Sarto's, the much anticipated restaurant from owners Taylor and Kajsa Swallow and chef Brian Laird, opened its elegant gray-and-white dining room in Jefferson Park this week, giving neighbors a taste of pan-Italian cooking with urban flair and ingredient-driven flavors. Laird, whose Italian prowess Denver diners will remember from Barolo Grill and Sketch (where he worked briefly), is also manning the cicchetti bar, a Venetian small-plates tradition that gives Laird a chance to interact with guests.
"I'm going to give you a fantastic experience," says Laird. "I love to make people happy through food." Sarto's cicchetti concept is similar to the Japanese omakase experience, where customers leave the construction of their meal in the hands of the chef. (Laird says he asks for food allergies and dislikes first.)
"I've been back there for so long," he say, pointing to the kitchen, "so this is about being able to engage."
Swallow agrees with Laird when it comes to customers. "We're not doing them a favor," he says of his new Jefferson Park neighbors. "They're doing us a favor." The first few nights saw "so many walk-ins -- neighborhood folks," he adds.
The menu is designed to capture the spirit of modern dining in Italy, where Laird has traveled extensively and noticed that traditional regional food isolation is slowly giving way to cross-regional and international influences. "Everyday Italian food is still all about the ingredient," he notes. "It's up to you (as the chef) to stop." But with 22 Italian regions from which to draw inspiration -- plus traditional Italian-American -- Laird is letting the ingredients speak in a multitude of dialects, from the Venetian small plates to coastal dishes like octopus with potato to old-school spaghetti and meatball, something Swallow says people have never tasted from Laird before.
The restaurant itself is like "a house, a living room, a kitchen," says Laird. "It's a good way to break down walls." The dining room, chef's counter and bar -- brightened with white nooks stocked with Campari bottles -- all flow together with only minimal disruptions from support columns. A second room in the back with movable walls allows extra dining space or a private area for large groups.
Sarto's Pantry, opening Monday, will serve deli items to eat in or take out. Swallow hopes the Pantry will also serve as an overflow space where guests can grab snacks while waiting for a table. A hallway between the main dining room and the Pantry provides wine lockers where customers will be able to pay to store their special bottles, with proceeds from the locker rentals going to charitable organizations.
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Keep reading for more photos from Sarto's.