Star Q&A: Frank Bonanno Dishes on Salt & Grinder

By Ruth Tobias  |  January 15, 2014

Frank Bonanno has long talked about his passion for the New Jersey delis of his youth. So we always wondered why the dynamo behind a 10-venue empire that includes everything from high-end contemporary destination Mizuna to barbecue joint Russell’s Smokehouse to Asian noodle bar Bones didn’t just open one. Until late last year, that is, when he announced his plans to do just that in Highlands Square. Upon seeing the photos he posted on Twitter last week of his notes for menu development, we decided we couldn’t wait to get the full scoop on Salt & Grinder (included in our recent 2014 restaurant preview), though it won’t open until early spring. Bonanno graciously obliged.

Zagat: First of all, each of your eateries is so different. How do you come up with the ideas for them generally, and for Salt & Grinder specifically?

Frank Bonanno: Typically, I write a menu first and then the concept is born. [Wife and Bonanno Concepts creative director] Jacqueline takes the menu and reformats it; she takes what I’m thinking and designs a space around it. This is one of the few spaces where I knew wanted it to be first - a deli - but 90% of that was because I wanted salumi production for the restaurants. Still, we have enough space upstairs that it seemed silly not to utilize it. We live two blocks away, and there’s no place around here you can walk to and get a sandwich.

So, you know, I just really want to do more or less what I ate growing up: very simple sandwiches with really good products. We don’t have anyone doing that in Denver. Masterpiece is phenomenal, I love it - but you’re not going there just to get a turkey sandwich, you’re going there for their specialties. I was just home for Christmas, and my friends couldn’t fathom what I was talking about: you can walk into any bodega in the tri-state area and get something fantastic, with the meat shaved thin and piled high. While I was there, I went down to our local deli twice a day. I guess I want to be close to what [now-closed Italian market] Carbone’s was. This is kind of me being selfish and wanting to produce something that I grew up eating and love so much.

Zagat: So how do you go about doing that?

FB: It’s the meat and the bread that really make a sandwich so great. Jeff Cleary at Grateful Bread Company and I have been working on that - in fact, he’s sending me our sixth sample today. He’s from the East Coast, and he knows what kind of bread I want. With the altitude and everything else, it’s hard to get bread like you get in Hoboken, New Jersey. But his first attempts were great - maybe some rising issues or crust issues - and last week’s was almost perfect: crunchy but not too crunchy, very chewy and doughy.

I’m anticipating that we’ll open up with Boar’s Head, and as we grow, obviously we’re looking for all of our soppressata, capicola and so on to be housemade. We’re going to have a big curing room in the basement, of course, but I don’t know that when we open we’ll be fully ready for all the production. Our prosciutto’s been curing 18 months now, but there’s only three of them, so it might take a full year before it’s all made in-house. For starters, then, we just want to keep it simple and put a really great product out there. I grew up on Boar’s Head and I still love it; you just can’t slice it a quarter-inch thick the way they do at supermarkets. That doesn’t make a great sandwich. Now it’s just a meat-flavored roll.

The other thing that’s really important to me is you slice everything to order. So many people pre-portion. I’m guilty of that at some of my restaurants, but mostly with panini, where they’re cooked and served hot. But if you’re having a cold grinder, a hero or whatever, the meat needs to be sliced fresh. You’re not just completing a checklist: “We sold 16 sandwiches today.” In those little bodegas, they’d never even think of pre-portioning. That’s a wasted step: you have to unbag it, and it’s going to be clumped together, so you don’t have that lightness and fluffiness.

Of course we’ll also make fresh mozzarella, burrata and ricotta. Andrew Boyer is going to head up salumi production in the basement; he’ll get in at 5 in the morning and make all the cheese for the day, then start on the meats. You can tell I’ve thought a lot about this.

Zagat: Indeed. On that note, what does the menu look like currently?

FB: Right now it has seven breakfast sandwiches - basically scrambled or fried eggs with some prosciutto or coppa, that’ll be inexpensive, $6 or $7, and should take all of four minutes to put out, along with a cup of coffee for a buck. You can even get just a buttered roll and coffee to go, like you can on the East Coast.

We’ll serve breakfast from 7:30 to 10:30 or 11 AM, and then offer the regular menu until about 8:30 PM - though we’re probably going to keep one breakfast sandwich on all day, so you can get a bacon, egg and cheese or something anytime. There’ll be a simple roast beef with lettuce, tomato, salt and pepper, a turkey with mayo, and obviously we’re going to have meatball and sausage sandwiches as well. Then we’ll have a daily special - something heartier, maybe open-face meatloaf, maybe turkey and gravy, maybe a chicken parm one night. This is one of the easiest menus I’ve ever done.

Zagat: But you’re serving more than just sandwiches and coffee, yes?

FB: Yeah, we’ll have a couple of different sides. I want to go outside the box on those: a macaroni salad, obviously a potato salad that we’ve put some thought into, that’s done well, and also quinoa salad, spicy cucumber salad and a pesto pasta salad - all made fresh every day. For dessert, we’re planning with on teaming up with Hellimae’s Handcrafted Caramels to do a caramel blondie, and there’ll be housemade black-and-white cookies, which you don’t see a lot around here, so I thought it would be really fun.

And yes, we’ve got a liquor license. We’re going to have a white and red on tap, two beers on tap and two cocktails on tap. We’re also talking about doing a bottled cocktail and a jarred cocktail. [Beverage director] Adam Hodak is looking into getting a small bottling machine, and ultimately, I would love for you to be able to pop the top off a Moscow Mule and drink it, effervescent, straight from the bottle while you’re having your sandwich. Or an Arnold Palmer served in a jar with a glass and a cup of ice: you just open it up and pour it in!

3609 W. 32nd Ave.