If Colorado has culinary royalty, Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, the guys behind Frasca Food and Wine, are surely wearing crowns. Pick a big award and they’ve either won it or are in the running for it.
But previous honors don’t make the act of opening another restaurant any easier, and Tavernetta, which they launched last fall at Union Station, was certainly no cinch. Eight days after it opened, a fire in the kitchen shuttered the restaurant for nearly two months. But even before that, Tavernetta presented its own challenges, as it’s neither fine dining like Frasca nor casual like Pizzeria Locale, the partners’ Neapolitan pizzeria in Boulder. Tavernetta sits in the middle, which — as any middle child will tell you — is the hardest place to be.
For my first visit, I ducked in at lunchtime, taking a seat near the fireplace in a space known as the lounge. At night the room lives up to that name — comfortable yet sophisticated, with vibrantly textiled stools, Italian photographs and an L-shaped bar; at that time, it’s nearly always filled to a noisy, energetic capacity, since it’s reserved for walk-ins and it’s tough to get a reservation at Tavernetta. In fact, the only reservations I was able to find in over a month of searching were at 5:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.
When I arrived mid-day, though, the lounge was quieter, more like a living room. Businessmen in jeans and blazers clapped each other on the back, taking prime corner seats at the bar. An Italian couple, stylishly clad in black, leaned in close in hushed conversation. On subsequent visits, I’d see young families eating cacio e pepe at these same small tables, offering more proof that Tavernetta is indeed not Frasca, with its celebration price point, tablecloths and tasting menu. But Tavernetta was never meant to be Frasca. It was designed as a restaurant “you could walk into every day, at happy hour or lunch or dinner,” general manager Justin Williams says, adding that no matter the time, it offers the “same caliber of service.”
I enjoyed one hallmark of that legendary hospitality, complimentary bread service, as I settled back for an early feast, taking a second slice of chewy, herbed focaccia, warm from the oven and supple with extra-virgin olive oil.
That special attention to detail continued throughout the meal. I dipped carciofi (artichoke) leaves into lemony crème fraîche, whipped into clouds like cream. I admired how thoughtful, well-sourced ingredients turned a pristine plate of deep-red carpaccio into a simple yet stunning starter: the uneven roughness of Maldon salt and parmesan, the boldness of espelette aioli, the zigzags of fruity extra-virgin olive oil. I noticed the glistening pomegranate seeds and tender shaving of raw artichoke on caponata; the throaty resonance of puréed anchovies, tomatoes and black garlic that placed the grilled steak it came with in a clime far, far from here; and the smoked almonds that added a bacon-like depth to a vegetarian plate of exquisite squash-filled pasta, a specialty of the town of Ferrara called cappellacci di zucca, finished with brown butter and puckery date-radicchio agrodolce. I remarked that the scratch tagliatelle tossed with lobster, preserved tomatoes and Calabrian chiles had more celery than I would have expected, but the celery’s vegetal snap was delightful against so much butter and sweet Maine lobster. And then an unexpected flourish at dessert brought all conversation to a halt: The torta di pistacchio had a topping as fine as graham cracker crumbs, painstakingly made of pistachios and milk solids browned in butter.
At other meals, other dishes showed the same reverence for perfectly balanced elements. Sformato, a savory custard, had the unctuousness of foie gras and the understated earthiness of sunchoke confit, porcini Béchamel and grated black truffle. Some showstoppers were inspired by the extensive travels and six stages in Italy of Frasca alum and Tavernetta executive chef Ian Wortham. A fillet of branzino was carefully crisped, the skin as inspired an accent as the Taggiasca olives, the translucent morsels of grapefruit, pomelo and orange, the ribbons of fresh fennel. A panko-coated pork-collar cutlet was uniformly golden; it was also the size of the plate.
Portions — whether proteins or scoops of oatmeal and pistachio gelato — are generous, another sign of Tavernetta’s commitment to hospitality.
But even with generous portions, you may still want more of the pasta. A three-person staff makes five types daily using a host of different flours, from finely ground semolina to pasta 00. Servers will steer you to the campo di funghi, a rustic mushroom lasagna, but this is perhaps the only instance when you might beg to differ. If you’re only getting one primi, it must be the agnolotti dal plin, with a musky filling of prosciutto, beef and pork. With porcini powder and chestnut flour in the dough, the oak-colored wrappers contribute as much wow factor as the filling.
Through many, many dishes, the only flaw I found was at that first lunch, in an under-steamed artichoke, with tough petals that refused to yield their flesh.
From my spot in the lounge that day, I could see people hustling off a newly arrived train, some trailing luggage, some kissing and holding hands. I could see other people passing time, staring at the orange Union Station sign, lost in their earbuds. I couldn’t see the busy-ness of the open kitchen, which you walk through to reach the chef’s table and two dining rooms — a larger one called the gallery, with windows on 16th Street, and the grotto, a narrow pass-through with parallel banquettes and stone walls. Those walls look pretty but don’t offer much in the way of soundproofing; one night, my husband and I gave up trying to talk over the loudly echoing voices of the foursome next to us swapping stories of trips to Sicily and France. But there was other entertainment: the two dozen or so front-of-house staffers who roam the dining rooms, leaving near-invisible trails in their constant laps of the space, like streaks of long-exposure headlights in a nighttime photograph.
No corners were cut at any of my meals, not during lunch or happy hour or dinner. Flatware was replaced with every course, whether used or not. So were plates, a rarity even in small-plates restaurants, where you’re expected to make do with one. Our table was crumbed, not just after something had obviously dropped or dripped, but at every course. Not once did a water glass get low or get filled with still water when we’d asked for sparkling. Requests for more focaccia were granted, and questions about preparations and ingredients were capably answered. “All the classic steps of service,” says Williams, “are things we can give to our guests. Those are free.”
Well, not exactly free. Someone has to pay for all of those attentive staffers, all of those perfect ingredients. So at the end of lunch or aperitivo or dinner, you’ll still be presented with the check. But the size of that check is up to you, whether you go for the bargain happy hour — when a spritz is just $4, nibbles range from $3 to $4 and a full-sized plate of housemade rigatoni is just $12 — or a full-blown dinner, when starters and entrees run in the same range as at many of the other restaurants in this new/old part of town. But with all that hospitality, a meal here can seem like a bargain.
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The guys behind this restaurant may be royalty, but at Tavernetta, we all get treated like kings.
1889 16th Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Select menu items
Lobster tagliatelle $21
Agnolotti dal plin $18
Maiale Milanese $24
Torta di pistacchio $8