The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
1123 Walnut St., Boulder
The Draw: Refined Italian food in a chic space open for dinner and weekend brunch
The Drawback: The hidden entrance seems unnecessary, and reservations can be difficult to secure
Noise Level: Moderate, though it depends on when you go
Don’t Miss: The bruschetta miste, whole sea bass, pastas
Restaurants that try to accomplish too many things sometimes fail miserably on all counts. So when Stella’s Cucina—which bills itself as a speakeasy, an upscale Italian restaurant, and a late-night bar with music—opened in downtown Boulder this January, I was skeptical that the newly minted eatery could deliver what it advertised.
On my first visit, I found the speakeasy-style entrance—a few steps east of Rosetta Hall on Walnut Street—after a couple of passes. Upon entering the nondescript gray door emblazoned only with the letter S, I received a greeting from a host and made my way down a narrow hallway. This anticipation-building approach is by design, according to owner Stella Spanu. “The impact from when you arrive to the front, walk in, and see [the dining room] for the first time wouldn’t work with [the entrance] being streetside or having signage outside,” she says.
The reason Spanu set up the entry as she did is apparent once you walk out of the hall and into the main room, which is akin to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the film goes from black and white to color. Stella’s interior, which Spanu says draws heavily on art deco design influences, is anchored by a circular, marble-topped bar set against dramatic dark panels that comprise most of the walls and ceiling. I could picture Don Draper knocking back a martini or bourbon sour (updated and enjoyable versions of both are available) in one of the white banquettes that surround the bar, which, especially on nights when Stella’s has live jazz, feels more like something you’d find in a metropolis like Manhattan or Rome than in a college town.
That’s part of the first-time restaurateur’s vision, too. “In most ways, Stella’s Cucina is inspired by New York and Italy, because that is where I am from,” says Spanu, who grew up in both of those places but moved to the foot of the Flatirons for college. “I wanted to bring a part of me and my heritage to Boulder for my community to enjoy.”
Ambience is only one part of her roots that Spanu wishes to share: Stella’s features Italian cuisine crafted by executive chef Filippo Piccini, a Tuscany-born veteran of Michelin-starred kitchens who designed a menu of antipasti, entrées, sides, and desserts. A starter course of bruschetta miste—fig and olive tapenade, eggplant caponata, and Gorgonzola foam garnished with balsamic “caviar” (piquant beads of jellied balsamic vinegar)—showcased Piccini’s prowess for blending flavors and techniques. The tapenade balanced the sweetness of the fruit with the brine of the olives; the eggplant preparation displayed a cool earthiness; and the pungent Gorgonzola foam melded well with the acidity of the balsamic vinegar. My dining companion and I scooped up the dips with the accompanying toast, and when we ran low, our servers quickly replenished the bread supply.
The whole, roasted Mediterranean sea bass entrée, which arrived halved on a plate with grilled lemon slices, possessed a moist, slightly flaky texture. The aromatics, including garlic cloves, chive oil, and cured lemon peel, didn’t overshadow the fish’s delicate flavor, and the no-frills presentation felt decidedly Italian. Sides of roasted fingerling potatoes and zucchini were simple yet satisfying.
One of Stella’s strengths is pasta, and many selections, such as the sage-butter-glazed ricotta and spinach ravioli, are satisfying but don’t veer too far off the traditionalist path. I recommend ordering something with more spunk, namely the gamberi gialli, with house-made saffron fettuccine topped with king red shrimp and crunchy almonds. The silky ribbons of al dente pasta were dressed with a garlic butter sauce, but the tail-on shellfish were the undisputed star of the plate. The tender crustaceans had a flavor profile that was closer in richness to lobster than shrimp.
While Piccini’s desserts are solid performers, they sometimes don’t have the wow factor of the other courses. The fresh raspberry tart, set atop a pool of dark chocolate sauce and adorned with dollops of whipped cream, was a fair rendition of a classic summer treat, but it wasn’t particularly memorable. The lavender panna cotta, a floral custard crowned with a meringue cookie and fresh strawberry slices, was more inventive and worth the $14 spend.
Although I don’t usually like eating late, the only time slot I could secure on a Saturday was 9:30 p.m. That, however, allowed me to see Stella’s third act: as a music-centered bar. On Friday and Saturday nights, a DJ spins tunes, often until midnight. On this particular evening, the set list wasn’t bass-heavy enough to undermine the refined vibe, but it was bumping enough to energize the mixed crowd of well-dressed young professionals and fortysomethings. As I looked around the space, I realized my initial cynicism was unwarranted. Stella’s isn’t perfect, but it’s succeeding far more often than I ever expected.
From brunch bubbles to pre-dinner drinks, Stella’s Cucina has cocktails for various times of day. We tapped beverage director James Cimino to break down three options that pair well with Italian cuisine, all available at the restaurant right now. —Patricia Kaowthumrong
This elixir infused with gin, vermouth, and Campari is for those seeking potency. Cimino makes Stella’s Golden Negroni with saffron-steeped gin, bergamot liqueur, and Italian vermouth to yield an earthy drink with notes of bitter orange that complements the insalata di Cesare.
Stella’s offers two versions of the ubiquitous American sipper: an eye-opening espresso iteration and savory porcini. The former is spiked with Italian espresso, pink peppercorn, and caramel-tinged Meletti Amaro, while the latter has mushroom-infused vodka, a celery shrub, and a blue cheese olive and red pepper garnish.
This classic Italian pre-meal drink is often made with bittersweet Aperol, prosecco, and soda water. Cimino crafts a Rosato Spritz with rose liqueur, lavender, and lemon, which makes for a highly crushable cocktail with floral tones that can be enjoyed with every course.