Maybe things would have been different in Portofino. There, a table at Lo Stella Ristorante would have been al fresco, steps from the harbor, with the sound of water lapping gently at boats. Servers would have spoken Italian, a language I learned so long ago that it’s only music to me now. Anything they said or didn’t say, anything we liked or didn’t like about the food, all would have been interpreted as quaint, beneficiaries of a vacation’s curiously positive halo.
But from our back-room table at Denver’s Lo Stella Ristorante, which eighth-generation restaurateur Alessandro Polo launched in the Golden Triangle neighborhood last fall, things didn’t seem so quaint. Instead of looking at bobbing boats, we peered through a dark glass wall into a quiet kitchen. The bread basket didn’t hold any of the usual focaccia. The server forgot to tell us about the antipasto, pasta and piatto del giorno, and failed to mention that they were out of the farinata Ligure (a pancake made of chickpea flour) until we’d ordered it. After making a few trips to the kitchen, he also told us that they were out of the beef carpaccio we’d chosen as a replacement, as well as the melon for the prosciutto and melon we’d ordered as a replacement for the replacement. We finally hit upon a so-so spinach tart, which tasted like it had been microwaved.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any grimmer, we heard staffers arguing in the back about how they needed to know when a dish was unavailable. We completely understood — and shared — their frustration; one comped glass of $6 wine didn’t remedy the rocky start…or the lackluster food that followed. The entire meal felt like an opera, with star-crossed lovers hiding in closets and longing for things that might have been.
I’d had high hopes for this place. Though Denver’s outpost of Lo Stella Ristorante has only been around for six months, it has 165 years of history behind it. Polo, a Portofino native, worked in the family restaurant until he was 24, when he came to this country. He worked in the food industry in California to learn the ins and outs of American hospitality, then relocated to Denver to hang his own shingle. His father and sister still run the original Lo Stella, which is where chef Luca Pascarella trained for five years before joining Polo in Denver.
Tradition is important to both of them, which is why they refuse to water down Ligurian cuisine for Americans. Meatballs, for example, don’t come on top of spaghetti — or anything else. “No meatballs, please, no,” says Polo. “That’s what I’m telling my customers.” He also shuns Alfredo sauce and the cheesy, deep-fried dishes that he considers straight out of New Jersey. “I like chicken parmesan and veal parmesan, but that’s not Italian.”
Instead, Polo focuses on family and regional recipes that are older than the state of Colorado. Pansoti is one of the most unusual, a regional specialty of ravioli in walnut sauce. The nuts were ground so that the sauce was ivory, not brown, with a creaminess that came from puréed white bread dipped in milk. But the dish was so dull it made me wonder if the pantry had also run out of a few of the seven herbs that should have been in the filling. Salt would’ve helped, but the kitchen seems averse to the stuff; it’s a good thing shakers were on the table.
Tagliatelle della “nonna Laura,” with housemade noodles tossed in a Bolognese named for Polo’s grandmother Laura, was also under-salted, with a smooth, bland tomato sauce and occasional bits of meat. Pappardelle al pesto was far better, with scratch noodles so wide and tender, they folded over themselves like ribbon candy, and a vibrant sauce made of imported baby basil. “We use only basil from Mexico because it has to be young leaves,” says Polo. “In America, they don’t want to sell me the young leaves.”
Too bad this attention to detail didn’t play out in other areas. Another night, the server took away our menus, forgetting that we hadn’t yet ordered the main course. When we did order, I was told the kitchen was out of the branzino del Colorado alla Genovese, which had caught my eye for its marriage of local ingredients and Italian technique. This was still early in the evening, mind you, as it was every other time dishes were unavailable — not late on a busy night, when you might expect a dish to be sold out.
That meal, the kitchen was also out of the baby carciofi (artichokes) that came with the carpaccio; if we’d been alerted to their absence, we would have ordered something else. Instead, we spent the entire first course wishing we had, since the beef — eye of round, not tenderloin — was under-seasoned and sliced on the thick side. Mixed greens lacked dressing. Sautéed spinach was unseasoned and waterlogged. A quattro stagioni pizza, pulled from the oven by a pizzaiolo trained by the chef, arrived with a flat, pale crust that looked nothing like the bubbly, generously topped pie pictured on the website. Spilled food was never wiped up. Thank goodness for the delightful panna cotta with strands of candied orange that ended the night on a sweet note.
A couple of dishes may have lost something in translation. Lo Stella’s tiramisu proved to be clouds of mascarpone with a slip of ladyfinger buried deep at the bottom of the bowl. Polo later told me that’s how Ligurians like it, but after all the other shortages, it felt like a cover-up for a kitchen short on ladyfingers. When we finally got to try farinata, the chickpea pancake that had been unavailable on an earlier visit, it came out oily and cool, as if it had sat too long after the ding of the bell. We asked for a side of marinara, billed as nonno Puppo (“my grandfather’s marinara”), to perk it up, only to get a bowl of what tasted like tomato sauce straight from a can. It certainly wasn’t grandfather’s secret sauce; that I’d had another time over spaghetti, and it was much lighter and fresher, as if made of gently crushed, canned whole tomatoes, with garlic fanned out over the top. That sauce, like the tender noodles and homemade pesto, shows that Lo Stella has so much more to offer. If it has the ingredients in the kitchen.
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This Lo Stella will never have the sounds of water in the harbor, the halo that brightens vacation memories. Instead, it has 165 years of tradition rapidly turning into comic opera.
Lo Stella Ristorante
1135 Bannock Street
Select menu items at Lo Stella Ristorante:
Farinata Ligure $11
Spaghetti marinara $14
Pappardelle al pesto $17
Tagliatelle Bolognese $16
Pizza quattro stagioni $12
Panna cotta $8
Lo Stella Ristorante is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Learn more at lostelladenver.com.