It seems I am wearing a rut into the slab of blacktop that stands between my home and Pueblo. Moreover, I'm loving every high-speed second of it.
On my last trip, I stayed to eat at La Mela di Angelo downtown. Mela is the Italian word for "apple," and eating there is as much of a revelation as the famous apple that hit Newton on his head, but considerably more enjoyable. They offer carefully prepared, brightly flavored food at reasonable prices. I fear my rut in the "I" may require the Colorado Department of Transportation's attention in the near future.
The owners have created an attractive space with strikingly rich red walls, black trim, natural wood floors and dark wooden chairs. Tables occupy the center of the room and give way to long banquettes at the edges. Large windows offer a view out to the street, and a small but attractive red bar anchors the back.
Red walls supposedly stimulate the appetite, and the kitchen responded to our stomach's cries almost immediately. Along with freshly baked bread came a small dish with three little compartments, inhabited by shaved Parmigiano, olives and chunky sun-dried tomato oil. This made for the perfect snack while we perused the long, interesting menu.
We began by sharing fried calamari and an antipasto plate. A crispy batter encased the tender calamari, which tasted great alone or with the potent remoulade served on the side. The antipasto caldo featured large fried prawns; several mushroom caps that had been stuffed with pine nuts, breaded and baked; and eggplant rollatini. Each element was tasty, but the eggplant roll-up stole the show. Thin eggplant strips had been breaded and pan-fried, then rolled up around fresh mozzarella cheese. If you have ever worked with eggplant, you know how difficult it can be to get the texture right and avoid bitterness. Whoever is in charge of doing this at La Mela di Angelo should give lessons to the rest of us. As if that weren't enough, all the items rested on a brilliant, bright red tomato sauce that was slightly thickened and had a sweet flavor accented by fresh basil and oregano.
The kitchen's wizardry with eggplant continued as we moved from appetizers to entrees. Making an ingenious substitute for sheets of pasta, long strips of similarly breaded, pan-fried eggplant separated layers of cheese, vegetables and sauce in La Mela di Angelo's eggplant lasagna. This is definitely a case of addition by subtraction: the flavors were concentrated and the dish offered a delightful range of textures from creamy to crunchy. For our friend who ordered it, the only challenge she had eating it was fighting the rest of us off of her plate. I am quite certain I have never eaten finer eggplant lasagna.
Just when we thought they couldn't pull another rabbit out of their hat, they did it again. Farfalle Oliva combined bow-tie pasta, olives, tomatoes, and cubes of eggplant in a beautiful white bowl with nothing more than some olive oil and a pan sauce. The light, fresh ingredients married beautifully, and the eggplant again stole the show, this time tender, juicy and full of flavor.
Other main courses were equally enjoyable. My friend liked her Pollo Asparigi Rollatini, boneless chicken breast pounded out thin, stuffed with asparagus, and baked in a Gorgonzola cream sauce. Although the oven had ever so slightly dried out the end cut I sampled, the asparagus maintained its firmness and the sauce was downright sinful, so rich and creamy.
Going on our waitress's recommendation, I tried a steak, which had a nice char and was accompanied by some very good mashed potatoes. We also ordered salmon cakes, which arrived on a bed of fresh greens. The large cakes burst with salmon and delivered excellent consistency, although they were a bit too salty.
Attentiveness to detail is another of La Mela di Angelo's real strengths. "You know a place is good," one of our friends remarked, "when the sauted vegetables they serve on the side are perfect." As usual, she is absolutely correct. You can sense the care they put into each plate, and even the thought in choosing the actual plates in the first place. All of them are white, to showcase the food's color, but they come in a variety of shapes -- squares with slightly pulled corners, ellipses, and large bowls with dramatic, exaggerated, rims. This attention to detail extends to the service as well, which was professional and friendly, if leisurely.
Between the lovely space, thoughtful presentation and excellent food, Le Mela di Angelo has put together the total package. To all of this they add a brief, but interesting wine list and a convivial atmosphere. Wherever you live, a trip to Pueblo and La Mela di Angelo is well worth the journey.
La Mela di Angelo
123 N. Main St., Pueblo (from I-25 exit at First Street, turn right, then right again onto Main)
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.