Editor's note: This is the second in a three part series on Denver restaurant Luca d'Italia. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first part.
Many Americans believe pasta is merely a foundation for sauce that's lopped on it. I don't mean to belittle American palates, but let's face it, restaurants like ubiquitous Olive Garden probably are not focusing on pasta quality. It's tomato or molten cheese and cream sauces ladled on top that diners are wanting. The pasta is just a filler; as though a filler is needed. Ever watch one of those commercials for a 3,000-calorie dinner at an "authentic" Italian chain restaurant? I have, and I don't believe I've heard them boasting about how they serve handmade pasta. That's because they don't! Nothing really authentic about that, but perhaps it's just a matter of dollars and cents.
But in fine dining Italian restaurants worth their grissini, like Denver's Luca d'Italia, pasta is made with as much care and thought as the delicious sauces, proteins and vegetables that share the plate with it. Pretty soon, kids will have to go to food museums to see the quaint way food was once actually made by hand. But I digressed.
After David Prebish finished his tedious preparation of more than 300 grissini, it was time for Eric Cimino to use the roughly 4-by-2-foot well-loved, thick wooden board for his daily pasta-making. This was one time I was happy to merely watch. I was able to observe an artisan patiently make thin sheets of pasta and cut them into strips of pappardelle and rustic pasta alla chitarra, about the size of buccatini.
Chitarra is Italian for guitar, and the pasta-making kind that originated in the Abruzzo region of Italy is aptly named. It is a wooden frame strung with thin wire upon which sheets of pasta are placed and pressed through with a rolling pin. I've heard the chitarra described as a harp. How fitting! Beautiful music comes from the strings of a harp plucked by an expert musician and delicious, truly traditional - and yes, authentic - pasta comes from the strings of a chitarra "played" by an artisan. This rustic method of making pasta is time consuming, but in a restaurant like Luca d'Italia, quality is a function of time, so time is taken. No doubt I'll have to return to Denver to learn from chef Bonanno the finer points of making pasta, both laminated using a roller and, of course, the rustic kind with a chitarra. I promise to share with you.
With pasta made, the hot line was almost ready for service at 5 p.m. (who eats at 5 p.m.!), it was time for the family meal I'd heard about all afternoon.
The family meal
Restaurants traditionally serve their staff a "family meal" between prep and service. It's usually about 4 in the afternoon and, depending on the restaurant, can be quite a nice meal. Intrigued by this quaint tradition, I recently purchased famed chef Ferran Adria's book "The Family Meal." In it are 31 menus - first, main and dessert courses - that come from now-closed El Bulli's own family meals. I love this book and I'm sure you would, too. The photos in the first pages show a big group of El Bulli's staff eating together - at tables. I've seen a smaller version of such a family meal at Zino Ristorante in Edwards. But while I've witnessed many family meals, I haven't seen much of that quiet time where everyone sits around the table and enjoys dinner together. And that's a pity. But at Luca d'Italia, the family meal, although often enjoyed standing (I don't think these guys ever sit down when they're working), is considered an important "decompression time" before the electric energy of service takes over.
Three of Frank Bonanno's eight Denver restaurants - Bones, Mizuna and Luca d'Italia - are located on the corner of Grant Street and 7th Avenue. My timing couldn't have been better that day to experience one of the summer family meals where all three restaurants jointly produce a barbecue feast. Each restaurant was responsible for certain dishes. All day long I heard about this wonderful meal and even pitched in to help make the potato salad and watched as Chris Hoffman concocted a deliriously delicious mac-n-cheese. Usually I don't take time for the family meal because I just can't eat as fast as the others, but this day was different.
The day was hot and sunny, and I welcomed being outside in the fresh air after four hours of heat in the kitchen. A big round table for the food and crates to sit on were set up. The food - ribs, mac-n-cheese, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, watermelon and brownies - with pink lemonade was set up for staff from the three restaurants to feast upon. I felt a bit like "grandma at a college barbecue," but the food was delicious. But while wait staff still had a few minutes to relax outside, it was quickly back to work in the kitchen. With more than 90 on the books - a lot for a small restaurant like this - of which 45 were to be seated within a 35-minute slot, chef Pritchett warned me service would be crazy. And it was.
A fly on the wall
I always love service, particularly in a fine dining restaurant such as Luca d'Italia, where everything is made from scratch. After spending time with chefs and cooks preparing ingredients to be assembled to order, it's always fascinating to experience it all coming together.
Experience is the key word here. I'm too hyper to watch. I want to do. But it seemed at first I had to be content with watching. Don't get me wrong. These were masters at work and having dined many times at Luca, I knew they were creating some wonderful sensations for their diners' palates. But I wanted to be useful and not just a fly on the wall. Ok, not a great metaphor for a restaurant, but you get my point.
One must be careful for what one wishes for. Seeing me idle, chef Seth Reaback handed me a large bin of beef tendons and put me to work doing one of the yuckiest tasks I had done in any kitchen - slicing paper-thin pieces of bovine connective tissue. These thick, gummy pieces of tendon are sliced, dehydrated and later fried to order as garnish for chef Pritchett's dry aged steak dish. The tendons - once prepared - are really quite good.
After an hour of seeing me struggle with a large (not too sharp) knife, oversized gloves and less-than-stellar knife skills, Reaback took pity and released me. Not sure if it was because he had enough for the next batch or because my slices were not exactly the thin strips he had laid out as examples. But for whatever reason, I was pleased to be done with that.
After watching Pritchett, Reaback, Cimino and Andrew Boyer perform feats of culinary - and acrobatic - excellence on the hot line, all the while ducking and moving as chefs and servers rushed by, I was ready to work again.
And I found the perfect spot that kept me delightfully busy for the remainder of the bustling evening.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, visit www.face