If folks don’t know what they’re looking for, Stella’s Cucina (1123 Walnut St., Boulder) can be a little hard to find. In early January, a rather ornate looking door appeared just east of The Rio. It was emblazoned with a big wooden S, though to the average passerby the entrance still had all the inconspicuous allure of a well-kept secret.
The long hallway leading from the host stand to what might be Boulder’s most transporting new dining room furthers the speakeasy sensibility. Though upon entering, the space is all mirrors and bright lights, marble and ornate wood ornamentation. It’s decidedly glitzy; the insulated area feels like an entire universe away from The Pub and Nitro on Pearl, with which Stella’s shares an alley.
“This is my first baby of this kind,” says owner Stella Spanu. “I put my whole heart and soul into the experience.”
While the menu is ostensibly a collection of classic dishes from across Italy, the restaurant was designed to elate all the senses. Small details, like the bathroom’s neon lettering that can only be read in reverse in the opposite-facing mirror, can be found in every corner of the space, with the overall vision being equally fine-tuned and absolutely grand.
Music is a big factor. On any given night, curated playlists span from funk to R&B and from hip-hop to chillout and ambient. From Thursday to Saturday, resident DJs JackLNDN and davVe up the ante, spinning sets that grow progressively wilder as the evening spirals on. Spanu says that, depending on the crowd, tables will get moved, turning the place into a proper disco that would fit nicely somewhere between Miami and Mars. On Friday, crowds are warmed up by some solo jazz piano, with a trio — the same pianist plus drums and a bassist — bringing the bops on Saturday.
Spanu was born in New York and spent some of her formative years in Rome. Her father is a chef and restaurateur who owned popular spots in Paris. “I grew up with food being the center of my life,” she says. “My dad was my biggest inspiration.”
‘It’s how I want to eat’
After transferring from Tulane University to the University of Colorado, Spanu found herself immersed in both dining and music. “The food scene is one of the reasons I moved here,” she says. With the opening of Stella’s, Spanu is hoping to contribute her distinctive vision to a community she now, after 10 years living here, feels very much a part of. “It’s just how I want to eat,” she says, noting that a truly sumptuous, sexy, classy and sophisticated space is just what she feels the town has been missing.
While Spanu handles the big picture, she’s tapped Tuscan-born chef Filippo Piccini to do the menu. Split into antipasti, a sturdy section of pastas, large plates, sides and desserts, the offerings span both recognizable classics and more modern fare.
Everything is presented with fine-dining flair, though simplicity still runs the show. “Most Italian food is very simple, but when executed well it’s just mind-blowing,” Spanu says. Local partners include Masa Farms, Niman Ranch and Superior Farms.
“Since childhood, I fell in love with the gastronomic world because of my mother’s homemade cooking. With her, I was taught the value of every ingredient. As I grew older, my mother employed me in her restaurant, and there I acquired the trattoria style and the fundamentals of simple dishes, which I still love today,” says Piccini of his time growing up in the seaside village of Saturnia. He continued to develop his craft by working under such Italian heavyweights as Valeria Piccini, Gennaro Esposito and Enrico Cerea before relocating to San Diego. He joined Stella’s opening team after realizing he and Spanu shared many gourmet sensibilities. “Stella planned to bring authentic Italian food to Boulder, but also to incorporate the five senses into the entire restaurant. That means she’s paying a great deal of attention to how the food looks, tastes, and even its textures, and as a dedicated and passionate chef, I do as well,”
Much like everything else, the dishes are laced with design-oriented flourishes. The Filetto di Manzo, a thick-cut Colorado Angus beef filet with a black garlic-Sangiovese reduction and porcini mushrooms comes with a beef tallow candle that can be dripped onto the steak as it melts. Even less extravagant dishes like the carpaccio are thoughtfully plated. The thin-sliced beef comes topped with Parmigiano foam and caviar-like balsamic pearls. The “Terra” Misu is a fairly quintessential rendition flavor-wise, though the dish hits the table as one of the most visually enjoyable of the evening. Cocktails are largely plays on the classics, with the Golden Gin-Tonic mixing Poli Marconi gin with tonic, saffron, vanilla, cardamom, orange, cinnamon and rose. There’s also a great wine list with bottles that range from $35 to nearly $600, the bulk sitting in the $100 ballpark.
Stella’s is intentionally enchanting and makes a nice fit for special occasions and weekend boogies.