Rome and ruin 

Buon Appetito finds elements of empire in one move, spears itself in the next

It's not only because I ate lunch, and then dinner, at Buon Appetito that I say the experiences were like night and day. In fact, I felt like I was eating out of two completely different kitchens because the visits, just days apart, were so stunningly out-of-sync: one almost entirely broken, the other surprisingly on key.

Co-owners and -chefs Daniel Dreyfuss and Michael Kerns opened in the former CiCi's Pizza in late September, boasting ample culinary education and experience between them, including Black Forest Pies and Grinders, Dreyfuss' other business. They talked of taking the nearby chain restaurants on, combating the paint-by-numbers approach with a "completely from-scratch kitchen." Their menus trumpet that "all pasta is homemade."

Well, yes, if "home" is Denver's Pappardelle's Pasta, or Longmont's Ambrosien Foods Gluten Free Pizza & Pasta. Desserts, meanwhile, come via a national vendor called Sweet Streets. Shall we all try to agree on the real meaning of some commonly used restaurant phrases?

Our waitress at lunch knows the pastas aren't made in-house, and tries to clarify: The menu note means you can remove ingredients, like mushrooms if you don't like them, since each dish is made-to-order. (Oh, that kind of "homemade," as in virtually everywhere?) At dinner another waitress says they are made in-house, that the cooks come in early and convene around a prep sink of some sort.

To say the least, staff training and menu knowledge are lacking, despite otherwise attentive service with tableside pepper and Parmesan grinding and ample table touches to make up for those lacking from the kitchen. (The chefs check football scores on a television above a small bar in the entryway — when not sitting at said bar — and adjust garnishes in the open kitchen window, bare-handed.)

Lunchtime is where we labor, beginning with an unremarkable calamari rendition ($9) followed by a salad and soup course that's included with entrée orders. The salad's spring mix sports slimers and dark-edged oldies that never should have left the kitchen, while a sausage-bearing Italian wedding soup of some sort inspires me to scribble the words "viscous fennel juice" in my notebook.

Fettucini Alfredo ($10) arrives with nothing to distinguish it from 10,000 others, cans and microwave dinners included. My Chicken Marsala ($11, ordered with rice-based mini penne elbows, $2 extra) desperately needs salt (none is set on the table), while its thin brown sauce lacks the wine's typical sweet balance and defining character.

Come dessert time, I inquire if a real espresso machine's in use, to which I'm given an affirmative. But our waitress half-balks when my guest asks for an iced latte with cinnamon, returning later for instructions and to say the kitchen doesn't stock the spice. Eventually, something creamy in a pint glass arrives, as does my cappuccino (each $2.59), but both taste bitter and burnt, like an unopened kernel at the bottom of a popcorn bag. On a reconnaissance mission to the bathroom, I peer into the wait station to spy a mini machine fit for a home kitchen at best.

The tiramisu ($6) ranks fine, because they didn't make it, we surmise, after biting into the house cannoli ($3), whose filling alone is made on-site and sports hard chocolate chips in a clumpy, sandy, under-sweet ricotta mush. (Mi fa cagare!)

Honestly, I don't wish to return for dinner. But I'm quite glad I do. A potent Italian Margarita ($8) kicks us off, adding Disaronno and Grand Marnier (both misspelled on the menu) to the typical tequila and lime mix for a notably nuttier citrus-fruit finish.

The kitchen nails a Clams Casino ($11), with chewy ham strips sweating oily goodness over an onion-rich breadcrumb mix and littleneck half shells. The Eggplant Rollatini ($9) finds the simple beauty of the thin-cut nightshade wheeled around a flavorful melted cheese blend with a nice, if still pasty, house tomato sauce.

I really reel when the lobster risotto ($22) lands with full flavor and balance, a new guest blurting out "fantastic" between bites of the soft meat and creamy grains, with saffron essence and tacky strands of Parmesan stretching between fork and fold. Colorado lamb ($25) lollipops hit a perfect medium-rare and leave all to the natural flavors, with only a salt and pepper dusting on the charred rind and no accompanying sauce — just simple steamed broccoli and new potatoes.

How can this be the same place? Spacious and clean, modern interior, Italian kitsch on the walls, black tablecloths ... yes, all looks familiar. I remain stunned through a crème brulée cheesecake ($6) that goes very vanilla with a fun, booze-laced strawberry sauce, even though it lacks a caramelized top that would've been cool.

Well, I did see a different line cook. But surely that alone can't explain the dining dichotomy ...

Regardless, the day needs never occur again, while the night should be relived. Buon Appetito needs to shore up the clarity of its messaging, continue staff training, and be its better self at all hours — and that's just to live up to the literal spirit of its name.

  • Buon Appetito finds elements of empire in one move, spears itself in the next

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