Cafe Society

The Simple Life

It's the simplest thing, and it's almost universally overlooked in the fast-paced, big-business kitchens of the world. There it's a throwaway, a gimme course, with the duty of making it generally given over to the lowest guy on the galley totem pole.

The soup.

The free bread on the table gets more care and attention. The salads -- soup's counterpart in the gratis soup-or-salad course -- are practically lavished with love by comparison. I've known restaurants that kept one pot of soup going for days, letting it boil down and steam away, then refreshing it with tap water and salt over and over and over again. I've eaten (and made more times than I want to admit) B-soup and C-soup out of last night's dinner-service leavings and produce gotten at massive discounts from purveyors who know their squash or tomatoes or mustard greens are too far gone for center-plate use. That's good for the kitchen's bottom line, sure; you'd be surprised at the kind of money you can get for a warm bowl of comforting, orange winter-squash soup laced with whorls of crème-not-so-fraîche when no one in the dining room can see your pantry cook carving the rotten spots out of three cases of butternut.

So abused is the poor soup course, so lacking in love and dignity, that every time I'm presented with that Sophie's Choice of soup or a pre-made, half-frozen salad of iceberg, shredded cabbage, lopsided cucumber slice and desiccated wedge of wasted tomato, I go with the soup -- not because it's the safer or more appetizing choice, but because I like to try and taste my way through the history of the ingredients bumping together in the bowl. How long, I wonder, did this celery languish in the murky bottom of some garde-manger man's lowboy before it was discovered, hacked up and thrown in the pot? How badly did the weekend's monkfish special have to sell before the cruel mathematics of food cost turned it into the star of a turgid Fisherman's Stew on Sunday afternoon?

The kitchen business, while absolutely rife with art and genius on the one end, is, at the other, a no-nonsense shirttail operation where numbers talk and most chefs end up playing the shivering Bob Cratchit to their owner's Ebenezer Scrooge, who denies them another piece of coal for the stove because the week's P&L won't allow it. Soups, brunches, vegetarian menu options and Tuesday-night clear-the-coolers pasta specials go a long way toward alleviating the pressure built up by bills coming due on Wednesday.

So, given soup's usual slapdash treatment, imagine my surprise when, after presenting me with the soup-or-salad question, my Cafe Jordano server brought a small cup of nameless white-bean-and-spinach soup that was so good -- so warm and light and well-balanced between the saltiness of the chicken broth, the green murk of shredded, poached spinach and the perfectly cooked white beans -- I actually went into a pout when it was gone, scraping my spoon dejectedly along the bottom of the cup, wanting just one more spoonful, then another, then another.

Okay, I wasn't that surprised. I'd been making wildly irregular visits to this strip-mall trattoria since I first arrived in Denver and heard about a little place in Lakewood that didn't take reservations because if it did, there'd never be an open table for the neighbors; where regulars would arrive a half-hour before the start of dinner and wait in their cars or out on the sidewalk, jockeying for position and counting heads to make sure they'd get a seat at that all-important first turn of the dining room. I'd learned the drill at Cafe Jordano and already knew that very nearly everything the restaurant does -- from the smallest touch of service to the most labor-intensive entree -- is wonderful and well-considered. And yet the cooks can still shock me at every meal with just how good their Italian food can be, when mediocrity has become the best I expect.

The thirteen-year-old Cafe Jordano is one branch of an extended family tree whose New York roots are also responsible for bringing us Armando's (with its great Sicilian spinach pies and pastas) and Vita Bella (an avatar of East Coast mom-and-pop eye-tie in Superior). The relationship goes something like this: Elisa Heitman, who owns Jordano with her husband, Troy, is the aunt of Anthony Sarlo, who owns Vita Bella. Anthony's father owns Armando's (three of them, actually, including the original in Cherry Creek, where Anthony earned his chops), and Anthony's grandfather (on his mom's side) was a legend of the New York scene, owning seven restaurants, including the Oriental Manor, where, once upon a time, Henry Hill's wedding scene in GoodFellas was filmed.

GoodFellas -- that's some heavy street cred for any Italian joint.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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