, and we would go frog-gigging. Let me emphasize: This is no longer legal, and I wouldn’t do it anymore. But he’d scan across the lily pads with a high-beam light and say, “See the white eyes?” And we’d say “Yeah.” And he’d say, “Okay, see the red eyes?” And we’d say, “Yeah.” And he’d say, “The red eyes — that’s a water moccasin. They hide in the lilies to get the frogs. When you go to get the frog, don’t grab the snake.” We were skewering frogs left and right. They were so big and meaty. It was like eating a chicken leg.
My family believed in not wasting anything. If you’re going to eat, you need to know where your food comes from. So as a little girl, my dad took me out with a shotgun and taught me how to shoot a bird and eviscerate it — to remove the entrails so it doesn’t decay while you’re hunting, to preserve the meat. We were raised not to waste anything, and butchering was a huge part of it. My dad would fry the whole fish, with the tail and fins. I eat shrimp tails to this day — my daddy always said, “It has calcium. Eat it.” I grew up having the respect and affection [for where food comes from], and I loved to work with my hands.
In college, I was everything: pre-med, pre-law, pre-physiotherapy. It was like, hmm, what should I study now? Nothing turned my crank. I loved the restaurant business; I was drawn to it. My parents kept saying, “It’s dirty and hard work; you don’t want this.” But I said, “Yes, I do.” In college, I worked at a Chili’s [as a server]. Man, did I learn organization and multi-tasking and timing. I moved to Texas to pursue my career and started working with Morris Salerno. He was one of the first chefs on the U.S. Culinary Olympic team, and his was the first team to win gold. I started off as a manager in the front, with the agreement that I would go in to the kitchen at night, to the school of hard knocks. I started prepping for him. It was always my intention to be in the kitchen, so I just pursued it. After several years, he said, “You should go get the piece of paper at culinary school, because it will help.” I camped around Denver for a month, fell in love and found out there was a culinary school. I went back to the chef and asked, “What do you think?” I was also looking at Hyde Park and New Orleans. He said, “It’s what you make it.” It broke my mama’s heart, but I packed up and came up here.
I worked here for about six years in Italian food, and then I took a year off and traveled through Central America and Mexico — I loved the people I worked with, and they were from Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico. I wanted to learn more, and fusion was becoming a big thing. But once you’re in Italian food, it’s like the Mafia: You can never leave. I landed back in the States and got a call to work in Puerto Rico at an Italian restaurant. I applied, did a cook-through and got the job. I learned a lot in Puerto Rico. I learned there’s a big challenge in our business with a lot of drug abuse. In Puerto Rico, the heavy drugs run up through the islands, so there were a lot of drugs — mainly heroin. I learned to run a line by myself, because we had random drug tests once a week. They would do it during the shift — you could have tickets on the line. I would lose someone almost every single time. I learned menu management and mechanics.
I moved up to Memphis; it felt good to be back in the South, even though it wasn’t my part of the South. I had to open not just one place, but three spots — a restaurant, a bar with small bites and a bakery. It was baptism by fire, and it made me hone my skills as far as organization goes. But I was still was in love with Colorado and desperately wanted to get back here. Ironically, before I left for Central America and Mexico, I was recruited by the [Hotel] Monaco to go to Panzano, but I said, “If I don’t take this vacation now, I’ll never get it again,” and Jen [Jasinski] took the job. After two years in Memphis, I got another call: Panzano was looking again. I said, “This is fate.” I did the tryout and spent twelve years there.
Coming after Jen, people always said, “She has big shoes to fill,” and I said, “No, she has thigh-high boots.” Jen was so beloved at Panzano, and coming in after her was a huge undertaking. But my strategy is always the same: I don’t want to be just like every chef. Take cacio e pepe [pasta with cheese and pepper]: I did it for years, but now everyone is doing it, and I don’t want to do that anymore. I’ve got things on the menu like focaccia de recco [a Ligurian cheese-filled flatbread] because it’s completely unfamiliar, and I love that. Or the wild-boar Bolognese at Panzano. When I changed the classic Bolognese to wild boar, servers said, “Chef, people are freaked out, can you just put regular Bolognese back on the menu?” And I said, “No, it’s delicious. Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to serve everyone little bites, cicchetti, of the wild-boar Bolognese. They’re free, and they’ll get hooked.” That’s always been my tactic. I understand: When people are dropping their dime on one plate, they don’t want to pay this money and gamble to see if they like it. Giving them a bite turned people around.
