Let’s start with the Tortelloni with Blue Crab, asparagus, capers and pink cream sauce.
Not literally as a starter, necessarily, although it would be a great first course, but as a measure of how La Piazza del Villagio has evolved under the influence of its new chef, Bob Scherner.
This wonderful tortelloni has long been a favorite item at La Piazza, on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1998, front-of-the-house maestro Stefano Canclini told us.While Scherner has unquestionably changed La Piazza to reflect his own style, he has been wise to embrace this very popular item (and a number of other among La Piazza’s traditional pastas). But Scherner did make some changes to it. The asparagus is on the outside instead of the inside of the tortelloni now, and there are capers as a flavorful salty garnish setting off the sweetness of the crab.
Scherner is a wonderfully gifted chef, and one of Telluride’s most enduring over the last couple of decades, having worked at 221 S. Oak and Allred’s (in a couple of stints) before taking over the kitchen at La Piazza this summer. He has a definite style within the tradition of New American cuisine, combining classical technique (a foie gras torchon), the best possible ingredients, local when possible (Colorado lamb, Palisade peaches), and the infusion of international flavors (truffle oil, sashimi). All of this is at play in the new menu at La Piazza.
But that traditional tortelloni is a good marker. It is so delicious in a mellow, unaggressive way, that it’s no wonder patrons return precisely to order it for their entrée ($26). No question: order tortelloni and a salad and you’d be good. (Share the tortelloni to leave room for an entrée, and you might be better.) There is really a lot to explore on the new La Piazza menu, which is not to say that there is anything wrong with choosing something familiar, like a mozzarella, tomato, arugula, basil and sea salt starter ($12), with the buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy and the heirloom tomato provisioned locally, or a simple spaghetti with cream sauce or marinara and parmesan ($16). Under the ownership of the Canclini family (Stefano is the brother of owner Paolo Canclini, who also owns Rustico on main street in Telluride), authentic Italian cuisine has been the rule at La Piazza, with most of the food imported, even when local provisions might be as good.
And so I asked Stefano about marinara. Doesn’t marinara mean “from the sea,” so why is it a simple tomato sauce?
There is no marinara without seafood in Italy, he affirmed. To call tomato sauce marinara is an American thing. And so, even for the redoubtable Canclinis, when in America, to some extent, they do as the Americans….
And yet, that Canclini influence has hardly been undone at La Piazza by the arrival of Chef Scherner. Not only in the blue crab-filled tortelloni and selected other menu items, and not even primarily there, but on the wine list. The Canclinis import wines and other foodstuffs from their home valley, the Valtellina, in the Alps (tradename Tellitalia Imports), and the benefit to those of us lucky enough to eat in their restaurants is a phenomenal pairing of wines from the region with food, a pairing that would be impossible to duplicate and hard to equal.
Stefano and Paolo and others who work at Rustico and La Piazza really, really know these wines, many of them from small wineries that export a tiny amount of what they produce because most of it is consumed locally. Put yourself in the hands of a Rustico or La Piazza sommelier, and allow him to recommend the wine to suit what you’ve ordered – and which you almost certainly have never heard of, unless you are native to the Valtellina yourself – and you will be blown away.
On our tasting menu (and La Piazza will create a tasting menu for anyone with advance notice, upon request), we sampled a variety of wines with a number of small portions of Scherner’s cooking. You can’t go wrong starting, as we did, with foie gras (a torchon is similar to a pate, Scherner explained, but is finished by wrapping the cooked duck liver in a towel and compressing it, producing a tube shape, which is then sliced) and prosecco. The musky foie gras is served with fresh fruit (strawberry or melon, either one providing astringency) and a mango-vanilla sauce ($24), and the lightly carbonated prosecco makes for a perfect palate-cleansing aperitif.
Other starters include a paper-thin slice of carpaccio, served with white anchovy, truffle oil, mustard and beets ($17). The Meyer Ranch beef used for the carpaccio is naturally raised, without hormones, and is spared the feedlot to fatten it up, resulting in highly concentrated flavor, Scherner explained. Agreed. Even before you get there the aroma of the truffle oil when the plate is set in front of you is magical, gently but assuredly arousing your hunger.
It might have been a special the night we were there, but if it’s available, don’t pass on the tender grilled octopus with arugula and lemon. Octopus is a rarity on Telluride menus.
The salmon we enjoyed as an entrée ($28) was one answer to a chef’s dilemma with salmon – farm raised and likely mass produced or wild and prohibitively expensive and likely overfished – Scherner said. His is the equivalent of free-range chicken, he explained, farm raised on organic feed in ocean pens that are constantly moved. Served simply in a brown butter and sage, spiked with a splash of aged balsamic, it’s not only the provisioning of this fish but its flawless grilling – crunchy light brown exterior, meltingly soft interior – that makes this dish soar.
Is it my imagination or has Colorado lamb, which was on restaurant menus forty years ago, taken a huge jump up in quality in the last couple of years? Scherner’s presentation of a rack of lamb, with Dijon, lemon and rosemary ($42), summer vegetables on the side, was irresistible, with a flavorful crust and beautifully pink interior.
About those vegetables: Scherner is working with a farmer in Montrose who plants varieties he requests and harvests them for him at their peak of readiness. If you go to La Piazza, you get to eat them that day or the next. The days when an ambitious chef would simply order provisions from a huge corporate supplier are gone. Working with the producers, local when possible, and understanding exactly where things come from, translates into far more pleasure on the plate. If we are eating better in the last few years, and we are, the agricultural revolution in Western Colorado, greatly encouraged and supported by chefs like Scherner, is largely due the credit for it.
And so, of course, we finished our meal at La Piazza with a peach soup, served with vanilla bean gelato. As with the lamb, Colorado’s bounty of peaches dates back several generations at least. And as with the lamb, they’re better than ever. There’s just nothing sweeter or more piquant than a Western Slope peach at the height of a Colorado summer.
The Italian sensibility of the Canclinis and the Western Colorado-local haute cuisine orientation of Bob Scherner make for a great marriage. The Italian wines pair wonderfully with Scherner’s flavors. Having broken with their fierce commitment to Italian foodstuffs only, I wonder if the Canclinis might next apply their intelligence to Colorado wines. Or maybe they don’t measure up quite yet. The food sure does.