Tom Sumner decided to add his Trattoria Stella to the mix eight months ago, dropping the restaurant into an 1889 Victorian that needed a lot of work (and still does). But that doesn't bother Sumner. "This was perfect," he says. "I've been wanting to do a restaurant for the last five years, and I've been looking all over. I just fell in love with this neighborhood, and I knew it would be ideal for the kind of restaurant I wanted to do." And he knew it well, since his great-grandfather once lived a few blocks away, at 33rd and Decatur.
A fourth-generation Coloradan, Sumner had been a ski bum for many years, working at restaurants to support his downhill habit. "I put myself through college waiting tables," he recalls, "and I've cooked in a bunch of places in Denver and California. I cooked at the old Rattlesnake Club. And even after I got my degree in history, I always thought that if things got really bad, I could always open a restaurant."
Although things never did get that bad, he's opened one, anyway. Still, Sumner didn't give up skiing altogether: An instructor at Loveland, he managed to get out on the slopes every Wednesday this season because, as he puts it, "you have to leave something in you to keep going in the restaurant business." It also helps to bring in the right talent. Trattoria Stella's cooking duties are shared by chefs Teresa Stephens, Skip Jones and Jennifer Blakeslee, an embarrassment of riches in this labor-short economy. "Hey, they could work anywhere," Sumner admits. "They just happened to like what I want to do here, and they were all willing to work out who does what and when, and so far, it works." And then there's Sumner's fiancée, Marna Freeman, who makes all the desserts and does the baking. "I'm marrying her because I don't want to have to pay for the desserts," Sumner says, sounding like he's only half joking.
Once the staff was in place, it was time to tackle the space. Fortunately, Sumner's brother Andy is an architect. "He came up with a lot of the ideas for the decor, following what I was looking to do," says Sumner. "I really love the New York-type Italian restaurants, but it seems like that's already been done in this town, so I wanted to do something that would include some of that fun New York-neighborhood thrown-together feel, sort of a groovy date place, but one that wouldn't be all about red sauce."
The result is oddly endearing. Trattoria Stella isn't the most intimate eatery around, but the way it's set up lends a certain sense of romanticism: It's like one of those movie restaurants in which the leading lady and man are able to focus on each other amid the chaos. The front of the house is open, enclosed in plastic and warmed by radiators and space heaters; the tables and chairs, dishes and mugs are charmingly mismatched; the menu, too, pairs classic Italian specialties with off-the-wall sauces and offbeat homemade pastas. This is a menu that takes time to peruse, so it's wise to order a bottle of wine off the good wine list, selected by the guys who run Mondo Vino across the street, so that you can sip while you read.
Since we were hungry, we also ordered a walnut-packed Gorgonzola spread ($7.95) appetizer to nibble on while we made our entree decisions. Whipped, creamy and pungent (the cheese had been aerated with sour cream and cream cheese), the spread had just enough saltiness to whet our appetites but was still light enough -- even topping baguette and apple slices -- to let us move on through the meal. And move on we did, to a delectable salad of warm artichoke hearts and wild mushrooms ($7.95) that had been tossed with baby spinach leaves, roasted garlic and pine nuts in a balsamic vinaigrette with just a touch of sweetness, which played off the tangy artichokes.
We had just polished off those two large starters when our entrees arrived. The mustard brie sauce completely covered not just the tomato fettuccine ($9.95), but the plate -- and we still we couldn't get enough of this unusual-sounding, and -tasting, sauce. The Dijon used was more sweet than biting and, with the brie, had melted down into a thick, creamy sauce. Broccoli and big shards of portabellos brought bulk to the dish, although the tomato fettuccine was pretty hearty, too -- a thick, soft noodle faintly pink from tomato, which had been added more for color than flavor. The combination was odd, and the result was wonderful.
We were less impressed by our second entree, another large portion, this time of sausage in a cream sauce over beet pipe rigate ($9.95). The housemade pork sausage was fine: lean, herb-enhanced and carrying a slight spicy kick. And the tomato cream sauce, while not a standout like the mustard brie, was a flavorful combination of tomatoes and red-chile flakes sweetened with nutmeg and made even more aromatic with rosemary. But there wasn't enough sauce to soften the hard nuggets of rigate (called penne rigate in Italy, where the word penne means "pens" and rigate refers to "ridge"), which in size fell somewhere between penne and the fatter pennoni, and in cooking fell somewhere between overcooked and way overcooked. "That's one of our most popular dishes," Sumner says. "I'm surprised there was a problem, but I'm guessing it was in the semolina proportion used. That makes a different pasta than some of the store-bought or even fresh versions." Whatever the explanation, this pasta had the chewy hardness of too-done squid rings. Even though it had soaked up all of the available liquid, that didn't make for softer eating; after about ten tubes of the stuff, our stomachs seized up and we pushed the dish away.
We made remarkable recoveries in time for dessert, though. Both Freeman's sour cream-based apple pie ($5) and her take on bread pudding ($5), with a more cakelike texture and lots of chocolate, were amazing. In fact, just about everything about Trattoria Stella was amazing -- and marvelous.
So a week later, I gave that sausage dish another try -- and encountered the same hard-edged, chewy pasta. But I also got to sample two puttanescas, differing takes on the "whore's pasta" that I've always thought should be found on more Italian menus in this country, and both sauces were perfect, well-made and beautifully blended. The puttanesca blanco ($8.95), the white version, combined the usual anchovies, capers, kalamatas and garlic but left out the tomatoes; the overall effect was like the topping of a white pizza, very garlic-oriented and given a tartness by the artichokes, served over a faintly lemony, impeccably cooked fettuccine. Fusilli (which translates to "short springs") was the noodle offered in the regular puttanesca ($8.95), a thick, tomato-based concoction that contained the surprise element of marjoram, which lent a nice sweetness to the otherwise savory blend. This sauce had more capers and anchovies than the white version, and red-chile flakes further punched up the flavors.
But there's more to Trattoria Stella than pasta and dessert. At lunch, the restaurant offers a scaled-back version of the dinner menu; on weekends, it features an à la carte brunch -- something this neighborhood had badly needed. And what a brunch: creamy-centered polenta topped with poached eggs ($6.95) and coated with a basil-strewn tomato sauce and caramelized onions; a textbook omelette packed with bacon, brie and roasted garlic ($7.25); gargantuan slices of raisin-studded bread spiked with Amaretto, cooked French toast-style ($5.95) and topped with fresh fruit. My favorite brunch dish, though, would be the crepes ($6.25): one filled with honey-kissed butternut squash and topped with honey-coated walnuts, the other filled to overflowing with whatever's fresh. On one recent visit, that was a heavenly combo of nectarines and raspberries, all smothered in freshly whipped cream.
Sumner found the ideal neighborhood for his restaurant, and it didn't take long for the neighbors to discover Trattoria Stella. Although brunch isn't crowded -- yet -- dinners are packed on weeknights and weekends alike. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, either, and so many people have complained about the wait that he's now looking into expanding out the back. "Like I said, I just want to cater to the neighborhood, because that's what it's all about," Sumner says. "It's just so important to me that we fit in here."
Trattoria Stella not only fits into the neighborhood, it's an almost perfect reflection of it. And as the weather heats up and Sumner raises the plastic at the front of the house, putting colorful umbrellas over his rusted-metal tables and essentially turning his indoor restaurant into part of the great outdoors, diners suddenly find themselves part of the neighborhood.
Make yourself at home.