Stella's Cucina Is a Glamorous Addition to Boulder | Westword

Stella's Cucina Is a Glamorous Addition to Boulder's Dining Scene

The Italian eatery opened in January and every detail has been carefully considered.
The view as you round the corner into the dining room at Stella's Cucina.
The view as you round the corner into the dining room at Stella's Cucina. Stella's Cucina
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Stella Spanu is obsessed with details. At her eponymous restaurant, Stella's Cucina, which debuted in Boulder at 1123 Walnut Street in January, she's channeled that obsession to create a place that delivers on excellent fine-dining Italian fare as well as immaculate vibes.

The experience starts before you even step inside. First, you'll need to navigate your way through roaming groups of college kids packing into the bars that line the street; the only indication that you've arrived at the restaurant is a heavy door marked with a stylized “S" on the adjoining wall.

After entering, you'll find yourself in a quiet, 100-foot-long hallway. Halfway down is the host stand, where you'll check in. Finally, you'll be led farther inside and around a corner — where the sights, sounds and aromas of the dining room hit you all at once.

Although its seating capacity is 110 guests, the room appears to be double that size, thanks to a mirrored wall opposite the entrance, where a hypnotic video installation is displayed on nine 45-inch LED screens. A large, circular wood-paneled bar dominates the room. Booths are tucked away at the edges, while cafe-like seating is spread across the floor. The black, gold and cream color palette is utterly glamorous, and reminiscent of a well-done modern take on The Great Gatsby.
click to enlarge various plates of food on a table
The chef at Stella's is from Saturnia in Tuscany.
Stella's Cucina
“I felt like [Boulder] didn’t really have a speakeasy, sexier, lounge-like setting, and I also felt like we were missing just more authentic Italian cuisine," says the restaurant's 29-year-old owner.

Spanu grew up as New York City royalty: Her grandfather is real estate titan Robert Olnick, who bought the company that built the Empire State Building as well as Starrett City in Brooklyn. He was known to be an avid art collector — a trait that was passed down through the family. Spanu’s parents, Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu, own what Italian nonprofit publication Doppiozero called “the most important private collection of Italian contemporary art in the world."

They are also the founders of Magazzino Italian Art, a foundation and 20,000-square-foot museum located in Cold Spring, New York. When Spanu was twelve, the family moved to Rome for two years. That's when she developed a love for Italian food, she says.

She came to Boulder for college and fell hard for the mountains, the lifestyle and the town. After graduating, Spanu took a job with her family’s real estate business, but she knew that career wasn't her long-term plan. “It just wasn’t giving me necessarily the life that I wanted,” she says. “I just wanted to do a business in Boulder and really do something that I’m passionate about, to give me the life that I wanted and to work for myself.”

She kept coming back to the idea of opening the kind of Italian restaurant that she "felt like Boulder was missing," she recalls. "That’s really where the idea started."

When the space on Walnut Street became available in 2019, Spanu saw the potential and quickly purchased it. The building — previously the Walnut Brewery, then Boulder Beer Company and Squared Pizza + Beer — was in rough shape, she notes. First, she sectioned off the front and leased that space to retail tenants. She also converted the upstairs into business offices. The restaurant takes up roughly a quarter of the footprint and is located at the back of the building.
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Stella Spanu, owner of Stella's Cucina.
Stella's Cucina
Spanu worked on the project with Miguel Quismondo, a Spanish architect who has worked on her family's home and Magazzino Italian Art. With his help, she was able to execute everything to her exacting standards.

“I really focused on every detail. I wanted to do everything to the best of my ability — so that could be the furniture you’re sitting on, that could be the music. Everything took time to decide what was perfect. The amount of chairs that I sat in to decide what was the perfect chair...," she recalls, laughing.

There are gold utensil rests on the tables because "as clean as the table could possibly be, I don’t want to put my silverware on the table," Spanu notes. The chairs are made from premium Italian leather; servers are instructed to walk clockwise around the room; and the video installation, which was commissioned specifically for the space, runs exactly 108 minutes so that diners will, ostensibly, never view the same image twice.

Everything is fine-tuned to ensure that guests have a good night. The overall effect is reminiscent of 11 Madison Park's Will Guidara nitpicking over the upholstery in Netflix’s 7 Days Out docuseries, or the Burgess sisters, the "atmosphere specialists" in the novel Night Circus, who consider “even the weight of the velvet curtains at the entrance."

While Spanu controls every front-of-house aspect, she found a trusted partner who is equally detail-obsessed about the back-of-house operations: executive chef Filippo Piccini.
click to enlarge a man in a chef's coat holding a glass of wine
Executive chef Filippo Piccini.
Stella's Cucina
Born and raised in the seaside village of Saturnia in Tuscany, Piccini worked at restaurants across Italy before eventually finding his way to San Diego as the chef at Solare Ristorante. During his tenure, Solare won a Michelin Bib Gourmand and was named Best Italian Restaurant by San Diego magazine. Spanu "found out about the awards and decided she wanted me. I think she wanted the accent!” Piccini jokes.

His cooking style is anchored in traditional Tuscan dishes, but he adds his own innovative twists, which often involve molecular gastronomy. The current pasta special, for example, is gnocchi all’agnello, classic potato dumplings tossed in a white lamb ragu made with sage, rosemary, artichoke and San Marzano tomatoes. But Piccini also puts blueberries in a rotary evaporator, which gently evaporates water under a vacuum to create a blueberry essence. That is used to dress the gnocchi, which itself is studded with blueberries. The result is hearty and comforting, with unexpected bursts of sweetness that complement the lamb.

At Stella’s, the pastas reign supreme. The most popular is the ravioli burro e salvia ($29), which is a housemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and sage butter. Another standout is the gamberi gialli ($32), in which strips of zucchini wrap around a pile of fresh fettuccine with king red shrimp and a creamy, saffron-infused Gelmini mascarpone. The grains used in the housemade pastas, as well as a sizable amount of the produce on the menu, are sourced from the nearby MASA Seed Foundation, which adapts seeds to thrive in colder climates and at higher altitudes.

Seated at a booth near the entrance at 8:45 p.m. on a Friday, we watched as guests walked down the hallway, unknowingly passing by commissioned artwork by William Storms and Candice Luter and having what Spanu describes as “a major moment": Rounding the corner, their eyes widen and their conversation stops. Sometimes they gasp; always, they smile. “Oh, this is fun,” you can almost hear them think.

Stella’s reserves a corner of the room for live music Thursday through Saturday. During our visit, a live jazz trio was wrapping up, and DJ MÏllÿ Andёrsôn, who'd just gotten back from deejaying in Ibiza, was taking over with Afro-house beats. It seemed like half the people we spoke to were visiting Boulder and knew this as the spot to be. “I come to town maybe once a month from Mexico, and every time I come, I come here," one man said.

For Spanu, the restaurant is her vision come to life after four years of construction and many long nights. “People, when they come here, they’ll see me bussing tables, pouring water, bringing food, talking to patrons, drying dishes. If they need someone to clear a table, I’ll clear the table,” she says. “I always have had this nurturing, caring personality where I just love hosting people, and I feel like Stella’s Cucina is an extension of my house — of my home — and I just want people to enjoy themselves.”
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