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The Front hides its excellence in plain sight 

Appetite

The Front is a pretty big leap of faith for Tony and Karine Pignatiello, who both learned to cook Italian food from their mothers and have played around with a homemade, backyard pizza oven for years, but don't consider themselves professional chefs. Build-out costs alone hit $100,000, and a small, intimate, black-and-wood dining room featuring a semi-open kitchen — and filled with china, beautiful wine glasses and silverware gleaming from hammered indents — speaks to greater costs.

It's trickier, still, considering you reach it through a plain, white door marked "Private." Miss a cue, and in the restaurant foyer you'll keep staring at what looks similar to a to-go counter at Domino's. I watched more than one customer wonder if they were in the right place. "It's probably one thing that sets us apart," says a friendly Karine in a post-meal phone interview, "but it's also our biggest challenge, to get people to understand the concept."

Ultimately, the confusion will probably sort itself out. Plus, it's a fun nod to the other idea in the name — a Mafia front — and after you know, who doesn't like being in on the joke?

I appreciate the effort to entertain, like I appreciate the daily-made dough created with Naples' Caputo flour. It's wheeled into thin pizzas with a little chew and a lot of crackle in the crust — the Sweet & Heat ($15), with green chilies and Sara's Sausage, and the Quattro Stagioni ($15), with its Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts and prosciutto, are both exemplary — and baked into loaves for a lunch menu that's basically sandwiches.

Most of the meat is imported from Italy, and all of it is shaved in-house. Still, our sandwiches left only a modest impression. The Warm Muffuletta ($7) drops most of the New Orleans influence and goes with mortadella, soppressata, chopped black olives and shredded mozzarella. An Italian Cured Meats ($8.75) brings prosciutto, soppressata, coppa, mortadella and spring greens. In both, the flavors of the meat, which there is not a ton of, sort of lose themselves underneath the cheese and bread (which is otherwise fantastic).

A simple pepperoni bread ($7) basically duplicates the problem, rolling a small amount of the meat into gooey mozzarella bites. It comes off as close to vegetarian, if still meeting a carb need. The included house tomato sauce is interesting, because it rejects the fruity sweetness found in pies like those at Borriello Brothers and goes for a bold, imposing structure full of salt and oregano. It's not my thing, but it seems well done (and it's exactly how Karine wants it, either way).

Things get more serious at dinner, when the Pignatiellos take flavors and cook them down, then add more ingredients and cook them down, then strain all that, add more, and reduce it again. That's basically how the Short Rib Ragu ($17) is made, and it's incredible. With fettuccine, shaved Parmesan and bright-green arugula, it's so rich with layers of intensified beef broth and tomatoes that it's almost like a tamarind paste. The bolognese ($15) over penne is equally worthwhile, in its velvety meat-sauce simplicity.

I bought it all to-go, and the couple was so worried the food would be compromised — when they weren't throwing in free mini-cannolis — that Karine bagged the arugula separately and made me promise to reconstruct it in the right order. They wouldn't even sell me the chicken Parmesan, so devoted were they to their faith.

bryce@csindy.com

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