By Carol W. Maybach
(out of 4)
1265 Alpine Ave., Boulder
The Draw: Clean Italian flavors highlighting local artisanal products, served in the traditions of a true trattoria.
The Drawback: Service can be slow; "no reservations" policy.
Don't Miss: Panzanella insalata, salmone affumicato, pollo al mattone, pappardelle al cinghiale, and wood-oven pizza.
Vegetarian Options: Bruschetta alla Radda, insalata Radda, panzanella insalata, farro e verdure and ribollita soups.
A postcard, printed with faded photos of old Italy, is slipped onto the corner of my bare wooden table at the end of a memorable meal. Pragmatically, this vehicle delivers my bill, which arrives paper-clipped to the card, but its simple beauty says so much more about Radda Trattoria. Here's a restaurant that not only devotes itself to exemplary Italian fare; it also helps its American patrons slow down and savor the rhythms and nuances of Italian hospitality.
In fact, the warmth and welcome of the Italians so moved chef/owner Matthew Jansen on his travels to Tuscany that he committed himself to bringing that lifestyle home to Boulder. After a semester spent learning about cuisine in Florence and five vendemmia seasons in the late '90s spent harvesting grapes, making wine, and cooking for the farmers of Tuscany and Piedmonte, Jansen began to look at Italy as his source of culinary inspiration.
Jansen embraces Italian culinary heritage, and it comes through in the freshness and local focus of his food. Produce is gathered from the gardens of Red Wagon and Pachamama farms just up the road; meats come from local producer John Long; and fruits arrive from the Western Slope whenever they are in season. Wines, cheeses, and olive oils are flown in from Italy, as are San Marzano tomatoes when tomatoes are not in season in Colorado. Pastries are made in-house, and the Denver Bread Company and Breadworks provide fresh bread daily. Radda's cooks make the restaurant's sausages, pastas, and house-cured meats.
Jansen's introduction to Italian food and wine began not in Tuscany, but in his native Boulder. He was a protégé of the Laudisio brothers, who have owned and operated their celebrated Laudisio Ristorante for more than 20 years. During his tenure there, Jansen earned his sommelier certificate from England's Court of Master Sommeliers. With his broad culinary skills, he landed at Valentino in Santa Monica, a restaurant that boasts one of the most extensive wine lists in the world. He later ventured to San Francisco, where he honed his skills at some of the city's most revered establishments, including Aqua and Charles Nob Hill. He decided to return to Boulder to form his own restaurant, Mateo, which opened in 2001 and gave Jansen the opportunity to show off his expanded repertoire, offering classical Provençal dishes at a slightly higher price point.
Radda fills a different niche. Jansen, who lives in the same north Boulder neighborhood Radda occupies, understood what the area needed: a trattoria that that served casual breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "We're open all day, every day, and we see a lot of our clientele back a few times in a single day. It's wonderful to be able to come in for a nice piece of brioche and a cappuccino, then later for a casual bite at the bar."
Beyond the affection of the locals, word has spread about Boulder's burgeoning dining scene. Prior to this year's Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, food writers from New York, Washington, D.C., and other areas arrived a few days early to experience Boulder's Frasca, the Kitchen, and Radda. June also found Radda listed in Bon Appetit's Top Ten New Restaurants in the country, with Jansen's work highlighted alongside such legends as Thomas Keller and Michel Richard.
And yet the trattoria is a casual, unpretentious spot. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the room with natural light. Wooden tables with straight-backed chairs and a handful of comfortable booths take up the remaining space in the room. Two tiny tables perched next to the open kitchen are seats worth reserving; they offer a view of Jansen and sous chefs Kelly Kingsford, Eric Rollins, and James Sleeth in action during breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Breakfast is best taken on the patio. Although Radda's morning menu is spare, entrées are fresh and a virtual steal at just several dollars a pop. Farm-fresh eggs, homemade salsicce sausage, and buttery brioche highlight the list, along with strong espresso, fresh juices, and Bellini cocktails. In contrast, lunch and dinner menus are extensive, featuring 10 different traditional categories ranging from antipasti and insalate to pizza, pasta, risotto, and dalla cucina (special entrées from the kitchen).
Highlighting the antipasti section is the piccolo fritto ($5), which, despite its name, arrives as a generous portion. Delicately breaded and fried rock shrimp, fennel, and zucchini arrive coupled with the plate's surprising pièce de résistance: fried lemon slices served with a side of creamy garlic aïoli.
The panzanella insalate ($5) shines as another outstanding starter. Arugula acts as the peppery base of the salad. Toasted pine nuts and dried currants add texture, while shaved slices of Grana Pandano cheese contribute buttery depth and large chunks of grilled country bread soaked in vinegar and oil provide great crunch and smokiness to the well-rounded dish.
Two classic soups are not to be missed. The ribollita ($4) is the essence of Tuscany. Diced country bread is cooked twice with acidic San Marzano tomatoes and tender cannellini beans. The farro e verdure ($4) sings with pure simplicity; its clear vegetable broth is accented with tender but chewy farro grains, brunoised mirepoix, and lightly wilted spinach, and finished with pecorino picante cheese and a hint of lemon.
Another excellent use of farro is in the entrée-size salad, salmone affumicato ($12). Fresh butter lettuce comes dressed with a delicate citrus vinaigrette topped with thin slices of house-cured salmon. The fish has been infused with lemon, lime, and orange in its salt-and-sugar cure and finished with a drizzle of crème fraîche. A cup of farro salad with diced red pepper, finely chopped Italian parsley, and brunoised celery in a light vinaigrette accompanies the dish.
The pollo al mattone ($14) is an entrée that dazzles every time. Pressed natural wing-on chicken breasts are brought to a golden brown, and a touch of thyme is added for earthiness. A bed of sautéed Swiss chard underneath the chicken occasionally arrives oversalted, but generally the plate is extremely well-executed.
The bistecca alla Fiorentina ($25 per pound) should be a standout on a menu devoted to Tuscany, however a substitution of porterhouse over the traditional Chianina T-bone detracts from the uniqueness of this dish. Although the substitution is local, the trade-off reduces the dish to just another steak, especially when Brunello di Montalcino, the traditional wine for bistecca, is absent from the wine list.
A better choice for hungry diners is the house-made pappardelle al cinghiale ($11). Inch-wide noodles are topped with a hearty ragù of braised wild boar, roasted Roma tomatoes, and brunoised mirepoix simmered in red wine. Pungent rapini contributes a resilient bite and contrast of flavors to the plate.
Pizzas ($9) are great for kids and adults alike. Two versions are offered with a variety of artisan toppings. The almost crackerlike crust of the grilled pizzas is slightly smoky. The baked crusts, prepared in a wood oven, are thin and crispy and particularly complement the prosciutto crudo version.
Desserts are traditional favorites. The tiramisù is well-balanced, topped with d dollop of whipped cream and deepened with a hint of Amaretto. Panna cotta sings with the addition of toasted hazelnuts and an orange anglaise. Fresh, homemade biscotti offer a casual but traditional conclusion, especially when paired with Radda's Vin Santo dessert wine.
Boulder may be a long way from the undulating hills of Chianti, but Jansen and his talented team of players have successfully imported a little piece of Italian hospitality, Colorado-style, to the Front Range. Purity, finesse, and respect for seasonal, local flavors are the qualities that turn this trattoria into a true reflection of the Italian way of life. Jansen's work makes sense in Boulder, a city that has captured the nation's attention because it honestly and intelligently embraces the local landscape. Much like Italy did centuries before, America has begun to celebrate its regional flavors with a new vitality. Radda gives us one more place to taste the national culinary revolution, right in our own backyard.
By Kazia Jankowski
(out of 4)
1873 E. 17th Ave.
Must-Try New Dishes: Build-your-own salad, Monti pasta
Old Favorites: Sampler plate, tempeh burger