When I go to Italy — and I continuously go back and study with the chefs there — I seek out what is different from what I see in the States. Last April, I went and worked with a pastry chef in Positano who worked on a wood-fired oven. I wanted to know, how do you do that in an oven? Everyone is a character, and they’re all so different — I haven’t met anyone that I haven’t just fallen in love with. I worked with Dario Cecchini, who is now a super-world-famous butcher, so I was lucky to get in when I could. I wrote to him, lavished him with flowery compliments, contacted his wife and asked what he’s like. Turns out he loves the West, so I went to Rockmount and got him a Western shirt and a bandanna. When I went to see him and had my first meeting with him, he pulled up his shirt, and said in Italian, “I want to show you something.” I was like, “Oh, my God, what am I going to see?” But he pulls out this huge Texas belt buckle with the horns. He’s such a dramatic character. He’s constantly spouting Dante. We butchered the foreshank of a steer, and he says, we’re going to make our Italian hamburger from this. And we’re throwing ligaments and tendons into the grind, and I’m thinking, this is going to be the worst burger ever. He proved me wrong. We ground up that whole foreshank and he cooked it in the oven, and it was the best ground-beef patty I’ve had. The major tendon is full of gelatin, and it was so moist and so unctuous. It’s like with good pho broth, they put the tendons in there, and you get this chewy unctuousness. It was so, so disturbingly good. That’s exactly why I went to study with him.
I always knew I wanted to own my own restaurant. I had a lot of wonderful experiences coming up through the ranks and seeing how things could have been done — were done — really well, or how they could have been done better. I learned a lot along the way. But having so many chiefs at different levels was like trying to turn a ship, and that could be so hindering sometimes. I didn’t want to do that. I felt like I had enough experience that I didn’t want to have to share that. Me personally, I like to make decisions that are thoughtful but quick. If I want to change a menu item, that’s it, I change it. In this business, if you don’t change fast, you lose the business, and I was tired of waiting for decisions to be made. I didn’t want to deal with partners; I wanted to be the only owner.
I sat and waited, and I bounced opportunities that came up off of many people. This spot came up, and it was the perfect place. I live here in Stapleton, and all my neighbors for years have said, “Please, please, please open up something.” Sometimes I cater the block party, and one year, a group of neighbors came to me and said, “We all have money, we all talked, we’re all willing to invest in a restaurant.” This neighborhood has been starved. I knew it was going to be successful. So I said, “Let’s see if I can get a loan.” Everyone kept telling me I wouldn’t, but you tell me no, and I’m going to do my damnedest to make it happen. And I did. I took my accolades over the twelve years and my twelve years of financials, and showed them my growth year over year, and said, “This is what I’m going to do in this spot.” That opened the door for me. I’d been saving my money for many years; I liquidated my 401K and my savings and put my house on the line as collateral, but I got a 100 percent loan, and it feels so good. My suggestion to other chefs: Document all your successes.
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I love the idea of using everything and making sexy food with it. Doing our own butchery means we can serve a steak — dry-aged in-house, which gives it the best funk ever — for anywhere from the $30 to $40 mark. Go anywhere else, and dry-aged beef will easily cost you over $100. Plus, it’s an opportunity to teach people. I create little nibbles. When you go into Dario’s shop, he gives you this platter with little crostini, steak tartare and this carpaccio, and he puts it out and says, “Eat.” That’s very Italian, social, a way to say, “You’re a friend of mine.” I want to do that here. We’re going to have the hosts and bartenders whisper while people are waiting, “Go to the back; chef’s going to have something for you.” It’s a little freebie, and they can come back there and talk to me, get a little bite of steak tartare, share some of the dry-aged beef. And then I can look them in the eye and ask, “Do you taste this? Do you feel the texture? Do you see how it’s different?” That’s a pleasant way to entertain and connect, without it costing anything. Then they sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to get this steak.” That’s what we’re going to do.
My goal now is to get a senator or representative to sponsor me to open a squirrel farm. Squirrel meat is the chicken of the tree. In the South, we eat it all the time, but it’s not legal to buy or sell it. Up here, people say, “What? You eat squirrel?” But think about it: Iberico pig is known because the animals eat acorns. Squirrels are vegetarian and they eat acorns — why would you think the meat doesn’t taste good? I know better than to do this in Colorado. But my goal is to become the queen of squirrel meat. I’m sure PETA will be upset at me, but I’m going to wear my squirrel-tail coat and laugh all the way to the bank. Plus, chefs are always looking for something new to use — it’s like what wild boar was for a while. And it’s delicious!
10237 East 29th Drive
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 4 to 11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday