The Verdure, a selection of prepared seasonal vegetables and pickles, at Spuntino Restaurant on June 27, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. The Antipasti dish includes from lower left clockwise: house-pickled beets, fried potatoes with Romesco, seared broccolini with black pepper creme fraiche, tomato jam spread, asparagus semolina fritters served with basil pesto, roasted red peppers with pureed pumpkin seeds and house-pickled radishes. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
The best conversations often take place around the dinner table. Food has a way of making us open up, sharing stories about the first time we tasted a particular ingredient or how a scent or a spice reminds us of some long ago trip — tales that eventually lead us to reveal more personal anecdotes. Perhaps it has something to do with the comforting, elemental nature of food. Or maybe it’s simply that we are a bit distracted by the serving and cutting and so inadvertently reveal more than we intend.
At Spuntino, a charming neighborhood restaurant in Highland, the conversation — whatever it’s about — will eventually loop back around to what’s on the table. You’ll want to know more about the neon-hued Negroni you’re drinking because it’s crafted with a house aperitivo that general manager and owner Elliot Strathmann makes from ingredients he grows and forages in the summer and fall. You’ll delight in unfolding delicate strips of elk carpaccio to reach the luscious Rocky Mountain elk tartare. And you’ll want to discuss which of the inventive salads and pickled vegetables on the ever-changing verdure appetizer is your favorite. We could go on.
Spuntino has all of the allure and precise technique of an elite restaurant but blends it seamlessly with the coziness and approachability that define Denver’s dining scene. Strathmann and his wife, executive chef Cindhura Reddy, know that a proper Italian meal is about savoring both the food and the company. Meals here are leisurely, with servers bequeathing guests with enough time to enjoy each dish before moving on to the next (sometimes, though, meals are a tad too slow).
With the closing of Namkeen, the duo’s South Indian food stall at Zeppelin Station, earlier this year, Spuntino has also benefitted from Reddy infusing more of her Indian heritage and bold family recipes into the menu. It’s not fusion; it’s just Reddy and her team cooking what she knows and loves. In other words, it’s food that you’ll want to talk about.
Vibe: Spuntino checks off all the contemporary restaurant must-haves — wood and metal decor, an open kitchen, funky wallpaper, (small) patio, paper straws — but it does so without tipping into overly trendy territory. The best seat in the house is at any of the tables by the front windows (sweetly decorated with a champagne flute, silverware, and ice cream scoop decals). From there, diners can survey the many passers-by in the residential neighborhood, and, when the weather turns, settle into the eatery’s warmth while watching snowflakes cascade to the sidewalk.
Hits: Reddy still hand cranks all of her pasta, so pick the tastiest sounding “primi” and build your meal around it. The fettucine ($23) is a revelation. Al dente noodles — two doughs, one infused with turmeric, the other with chile, rolled together –share a bowl with Colorado lamb shoulder that’s been cured in an intoxicating spice blend for at least 24 hours and then braised in chicken stock and San Marzano tomatoes. The main ingredients are tossed with local kale, strips of preserved lemon and a sprinkling of garlic bread crumbs. The spices sound at odds with a traditional Italian dish, but they surprise the taste buds in a way that makes the dish both cohesive and fun to eat.
Before you get to the main event, you’ll want to prep yourself with some appetizers, or antipasti. A reliable, not overly filling pairing is the focaccia ($8) and verdure ($15). In the first, a warm, herbaceous, house-made rosemary and olive oil focaccia loaf arrives on a wooden board next to smooth, oil-topped ricotta, also made in house, a balsamic-pickled egg wedge, and a pair of caper berries. The verdure — an ever-changing vegetable board based around what’s available from local purveyors — is a bright and exciting exploration of vegetables’ breadth. At a recent dinner, the lineup, which arrived in a painter’s palette of colors, included parsnip chips with honey ricotta, carrots in a pomegranate vinaigrette and pickled beets.
For the second course, opt for the Alce Crudo ($15). The Rocky Mountain elk tartare, which we extolled earlier, leans Eastern with its masala, ginger, garlic and cilantro flavors. The orb of meat sits atop crispy sticks made from ajwain, or carom seeds, an earthy, thyme-reminiscent seed commonly used in Indian cooking.
Worthy entrees extend beyond the pasta. The duck confit risotto ($22) is finished with whey from the house ricotta the kitchen makes, and the starchiness, combined with the layered stock and spring onions, gives the dish a congee vibe; the meat is tender and flavorful, and cracklins add some needed crunch. In the Capesante ($28), four seared Japanese scallops are paired with green lentils that retain their bite, small squares of crispy prosciutto and a generous swipe of creamy brown butter and parsnip puree. The dish is rich but maintains its lightness, though we doubt you’ll be able to finish the heaping portion of lentils.
If there’s still room — and you should make sure there is — fill it with scoops of the house-made gelato ($5 each or $7 for a tasting trio). The chocolate-caramel-sea-salt and Oreo versions pack the most flavor without being too cloying. Or, opt for the Zeppole ($8); the classic ricotta doughnuts are soft, warm and speckled with cardamom sugar. You don’t even need to drag them through the accompanying pistachio mousse, but you should anyway.
Misses: Spuntino doesn’t make a lot of missteps, but, like most restaurants, it’s also not perfect. There are minor faults in some dishes, and, sometimes, dislikes are simply a matter of taste. Take the Agnolotti del Plin ($23), one of four available pastas. It’s based around a dish that Strathmann and Reddy cook regularly at home, but we found the locally raised goat in the pinched noodles to be tough. Also, the broth — a chicken stock base that’s amped up with goat bones, Calabrian chiles and Szechuan peppercorn — didn’t meld together or pair well with the sprinkling of crushed peanuts. Szechuan peppercorn can be an acquired taste, though.
In the Quaglia ($16), a smaller starter dish, the confited and seared quail was overly gamey and salty, and the basil and mint emulsion could have benefited from more of the former and less of the latter. The accompanying farro with pistachio and mild hakurei turnips, however, were cooked nicely and grounded the dish.
At the end of the meal, the olive oil cake ($8) was fine — warm and saturated — but we have high expectations for Reddy’s sweets, and this didn’t excite our palate as we expected. The olive oil gelato on the side was mild and balanced out the cake’s denseness, but amaro-bourbon cherries were cheek-puckeringly boozy. Surprisingly, the vanilla gelato also disappointed, lacking the clarity of flavor of its brethren. Perhaps it was a bad batch.
Drinks: Cocktails are a highlight here, as a way to explore Strathmann’s experiments with house-made liqueurs. (Servers should better emphasize this laudable effort to diners, at least briefly, when introducing the menu.) The Negroni ($11), which we’ve already highlighted, is an easy summer sipper; it earns extra points for arriving with a Negroni-flavored gummy bear. The House of Tom Bombadil ($11), named after a J.R.R. Tolkien character, is a regular fixture and features a saffron liqueur made in house, but we found it a bit too sharp.
The beer list is short but varied, and it could — and probably should — feature more than two Colorado brews.
There’s a story behind everything at Spuntino, and that includes the wine selection where vinos by the glass and bottle are myriad. Strathmann focuses on small family wineries and biodynamic wines, “wine producers who are very in tune with how things should be farmed and traditionally were farmed.” A California Gewurztraminer ($8) had just the sweetness we craved to balance the spiced fettucine.
Service: There’s almost no greater sin at a restaurant than taking away a drink that a diner isn’t finished with. That won’t happen at Spuntino. Servers here are well-trained, confident and know the menu down to the ingredient, but they won’t spend 20 minutes droning on about it. They do double duty as hosts/hostesses, so on a busy night, it can take a little extra time to be greeted at the door. Our only other complaint: Dinners here can easily run two hours, which may be nice on a lazy Sunday evening, but servers should work on reading the mood of their guests and speeding up courses if needed.
Bottom Line: A visit to Spuntino is an evening well spent. The food is consistent but also surprises, and diners would be smart to visit regularly to taste Reddy and Strathmann’s newest creations.
Price: Appetizers ($7 to $24); Entrées ($22 to $28); Dessert ($2 to $8); Cocktails ($9 to $13); Beer ($5 to $8); Wine by the glass ($8 to $15)
Fun Fact: Strathmann and Reddy both worked at Spuntino — then under the ownership of another husband-and-wife team, John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom — before buying the restaurant and taking the helm in September 2014.
Restaurant Info: Spuntino, 2639 W. 32nd Ave., 303-433-0949; spuntinodenver.com. Open 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m., Sunday
Parking: Parking lot (east side of building); street parking
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