To be fully honest and up front, the happy hour at Sarto's isn't, strictly speaking, a happy hour. But it is indeed happy. The cicchetti bar in place at this gleaming Italian spot in Jefferson Park is built around the Venice-born tradition of tapas and drinks humming in that city's briny watering holes. Like Rioja, Sarto's uses the cocktail hour as a way to show off its faculty with small plates while pouring Italian cocktails well calibrated for a summer interlude.
After initially promoting the cicchetti bar as a 5 to 8 p.m. evening treat for a lucky few, Sarto's recently decided to open up the experience to all comers, seven days a week. The concept works because it has enough variety and flexibility to make it perfect for anyone finding himself within the restaurant's fashionable white walls, from curious locals to sharp-dressed citizens marking a special occasion. While other high-class restaurants shun substitutions and changes, Sarto's, named after the Italian word for "tailor," will suit many of its plates to your tastes, with additions of proteins, gluten-free noodles or even a sunny-side-up egg. And even if you stick to what's on the rack, you'll enjoy inventive preparations like roasted beets with fennel and bagna càuda drizzle ($9) or a tangerine-flavored semifreddo ($4). The standard of service is high, as well, and you won't have to let someone measure your inseam to get a fit tailored to your needs.
Sure you can order any mixed drink that comes to mind, but better still to sample from the bar's "Tailored Classics" ($9 to $12). Or simply open with a thematically appropriate aperitivo. A Campari Americano ($9) offers nothing but the classic combo of Campari and sweet vermouth, topped with club soda and a rasher of orange peel. From the beaches of Salerno to the cityscape of Milan, this is the national drink of Italy (or a close enough version), and should be ordered with the appropriate respect. Sweeter tastes might turn to the rosso spritz ($9), which pairs Aperol with Prosecco and a strawberry liqueur. Beyond an already impressive wine list, Sarto's stashes special bottles of vino above the $75 mark and champagne-like bottles of Italian Bruton beer for $21.
The cicchetti selection ($7) changes daily, but it's always poised as a light accompaniment to drinks and conversation. After the chef places the heavy marbled platter and informs you of the selections, the dialogue begins. Start with the Calabrian chile-spun deviled egg or perhaps a slice of pickled beet. Spear the orange beet for its toothsome flesh and a sweet balsamic reduction, and follow its yellow friend for astringency balanced with a melting spread of chèvre and herb.
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The strangest and most fleeting bite is a sliver of Parmesan balanced against a pickled almond, at once salty and softly accommodating. One item I hope will make repeat appearances is a pork-shoulder crostini with harissa sauce. It could be split between two, but only with grumbling and scrabbling over another taste of ultra-tender pork and the blunt slam of peppers and coriander. Light enough to accompany any meal, cicchetti is a beacon for any Sarto's visit.
But you're not just going to leave it there. Not after twisting and poring over the menu like it's a chapter from House of Leaves. True to the theme set here, there are a few small plates that can be combined with an entree or enjoyed on their own, like Brussels sprouts ($8) or risotto ($8), but I tried a pizzette ($12) straight out of the oven. Arriving with the overwhelming scent of yeasty dough, this is one appetizer you can share with a loved one — or, failing that, fend them off with the knife provided. The mini-round carries a spread of mozzarella, Gorgonzola, fig and prosciutto, perfumed with the lightest touch of truffle oil. If you dig the funky cheese, there's plenty of blue poking out in a smear of ingredients leading to simple satisfaction.
Sarto's is still tweaking things in an effort to be many things to many people. If a fiesta at the bar isn't your bag, there's weekend brunch, or grab-and-go sandwiches from the attached deli. Sarto's doesn't need a traditional happy hour if it can offer a new twist on bar snacks that takes cues from the interesting fittings happening in the dining room. It's a smart gimmick that could keep you coming back to see just what they're doing next.
Don't Miss: Sarto's freely admits that brunch is not exactly a phenomenon in Italy. That doesn't mean that one of Denver's Best Brunches can't be found here, with sexy works like bombolini, duck-egg ravioli and calzones.