After a few moments inside the almost-empty Modena, we felt like one of those anchovies. But a can would be comfortable compared to the tense setting at this restaurant: Sound bounced weirdly around the small dining room, and tables were crammed in awkwardly, so that the few people actually eating here felt like they were on display. Although the service was very, very cheerful and friendly, beneath the smiles were clenched teeth, as though the servers feared they were being watched -- and, in fact, they usually were, by a stiff, stern-looking manager type who hovered near the kitchen, sometimes expediting, sometimes just standing there with his hands folded, watching. And everything that came out of the kitchen was so covered with parsley that it all tasted like -- surprise, surprise -- nothing but parsley.
This was not the same food Modena was serving when it opened a little over two years ago. Since then, the place has gone through more than a few changes. Follow closely. Mark Gordon, formerly of Santino's and Carmine's on Penn and current chef/owner of the fledgling Ambrosia, started the original Modena on Baseline Road in Boulder, where he cooked; his partner was Lupe Gonzales, formerly of Al Fresco and European Cafe fame. Not long after the Boulder spot was up and running, an ambitious Gordon opened a second Modena in Cherry Creek; a few months later, he sold both it and the Boulder site to Gonzales. After revamping the menu at both Modenas, last August Gonzales sold the Cherry Creek spot to Jaime Gullian, who'd owned the European Cafe and Al Fresco with Gonzales until the pair divested themselves of both ventures in 1997. And somewhere along the line, Bruce Rahmani, who now owns both Denver-area European Cafes, one of which shares a space at Brooks Towers with his Al Fresco, briefly had some money in Modena. (He no longer does.)
Modena's current menu is still the one introduced by Gonzales, Gullian says; the only change he made after he took over was offering individual portions of each dish as well as the family-style servings, which are large enough to feed two or three people. But while much of the fare is reminiscent of what you find at Gonzales's other restaurants (where richness sometimes stands in for flavor and simpler ingredient combinations are pelted with fresh herbs, so that all of the tomato-based dishes come out looking like Christmas trees and the creamy dishes look like mountainsides in winter), Modena's dishes somehow miss the mark. In some cases, the herbs seemed to have been put in the sauces long before they were served, which gave the sauces acrid undertones. In other cases, the herbs appeared to have been tossed on the plates as they left the kitchen, imparting a raw taste to the food, since the herbs hadn't been exposed to the heat long enough to release their flavors; the result was like eating herbs plucked right out of the ground. And other than these two disastrous herbal variations, all of the dishes tasted much the same.
The family-style servings highlighted this, since we all got to sample some of everything. The best of the appetizers were the baked lobster gnocchi ($9 for a single serving), well-made potato dumplings mixed with fontina, lobster meat (including the claws) and besciamela (Italian for bechamel), and the polenta alla griglia ($6 single), which smothered a crusty-edged wedge of soft-centered polenta in a concentrated portabello-enhanced wild-mushroom sauce. Both preparations were so strongly flavored that they managed to overcome the parsley pelting.
The rest of the starters suffered from herbal excess. The calamari ($7 per single) consisted of chewy squid in too much chewy batter, covered with far too much parsley. The zuppa di cozze ($7 single), a supposed saffron-infused white wine and tomato broth, tasted like tomato water and carried dry mussels that tasted reheated. In the chef's merenda ($8 single), the "seasonal" melon was too crunchy and underripe and was wrapped in prosciutto that was strangely slimy, as though it had either been hanging around the fruit too long, had been washed, or was simply low-grade. But the fresh mozzarella and the goat cheese included on this appetizer sampler were top-quality, and the vegetables were well-roasted.
Our entrees failed to live up to their billing. Serrano chiles were supposed to enhance the arrabiata ($16 single), usually an "angry" little pasta dish that in this instance was pretty meek, without a trace of chile heat. While the server had promised that the goat cheese was the best part of this dish, ours had only a few minuscule blobs, and those were lost in the vast tomatoey-ness of it all. All of the pasta dishes come with a choice of ziti, linguine or farfalle; we went with the bow tie for the Modena pasta dish ($18), in which apple-smoked bacon somehow overcame the tomatoes. But there was not a hint of the promised Gorgonzola, and we found only three little pieces of artichoke.