Cafe Society

Send in the Crowds

Saturday night should be busy. Cute place like this, good food, service that's old-American doting without being old-French smothering -- Dario's Restaurant should be running the edge of a full house, playing the curve of table turns so that every party leaving brushes shoulders with the next one coming through the door. This neighborhood spot has a good location, and it's got history: almost two decades in the business with a Continental menu that's nominally Swiss-Italian, but with the hard emphasis on eye-tie trattoria food and a little French, a little German, a little this-and-that thrown in. The house wine goes cheaply and by the liter; the plates are simple and (for the most part) generous. So on a Saturday night like this, with the sound of distant thunder and the patter of rain playing counterpoint maracas to Dean Martin singing That's Amore, Dario's should be crowded, with the damp buzz of good company in the front room, the racket of silver on white plates from the floor.

But Dario's isn't busy. Scattered deuces and a four are stretched across the deep, narrow dining room in an attempt to make the place appear more crowded, but it's not working. The handful of occupied tables only point up the gulfs between them where no one is sitting -- like merry-go-rounds with no riders. Atoms with empty valences. The quiet is heavy, brooding. An older woman, almost certainly the owner, sits at a table pressed up against the front window, looking out into the dark, through the watery glare of headlights passing on 17th Avenue, waiting for customers who obstinately refuse to come. It's a deathwatch, this dinner. A wake, albeit a very well-catered one.

My presence isn't helping matters any. In a busy restaurant, a man eating alone is an anomaly, but an interesting one. Businessman, maybe, or a stood-up date. But here -- despite the warmth of my custom and the weight of my trade -- my solitary state is only adding to the sense of desolation. It's an exponent to the sadness of a house that's fallen off the radar of the Denver food scene, lost in the scrum of new openings and name chefs, victim of the hurly-burly pit fights of dueling PR agents. Curious that the sound most associated with a hot restaurant -- the bang and clatter of the kitchen's batterie de cuisine, the hiss of wine in hot pans -- and the sound of one back on its heels is almost the same. At Dario's, the dining room is so bare of conversation that you can hear every spatter and clank from the galley.

Dario's deserves much better. Despite the quiet, the servers are happy, swanning between tables with smiles for every customer. The music filling the empty spaces, bridging the long lags in dialogue, is an upbeat mix of cafe standards, coaxing and goading a thin sort of joy into the air -- the undeniable, antique happiness of Sinatra and his pals. And on the board are a dozen specials, good ones like puttanesca, rustica and pollo bianco, that stand, somehow nobly, as a hedge against the winning world of seared ahi tuna appetizers, nouveau smart-ass gelees and strangled squab in styrofoam jus.

I spend this rainy Saturday night eating Caprese salad with squeaky-fresh mozzarella and sweet basil, and minestrone soup that's a thick, spicy mess of potatoes and carrots, pasta, tomatoes, herbs and beans; a slow-simmered catch-all of everything in the kitchen cooked so long that the flavors have taken on an almost archaeological strata of built, freshened and rebuilt tastes. It tastes the way minestrone is supposed to taste when it's been simmering low on the stovetop for a day, maybe two, maybe three, which is the time it takes to do it right. And despite the lack of audience, Dario's cooks do it right anyhow. They make their own everything (except the bread, which is dry and awful, and the spumoni, which isn't), even though it would certainly be easier and more cost-effective to buy frozen bricks of soup to be thawed for service or mass-produced cannoli in a box. But that would also be wrong, antithetical to the point of running a restaurant in the first place. The cooks cook because that's what kitchens are made for, regardless of whether anyone's there to notice.

I eat veal saltimbocca with a side of spaghetti in a simple red sauce that tastes like the red sauces most kitchens west of Chicago seem incapable of making -- a meat base, easy on the spice rack, blunt sweetness of tomatoes and nothing else. Not a mother sauce, but a grandmother. The veal is sweet and delicate, pounded tender, breaded thinly (another trick of milk and flour that cooks seem to have lost somewhere along the way, gone missing in the gaps between the classical canon and today's dissonant experimentalism), then veiled with prosciutto cut a bit thick for my taste and a cap of mozzarella. It's not the best saltimbocca I've had (too heavy on the rosemary and covered with button mushrooms), but it's good. There's sage in it, which is nice, and the near-citric bite of a white-wine sauce to cut through the heaviness of the meat and cheese.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan