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Andrea Menichetti’s grilled salmon sits atop a mélange of organic vegetables.

Chow, Bella!

by Linda Hayes | Photography by Ashley Davis Tilly | Aspen magazine | February 11, 2014

It’s a late Wednesday night at Zeno Aspen, and Marco Cingolani and Andrea Menichetti are both tired—and wired. Tired from the strain of opening their high-profile restaurant during the town’s infamous holiday rush, and wired from the feeling of satisfaction received from the achievement. “We did 400 covers a day from the 23rd [of December] to the 2nd [of January], with dinners and skiers coming off the slopes [for lunch],” says Menichetti grinning, his voice laced with amazement. “Not a single dish came back in 20 days.”

The restaurant’s transformation from its previous incarnation as Il Mulino into Zeno, located in the Residences at The Little Nell at Gondola Plaza, was notably swift. After all, Italian compatriots Cingolani and Menichetti were already familiar with one another from around Aspen—Cingolani was an owner of The Cheese Shop and, most recently, co-operator of Justice Snow’s, while Menichetti was executive chef at Casa Tua. Together, while foraging for mushrooms over the past summer, they forged a bond.

Then, one day after their customary mushroom hunt, recalls Menichetti, Marco said, “Let’s close the season, and then I want to ask The Nell what’s going on with this space.” Inquiries and negotiations ensued in September; keys were turned over in November; and by December (the 18th, to be exact), Zeno opened its doors. Done.

Naming the restaurant was easy. “It’s after Zeno Colò, an Italian ski racer who won gold and silver medals in the 1950 FIS World Championships in Aspen and helped bring skiing to town,” notes Cingolani, himself an avid skier. “His racing bib number, seven, is part of our logo design.”

Transforming the interior was similarly easy. “We are a casual trattoria, not a fine-dining restaurant,” says Ali Lee, a third owner and Casa Tua alum, who, with Cingolani, runs the front of the house. “We made a conscious choice not to have tablecloths, and added some high-tops by the bar that we could join together at times to make it a more fluid environment.” Windows at the rear of the room were exposed, and a massive elk chandelier was removed. “The whole energy changed for the better when that chandelier left,” Cingolani laughs. In its place are stunning faux coral resin pendants, their light reflected in massive windows, through which snowcats can be seen prowling the slopes at night.

In the kitchen is where Menichetti shines. Utilizing skills and concepts gained from his history with family restaurants back in his native Tuscany (his mother, Valeria Piccini, is acclaimed chef-owner of long-standing, Michelin-starred Caino at Relais & Châteaux in Montemerano). “Food is something that you just feel and transform and put down on paper,” he says. “Our menu goes around Tuscany with the food I grew up with, and then there are some things from Sicily and Piedmont. Most important is the culture of staying with no more than three or four ingredients per plate, so that what you read in the description is what you taste in the dish.”

The sourcing and handling of top-quality ingredients is also key. Menichetti grills sustainable farm-raised Atlantic salmon (pulled from the water and shipped to the restaurant overnight) that he then serves with baby carrots and beets from organic farms in California. At 3 inches thick, Black Angus porterhouse steak comes to the table on a warm lava stone. (“You can eat it little by little, and it doesn’t get cold,” says the chef.) Meanwhile, veal osso bucco in a white wine-and-caper sauce is inspired by his grandmother’s recipe.

Many things are made in-house: preserved tuna for a spinach, arugula and cannelloni salad; pork sausages offered at lunch as part of a Skier’s Plate, with cherry-rubbed pork ribs and whole-grain polenta; pasta, including sheets of classic lasagna layered with veal and pork ragu and béchamel, as well as fettuccine tangled with chanterelles, chiodini and oyster mushrooms; loaves of rosemary focaccia; meringues studded with pine nuts; and almond gelato.

With menus still evolving and plans to kick the patio into high gear for après-ski, Cingolani, Menichetti and Lee seem poised to handle whatever hits their communal plate. “Between the three of us, we find a way to get everything done,” Menichetti says. “In our minds, we are working on what’s next.”

The prospect is intriguing.

Zeno Aspen
501 E. Dean St.
970.429.8588
 

Lunch: Noon-3pm
Après-Ski: 3-5pm
Dinner: 6-10pm