The reception at the restaurant melted away any remaining road stress. Staffers took our coats and whooshed us to a cozy table toward the back of the dining room. We looked across the full house abuzz under marigold lighting. Soon co-owner Bobby Stuckey was delivering glasses of Champagne, the bubbles rising in a reverse image of the snow falling beyond the picture windows.
Stuckey — square-jawed and cleft-chinned (with a passing resemblance to Aaron Eckhart), top suit jacket button always fastened — is on hand at his restaurant regardless of the season. He is one of country's hospitality aces. Convivial and all-American but never over the top, Stuckey is a charmer who understands the importance of an ironclad team. His front-of-house staff can discuss the nuances of a riso marinara (with seafood and no tomato) or an apricot-scented Pinot Bianco without sermonizing or lecturing. Even his dishwashers have been around since the beginning.
Stuckey met his future business partner, chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, when they both worked at The French Laundry in the 2000s. The two reconnected in Colorado and decided on the cuisine — the specialties of Friuli Venezia Giulia in northeastern Italy, bordered by Austria and Slovenia — solely because they liked one of the region's traditions. Families serving meals from their homes would hang branches, or "frascas," above their doors as a signal to passersby. Of course it helped that Stuckey, who earned a Master Sommelier title, was fond of the sophisticated Friulian wines (including unusually striking Pinot Grigios) that he's since helped popularize in the U.S.
While the food doesn't seem quite as exotic as it once did, the cooking is still singular.
Ten years in, as the American palate has developed, the food served at Frasca doesn't seem quite as exotic. The cooking, though, was as singular as my first meal at the restaurant eight years ago.
While sipping a sparkly or a "tajut" (small glass) of Friulian Malvasia with its notes of honeydew and mint, start by trying frico caldo, a crisp potato cake snack with soft onions and melty Montassio cheese. Then face the hard decision: Order the four-course menu, customizable with five or so choices of broader Italian dishes within each category, or the set seven-course chef's tasting option that showcases Friulian specialties?
I lean toward the latter for its novelty and intense flavors. A generous glug of creamy, peppery Venetian olive gilded the riso marinara, lush with minced shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters, and mussels. Lacy strands of chicken, slivers of matsutake mushrooms, and a molten tangle of leeks bolstered the earthy savor of blecs — wide, speckled buckwheat pasta. "Maiale Invecchiato" paired a dry-aged and roasted pork chop with mussetto, a potent Friulian pork sausage made with head meat, fat back, and skin. Braised kale and roasted carrots cut the richness. Apples mulled in red wine played the same role to crema fritta, a sphere of thick custard breaded and fried.
The regular menu yielded its own ample pleasures: a ballontine (poached charcuterie) of rabbit with pine nuts, farro, and golden raisins; tajarin noodles, flaxen from a surfeit of egg yolks, showered with white truffles that Stuckey donned gloves to shave (that indulgence came at a $45 upcharge); and a sculptural entree of venison medallions set among squashes and grilled radicchio. And the wine list, now weighing in at 67 pages, travels far beyond the margins of Fruili. The Francophiles, the lovers of Napa fruit bombs, and the international bargain hunters all drink spectacularly at Frasca.
I saved enough room to slip next door afterward for a bite at Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson's Pizzeria Locale. The cook pulled a puffy lipped, handsomely misshapen sausage and broccoli pie from the tiled Stefano Ferrara oven shipped from Naples. Lovely. I was curious about Pizzeria Locale because the duo revealed late last year that they were partnering with Chipotle on a fast-casual version of the concept, the first of which opened in Denver in May 2013. Of course it's expected that successful restaurateurs will eventually expand their reach, but I'd worried that the growing business ventures would ruffle the familial qualities that make Frasca so special. Stuckey's presence reassured that wintry night. The longtime staff, balletic pacing, and a love of the business that showed in every smile all remained very much in evidence.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison