Earlier today, in the kitchen of Lower 48, the all-male squadron of cooks and chefs were prepping for tonight's blast of bodies that will undoubtedly want a first glimpse -- and taste -- of one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of year. And considering it's the crew's first night of regular service -- and the dining room chairs are somewhere in transit -- they're remarkably calm, their soft chatter broken up by theatrical displays of muscle flexing, hearty laughter and jokes about the shortest guy in the room perfecting his balancing routine on a ladder that doesn't quite stretch to the height of the ceiling, where there are light sockets that need bulbs.
"I've worked in restaurants my whole life," says Mario Nocifera, who co-owns Lower 48 with his business partner and executive chef Alex Figura. "I've always wanted to build a restaurant -- that's been my dream for years -- and our goal is to continue to make Denver a great dining destination; we're striving to be great regionally, and we want to be a part of why people go on destination food trips," he explains.
The two men -- restaurateur and kitchen magician -- originally worked together in 2011 at Frasca Food & Wine, the restaurant powerhouse in Boulder from which culinary talent emerges at every turn. And while they were at Frasca, they met Greg Schesser, the sous chef of Lower 48, who, says Nocifera, "everyone calls 'Bear.'" And the trio of heavyweights have, among them, an extraordinary wealth of pedigreed experience. Nocifera started washing dishes at fourteen while living in Phoenix, Arizona, where his grandparents, he interjects, were the first restaurateurs to introduce pizza to Phoenix, via a food bazaar they opened in the early '70s.
When he was 21, Nocifera moved to Aspen, where he worked for several years at the Little Nell; Bobby Stuckey, co-owner and sommelier of Frasca, was there, too. "Bobby and I were housemates for two years, and he's been an incredible mentor to me," says Nocifera, who then spent seven years in San Francisco, first as the beverage manager and assistant general manager of Spago, and later as the general manager of Charles Nob Hill, a now-closed Michael Mina restaurant that, in its heyday, was one of the top restaurants in the country. He returned to Denver, along with his then-wife to open his own restaurant -- a restaurant that would have been a "forward-thinking Italian restaurant," he says -- but not long after he married, he got divorced and after "getting kicked in the teeth," as he puts it, he brushed himself off and headed back to San Francisco to take advantage of numerous consulting gigs. At the time, he says, "If I wasn't going to open a restaurant in Denver, there was no reason for me to stay."
Meanwhile, Schesser was the in-house butcher at The French Laundry, a position he held for two years, and Figura, a native of Washington DC, was pushing the boundaries in the superstar kitchens of Vetri and Osteria, both in Philadelphia; Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York and, most recently, El Celler de Can Roca, a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Girona, Spain. And it's Figura's widespread experience, stresses Nocifera, that made him the ideal fit to command Lower 48's kitchen. "He has a huge depth of experience in multiple global markets, which is really important," says Nocifera. "And he's incredibly disciplined, too."
And tonight, Figura, Schesser and the rest of the kitchen team will strut their prowess in showroom kitchen, a transparent centerpiece that peers over a space that's representative of -- and influenced by -- iconic Americana, or, as Nocifera describes it, "the expansion of the American West." To that end, the L-shaped installation above the bar is created from wood salvaged from the back end of a 1950s Semi-truck; the grates that chain it together were gathered from an airplane graveyard. The community table in the bar is constructed from reclaimed boxcar planks; and the "Centennial Room" -- Colorado's nickname -- is separated from the main dining room and bar via a shipping container door. And a wall in that room is devoted to train track art, namely a 1,000-pound feature that exposes tapered wooden telegraph poles and two arched train track rails, each of which is sixteen feet long. And to cap off the American experience, Nocifera spent a good amount of time at Good Will buying old vinyl -- think Dolly Parton, Disneyland Christmas carols, the Jane Fonda Workout, the soundtrack from South Pacific and "Hawaiian Holiday," by Dick Contino -- which he then cut down into circular coasters.
Figura's menu, too, is focused on American cuisine -- then, and now. Grains, pickled vegetables and fermented fruits, ingredients that are smoked, stewed and braised -- they're all part of Figura's repertoire, which consists of five categories: "Each," which are one-or-two-bite teasers, all priced at $2; "Small," a lineup that includes squash and Brussels sprouts and braised squid with "Christmas" lima beans; "Large," a homage to big plates of pasta, brisket, scallops and a Colorado chicken leg and breast bolstered by pickled prunes; "For Two," a designation that currently equates to a thirty-ounce tomahawk ribeye chop, plated with three sauces and vegetables that's designed to be shared; and a "Daily" headliner, handwritten by the chefs, that will be devoted to whatever they feel like cooking -- or baking -- that day.
And the menu, reveals Figura, will also change daily, be it slightly or significantly. "Everything will depend on seasonality and availability," he explains, noting, too, that the kitchen is committed to a we-do-everything-in-house mantra. "We're baking our own breads, making our own breadcrumbs, fermenting our own vegetables and fruits, making all of our cheeses and pastas in house, our ice cream, mousses and puff pastries -- all of it," he says.
Not surprisingly, the beverage program was given the same degree of thought as the space and the menu. Brandon Brough, who oversees the liquid assets, implemented a syllabus that combines classic cocktails (Sazerac, rye Manahattan, Negroni, a dry martini and blood & sand) with modern craft cocktails like the "Bent Rail," a drink made with Bulleit rye, bitters, lemon and orange peel and a Green Chartreuse floater. Ten beers, all of them craft, and a smartly curated wine list, round out the choices.
Next week, we'll showcase some of those cocktails, as well as Figura's dishes, but while you're waiting for that, here's an early peek at the interior. Note: Lower 48 is open for dinner Monday through Saturday.
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