Not everyone lives in RiNo.
Or LoHi or LoDo or whatever other neighborhood hybrid moniker is fashionable right this second. Yet those seem to be the primary places getting a Certain Kind of Restaurant.
This Certain Kind of Restaurant (or CKR, if you will) holds a monopoly in the Union Station neighborhood. It’s taking over LoHi and it’s settling in Capitol Hill. The CKR is a lovely, inoffensive space that you seek out for date nights and expense account dinners and for impressing out-of-town guests and celebrating non-descript birthdays.
There, you find solid food priced above $20 per entrée and creative cocktails with double-digit price tags. You happily slide over your credit card, though, because at the CKR, the food and drink are almost always thoughtfully conceived and reliably executed. And yet there they are, clustered greedily and competitively within a 3-mile radius, as if those living north or south or east or west of the city don’t want to impress out of town guests and celebrate non-descript birthdays.
There are exceptions. The Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group chose Broomfield for its CKR, Hickory & Ash. The Denver Tech Center has a few, like Le French and Ambli, and Stapleton has good options, especially in the Eastbridge development. The most successful non-city-center CKR, Annette, inside Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace, has been earning so many accolades that area food writers probably have chef/owner Caroline Glover on speed dial, if speed dial is still a thing.
Still, these are the exceptions. And all of this talk about RiNo and CKRs and non-descript birthdays is just a lead-in for a year-old restaurant that doesn’t reside in a neighborhood that gets written up in Condé Nast Traveler or The New York Times Travel section: Aurora’s Bettola Bistro.
Bettola Bistro, too, is a CKR, although it may take offense to this terminology. (The word bettola means “dive” in Italian, although Bettola Bistro is no dive.) It shouldn’t. The CKR can be cozy and personal, as Bettola is. It’s more about the feeling and the quality of the food and drink offerings, and Bettola’s are near the top of the game.
Sure, it resides in a lackluster strip mall, wedged between a cleaners and a bridal shop/graphic design studio/barber (OK, maybe the strip mall isn’t so lackluster after all), but its ambitions are mighty. The food comes from veteran chef Samir Mohammad, who led the kitchens of many Denver restaurants, including Black Pearl, Lala’s Wine Bar and The Village Cork.
Mohammad cooks alone at Bettola, twisting Italian classics (just a little) with his own cured meats, fresh-made cheeses and home-grown produce (often literally, as Mohammad raids his home garden on the daily). The food here would fit nicely into a RiNo or Union Station CKR, but you won’t find it there. This CKR belongs to Aurora.
Hits: Proteins are a good way to go at Bettola. From the shared plates offerings, the trio of meatballs ($8) are melty-tender, and they inspired my meatball aficionado dining companion to declare them “a strong meatball.” They’re served in a bowl of pomodoro sauce and topped with a generous dollop of ricotta and a large basil leaf.
The rigatoni with sausage ($25) is just about perfect, what with its squat little noodles, thin, tangy-fresh tomato sauce and more shaved asiago than has a right to be on a single plate. (But who’s kicking shaved asiago out of bed?) There’s more to it, too: sautéed peppers, shallots, garlic, burrata cream and chunks of sausage. Swirl it all together for a velvety, zesty bite.
Mohammad brines the roasted half chicken ($22) for a day before pounding it down and finishing it to order at high heat to crisp up the skin to that brown crust that tastes of the oven and salt and poultry nectar. This is some well-seasoned, juicy chicken. So juicy that I was left with a very shallow pool of chicken juices on my plate. The chicken comes with a generous salad loaded with giant croutons, kalamata olives and ping pong ball-sized mozzarella orbs. You’re probably going to have leftovers.
Misses: Nothing is really a miss at Bettola, but a couple of the starches weren’t as impressive as the meatier entrees. The shrimp scampi linguini ($24) was light and fresh but somewhat bland. The tangle of linguini is surrounded by seven shrimp, dotted with whole cherry tomatoes and topped with parmesan and strips of basil. Yes, more of that buttery-garlic sauce would add to the calorie count, but also to the dish’s flavor.
The menu change between spring and summer smartly removed a too-heavy, flash-fried ricotta gnocchi ($21), but that switch also replaced my favorite dish on Bettola’s menu — the silver dollar-thick, pan-seared pork saltimbocca — with a disappointingly tough veal scallopini piccata ($32).
Also off the spring menu, the lemon ricotta cake was on the dry side, more like a bread-cake hybrid than the moist dessert I was craving. Hopefully summer’s ricotta pound cake with strawberries and whipped mascarpone ($9) got more ricotta in its batter.
Drinks: The tight menu of Italian cocktails is well-priced and well-chosen. The limoncello drop ($9) gets the sweet and sour balance just right — so right that it got ordered a little too much at my table. Turns out amaro is an excellent addition to the ginger beer, vodka and lime of a traditional Moscow mule, so Bettola’s Italian Mule ($8) could easily get ordered frequently, too.
This isn’t the place to come to for beer — there are only three on draft — but there’s an alright selection of wines by the bottle and glass, and the house wines are always $6 a glass.
Vibe: This isn’t your typical modern, community-table-made-from-naturally-felled-timber-lined CKR. Bettola holds just nine unremarkable tables and a corner bar, and the décor isn’t what’s going to sell you on braving rush hour traffic for a visit. But it’s warm and it feels friendly and it’s just nice enough to warrant that non-descript birthday celebration.
Service: In a time of, well, let’s say, less-than restaurant service, Bettola’s friendly, attentive, tag-team front-of-house trio is particularly outstanding. Rachel Firestone, Mohammad’s fiancée and the restaurant’s co-owner, leads the way. She’s joined nightly by server Chris Tarango and a rotating busser who are just as friendly and attentive. The three of them are on top of it, quickly and seamlessly taking orders, delivering food, filling glasses and doing pretty much whatever needs to be done to make your experience there a great one. You’ll talk to all three of them throughout your meal, and each will exceed your expectations for a CKR.
Bottom Line: If you’re in the neighborhood, this is the place to go for upscale Italian food. Even if you’re not in the neighborhood, Bettola Bistro is worth the drive.
Price: Shared plates $8-12; entrees $16-33
Fun Fact: Bettola Bistro is such a small operation that front-of-house manager and co-owner Rachel Firestone also mixes the drinks and assists with kitchen prep. She’s an excellent bartender, and if her amaro sour is on special when you’re there, order it!
Restaurant info: Bettola Bistro, 10253 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora, 303-750-1580; bettolabistro.com. Hours: Tues.-Sat. 4:30-9:30 p.m. Reservations recommended, and required for groups of six or more.
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