"Six pork, all day! Five crespelle, all day! One beef, mid-rare; one beef, medium! Three frito, on the fly!"
On Saturday night, Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market, Iain Chisholm's new Italian restaurant on Upper Larimer, hosted a friends and family practice dinner, inviting about forty people to taste a shortened version of the menu that he'll unveil mid-week when he opens to the public -- and I was right there in the thick of things...expediting, something I haven't done since college.
And I had a blast, thanks to a remarkably patient crowd, and a forgiving staff that came together under the pressure of "first-night" jitters and a POS system that refused to spit out tickets. "Between five months of permits, construction, sign-offs, inspections and then opening the restaurant and not having a functioning POS system, it was like two trains colliding," says Chisholm, who's helped open six restaurants but is now fully responsible for his own.
And while Chisholm, a chef, wasn't initially planning to wield his knives in the kitchen -- "I'll be the maitre d', I'll be bartending, and I'll be managing the front and back of the house," he told me back in May -- he's since given that notion some thought. "I don't know what the hell I was thinking by convincing myself that I could delegate right off the bat, but for the foreseeable future, I'll be leading the line. I need to be there to pull it off," he says, adding that his wife, Anna, will now oversee the front of the house. "She has the best guest skills of anyone I know, and she's just an amazing front-of-house person, so she'll be running the front while I run the back."
In fact, most of the couple's family has been instrumental in building Amerigo, and Chisholm insists that's what he prefers. "This restaurant is a lot different from a lot of others, in that there are no big investors. I liken it to a mom-and-pop," he says, adding that this is a "homegrown, grassroots family business in a neighborhood that's becoming a more popular place for families to live."
And while the friends-and-family dinner had it glitches, the food that Chisholm and his staff produced was precisely what you'd want in a neighborhood restaurant: humble, inexpensive (nothing on the small board is more than $15), ample and damn good. Everything from the crisp risotto frito to the braised pork cheeks to the cannoli exposed sublimely harmonized flavors suited to an everyday restaurant.
Chisholm admits that he's still hammering out the kinks -- and he stresses that he won't open to the public until he's certain that Amerigo can puts its money where its mouth is. "We definitely threw ourselves in the fire on Saturday night -- we were in the trenches -- but I want to have a sustainable business, and that means doing it right when we start charging people money. It means doing great food, keeping it affordable, and making sure that our guests are getting what they deserve," he says.
He's shooting to open for lunch on Wednesday, but notes that dinner service might be slightly scaled back if he rolls it out this week. "My goal is to open Wednesday for lunch, and then we'll see about dinner. It may be that we do wine and cocktails and a scaled-back menu for a day or two for dinner before going full steam ahead. It's gotta be done right."
In the meantime, here's an exclusive first glance at Chisholm's dinner from Saturday night.
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Toasted pistachios. Frito: crisp-edged risotto cake topped with herb-roasted tomatoes, drizzled with crème fraîche and splayed over fresh greens. The kitchen staff, helmed by chef-owner Iain Chisholm The kitchen on all four cylinders. Bruschetta smeared with whipped goat cheese, dotted with pine nuts and haloed with pesto. House salad slicked with a buttermilk dressing and served with an exquisite ribbon of salted pork belly. The exhibition kitchen. Sliced beef shoulder tender with arugula, housemade pappardelle, shaved Pecorino and cracked black pepper. Crespelle: Italian crepes hugging housemade goat cheese ricotta and topped with sauteed chanterelle mushrooms and leeks. Grilled peach-topped braised pork cheeks with gnocchi in a brown butter and fresh sage sauce. Caesar salad sided with a ciabatta crouton. Sweetened ricotta cannoli showered with shaved dark chocolate.