First Look: Tavernetta Takes Over Union Station

The megastars of Frasca Food and Wine make Italian magic in LoDo
September 13, 2017
by Ruth Tobias

The gist: What’s arguably the most-awaited opening in a banner year of biggies is finally here. More than 10 years since Frasca Food and Wine burst onto the scene to become the most celebrated restaurant in all of Colorado, the Beard Award–winning dynamic duo of master sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson have launched Tavernetta, a regional Italian spot adjoining the new Kimpton Hotel Born on the platform of Union Station — where it’s a platform in turn for a crew of rising stars. Moving over from Frasca are executive chef Ian Wortham and wine director Carlin Karr, a Zagat 30 Under 30 alumna; veteran GM Justin Williams comes from the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. They're all set to send this place into the stratosphere of Denver dining destinations.  

The food: Whereas Frasca focuses on the northeastern Friuli–Venezia Giulia region, Mackinnon-Patterson says there are “no rules” here: Wortham is free to draw on his experiences and influences ranging across Italy, from Liguria to Lazio, Alto Adige to Apulia. And though portions of the dinner menu will change seasonally, Wortham expects that “some items will remain fairly constant. We want to build up a stable of dishes that people find comforting.” A typical meal, then, might begin with bagna cauda — a sort of anchovy fondue for crudités — or porchetta tonnata, roast pork loin with tuna conserva; move on to classic spaghetti alle vongole or elegant prawn and pole bean risotto for two; and end on lamb leg steak with cipollini and pistachios, followed by chocolate and raspberry mousse. The shorter lunch menu’s fairly similar — though we can’t wait to get our hands on the panino of mortadella, prosciutto cotto, salame and provolone on a ricotta-onion roll. 

The open kitchen extends right into the center room. "It's really out there — you're really in it," laughs Williams, making for a "fun and unusual experience." Photo by Whitney Tressel

The drinks: Hey, this is the Frasca team — it goes without saying that the cellar’s first class. “We’ve been collecting wine for the past three years for this place,” says Mackinnon-Patterson. “There are Italian wines here we don’t even have at Frasca.” As Karr explains, “The meat and potatoes of the list are Tuscany, Piedmont and Friuli.” But she dedicates a full two pages of the list to French bubbly, primarily from grower-producers (that is, smaller estates that grow their own grapes): “The reason is that you don’t go anywhere in Italy without seeing it. Even at the little corner coffee shop, it’s such a part of Italian culture.” Cocktails, of course, showcase aperitivi and amari above all — think seasonal smashes with Cardamaro or the bourbon-based Amarena with Nonino and Averna, as well as barrel-aged Negronis and the ubiquitous Aperol spritz. And they’ll all go for $4–5 a pop at happy hour, made even happier by snacks like herbed potato chips as well as by the playlist — old tunes from the ’60s and ’70s to enhance the swinging vibe conveyed by the artwork.

The space: From the bar and fireplace lounge at the entrance to the two dining rooms in back, the roughly 100-seat space is lined with rare old Slim Aarons photographs depicting Italian jet-setters partying at their villas, on their yachts and in Alpine ski lodges — effectively whisking you off to a more fabulous time and place where the living is easy. And the view of the canopied railway tracks from both the bar and two intimate front patios (there’s a third in back) only adds to the feeling of escape from the nine-to-five grind. Granted, the best seats in the house may be smack in the middle of the action swirling around the central exhibition kitchen, where a tiny nook with a couch and ottomans faces the pasta station and an eight-seat chef’s table overlooks the range. But then, you're bound to feel lucky to be here no matter where you sit. After all, as Stuckey notes, "The Union Station neighborhood, and all of Denver for that matter, has grown into such a lively place to be since I moved here 14 years ago." And now that he and his fellow hospitality masters are finally here, "We can't wait to take care of you." 

The details: 1889 16th St.720-605-1889 

The fireplace lounge, sure to be a hot spot in more ways than one. Photo by Whitney Tressel

 Langoustines, scallops, squid, tuna and salmon make up the exquisite crudi misti. Photo by Whitney Tressel

Wortham's version of an insalata caprese subs stracciatella for mozzarella and supplements the heirloom tomatoes with stone fruit. Photo by Whitney Tressel

Roman-inspired rigatoni alla gricia with guanciale, pecorino and red onion. Photo by Whitney Tressel

The main dining room, also pictured top. Photo by Whitney Tressel

"In Sicily, there are these little rotisserie places where chicken is all they make," says Wortham. His homage to them, built for two, will no doubt emerge as a house signature, the meat springy and juicy under glistening skin seasoned with salt, fennel, lemon juice and white-wine vinegar. The potatoes cook in the drippings at the bottom of the rotisserie oven, a soft comfort balanced by the crisp bitterness of fresh escarole. Photo by Ruth Tobias 

The warmth of autumn in Denver means you still have plenty of time to linger on the patio over a bowl of pasta and an Aperol spritz, watching the comings and goings at Union Station. (This straccetti, a fresh egg pasta, isn't on the initial menu, but keep your eyes peeled for its appearance in the future.) Photo by Ruth Tobias 

Wortham's take on classic tiramisu: layers of espresso-rum sponge cake, mascarpone mousse, chocolate crumble, a dusting of cocoa and a pinch of sea salt. Photo by Ruth Tobias

The private dining room seats 12–14 people. Photo by Whitney Tressel

lachlan mackinnon-patterson
bobby stuckey
italian food
union station
frasca food and wine