Before I arrived here in Aspen for my annual summer stay in Colorado, I asked everyone I knew in town what new restaurants I should try. Virtually everyone I asked said, "D19."
Dena Moreno, who had pleased so many taste buds with her soulful Italian food (and white truffle fries) at Ajax Tavern, has joined up with the owners of The Wild Fig and the Popcorn Wagon to take over one of the prime corners in Aspen.
It's at South Mill Street and Hyman Avenue, where you can watch children play in a fountain spurting water vertically in random patterns, gaze at mountain peaks from your patio table, and watch the world go by. I used to love sitting in that patio when the space was The Colony, even if the food was only so-so.
So, when I got here just before July 4, I called the restaurant for a Wednesday reservation with friends two days hence.
"Sorry, we don't have anything available before Sunday," said the voice on the other end.
"Not even really early or really late?" I asked.
"Nothing till Sunday," she said. "Would you like to make a reservation then?"
My friends were leaving town for the weekend. "Uh, I'll try later," I responded.
Apparently D19 was no longer a secret. Maybe the SRO message was because there were a lot of VIPs around that week for the Aspen Ideas Festival, including ex-president Clinton and current world leaders. My guess is that the organizers had simply booked the place every night, expecting that their VIPs would want in.
My Aspen apartment (a fractional ownership deal, I'm not rich) is right around the corner from D19. I could press my nose up against the window (metaphorically, because the window is technically past the patio), but there would be no way in until the following week.
So, the Monday after the Ideas Festival, my wife and I sauntered around the corner and sat right down at a table in the patio for lunch. Good thing we got there at noon. By 12:30, every table was occupied.
Once we dug into the heirloom tomatoes with burrata and a gigantic artichoke baked with white wine, mint and chili flakes, we understood why the fuss. The ideas were simple and vivid, ingredients were sensational and the flavor garnishes--such real aged balsamic, great olive oil and smoked sea salt on the tomatoes--were perfect. We shared ravioli of fresh peas with pea shoots and shaved pecorino. The sauce was a thin jus. The sweetness of the peas contrasted with the earthiness of the pecorino.
After consulting with friends, I booked a table for nine people for Friday dinner after the 6 p.m. chamber orchestra concert. To simplify matters, I ordered first courses for the whole table to share and let everyone order their own main dish. Raves all around, especially for the freshly fried miniature zeppole draped with San Daniele prosciutto, those red heirloom tomatoes with burrata, gnocchi with purple heirloom tomatoes and ricotta salata. Among the main courses, I loved the fresh white corn puree with fresh kernels in it and chili-seasoned popcorn on top, which accompanied "forever braised" pork osso buco.
The wine list is not extensive, but you can't complain too much when you can drink Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo 2005 ($42) or Scavino Dolcetto d'Alba 2004 ($48), both of which performed admirably with the food. It's a smart smallish list.
Aspen is not exactly bereft of good Italian restaurants (l'Hostaria, Gusto, Ajax Tavern, Wild Fig and Campo de' Fiori among them), but this place has a verve and a style that sets it apart.
It's still the toughest reservation in Aspen, but is it the best restaurant in town? I'll be checking out some others while I am here, including the return of chef George Mahaffey to Aspen at the Hotel Jerome, and a new chef, Ryan Hardy, at Montagna at the Little Nell, which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list. I'll let you know.
Address: 305 S. Mill Street, Aspen CO 81611
Phone: (970) 925-6019
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Pasta $12-$18, entrees $25-$36
Michael Culley — July 27, 2006 5:32am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — July 27, 2006 4:31pm ET
Michael Culley — July 29, 2006 12:08pm ET
Phillip Dunn — Seattle, WA — July 29, 2006 9:13pm ET
Johnson Ho — Lake Forest, Il — July 30, 2006 2:08pm ET
Anacleto Ludovic — paris france — August 1, 2006 7:06pm ET
Russ Uhlmann — December 7, 2007 9:14pm ET
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