Located on the corner of 3rd and St. Paul in Cherry Creek, newly renovated 23 year old Cucina Colore stood the test of time in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The family-owned restaurant is a contemporary yet timeless Italian eatery and an undeniable neighborhood staple. Since the very beginning, owner Venanzio Momo focused on soulful dishes and beautiful welcoming design. From the inception of the restaurant, architect Jeffrey Sheppard was enlisted to shape Momo's vision. In the last year, Sheppard returned to overhaul and update the interior of the Cherry Creek restaurant. The renovation, which gave Cucina Colore a new bar area, was completed in December.
Eater sat with Momo to learn about his cooking beginnings, birth of the restaurant, renovation, evolution in the neighborhood, and secret to longevity.
How did you get involved in the restaurant business? My mother had a place in 1976 in New York. She had an Italian specialty deli and when we weren't at school we were working in the business. [In] 1982 we had Teresa's 2 where my brothers and I opened up our first pizza restaurant. In 1987 the Pizza Colore brand was born in New Jersey. By 1990 I had Teresa's Colore up on the Hill in Boulder and came out to just consult. I liked it so much that at that time I decided to stay. From there, I sold that and decided to do another Italian restaurant concept with Café Colore [in 1992] at Writer's Square - 15th and Larimer. That I ran for 15 years and I sold it. In '93 we went under construction here at Cucina Colore Cherry Creek. '92 is when I met Jeff and had an opportunity to have a new build out - meaning built to suit. [...] It opened in '94 and took 18 months to get everything wrapped up and rolling here... it kind of opened up as a neighborhood, high end pizzeria in a lot of ways. We have one of the first wood-fire ovens, if not the first, in Denver.
That's really trendy now, right? Imported from Italy. One of the first ones here. We were probably ahead of our time in a lot of ways with this beautiful, modern Italian eatery known- on the windows over there, that's 23 years of stickers that says "pizzeria."
Why did you choose Cherry Creek? I enjoy the neighborhood. I was looking to expand and build a bigger restaurant because I was primarily doing pizza, pizza, pizza. I never called myself the next greatest chef. For me, respecting the craft is more important than a title.
What was your menu like when you first opened? When I opened, the focus was fire pizza, which, a long time ago, was a big deal here. And the trattoria aspect - my sign in the window says "wood-fire pizza, trattoria, and bar " - I lied a little bit about the bar for 22 years until Jeff Sheppard came back last year and we expanded it.
Did you feel pressure to change as Cherry Creek was evolving around you both in food and in design? We responded to changing demographics but stayed true to our heritage and roots. Leonardo Da Vinci once said that ultimate sophistication is simplicity - or something like that. Simple and approachable is not always easy to execute with food and with design. And unapproachable just doesn't work. I learned to cook in the tradition and heritage of how I grew up. My mom is Italian, she's from Veneto in Northern Italy so she's up in risotto country. I've stayed true to tradition in that regard in simplicity, and using quality and fresh ingredients, and approachability. You have to read your guest.
Have you noticed trends come and go? It's funny how the pizza fizzled and now everything else took over. And now the pizza thing came all the way back. And we're still here. Once again, the point is "timeless not trendy" and finding good value.
What are some the most popular or praised dishes and drinks? The fettucine Bolognese - very light, it's with veal; the seafood spaghetti with scallops, shrimp, roasted garlic and tomato, and pecorino cheese; the pollo chicken and orzo salad with the sun dried tomato vinaigrette - simple and good - is the number one salad. For dessert, you can't miss the peach bread pudding with caramel sauce and fresh fruit. Our signature cocktail is a new world - believe it or not - Sangria. What makes it a new world is the papaya, mangoes, pineapple and cantaloupe with different liquors and prosecco. You'll see a lot of people sipping on those and eating the fruit on the patio. It's a great drink.
Denver is really into sustainability. Does that play a role in your restaurant? As a matter of fact, I'm looking at a company now that is doing a shrimp farm in Texas... but I've always supported the different, smaller vendors that have come up over the years here who have turned dreams into reality with their own companies. We do a lot with seafood - I'll ask about day caught scallops or line caught fish - tough to get it, but at least an efforts being made... As soon as the farmer market opens here two times a week we'll see what's being offered and that'll be lunch or dinner that day. ... fresh ingredients- quality ingredients - local as much as possible, and simple and good.
Is it still easy to work with the food and recipes you've learned to cook with? Absolutely, it's always been healthy in that regard. Small plates, what we call cicchetti work well now at the newly designed bar.
Has the addition of cicchetti been a big menu redesign? Yes, but we change dishes every so often. Maybe twice a year, we'll add some new menu items and we'll go from Cucina Classicos to Cucina Modernos. At the end of the day, Cucina's Italian spirit is reflected in the seasonal dishes created each day - whether it's fresh salads, wood fire pizzas, pastas, paninis, or inventive balanced of entrees and seafood, that's what we do. We let the food speak for itself. I don't put a name in front of the restaurant. There's not a lot of ego here. It's about this (gestures): it's about the work we do and the effort that goes into it. And consistency, I can't stress that enough.
What do long-time customers say about your interior makeover? We get a lot of, "wow - that's beautiful." We started the remodel led by Jeff Sheppard a year ago essentially... [but] the whole restaurant got finished in December. We did the remodel in three phases to stay true to the neighborhood...and to stay open.
Has your clientele changed with the remodel? Somewhat. The regulars are always here, your bread and butter but we added more of a bar scene now.
What makes people come back here? I'm like an MC here, capisci? And that doesn't stand for Master Chef - Momo Cooks. People come back because I take pride in them and making sure they're enjoying their meal - and if they're not, hopefully we can fix it in a timely manner, that they're enjoying their experience here and enjoying their time with us because everyone has a dining dollar and have a limited time budget. Beautiful space, food, and experience ...our guests return for the comfort of it all.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photos courtesy of Roth Sheppard Architects.