Trattoria Stella well represents Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, in which it sits. Both the restaurant and the neighborhood are an eclectic, entertaining, attractive, often weird mix of old and new.
The Highlands of Northwest Denver is made up of Victorian buildings, either nearly crumbling or in mid-renovation, sitting side-by-side with 60s-era high-rise apartments and new half-million-dollar- and-up condos. Commercial buildings alternate new restaurants and boutiques with shot-and-a-beer bars.
Stella serves up moderately priced traditional Italian with a twist. Dried cherries and sweetened pecans mix with goat cheese and shrimp over spinach pasta. A mustard and brie sauce tops pink tomato pasta. Capers and white beans add shape and texture to traditionally fat and dense eggplant gratin. Figs mingle with white chocolate and champagne to gloss up old-school bread pudding.
The popular spot on the Highlands’ main street, West 32nd Avenue, draws neighborhood residents, see-and-be-seen downtowners, first-daters and happy groups of friends. The one-room space in a squat brick Victorian is crammed with tables as is the front patio. Nonetheless, the noise level is reasonable and the feel much like the bistros on the side streets of Paris or the narrow Greenwich Village restaurants where tables are close but conversations can remain intimate.
The dinner menu is entertaining and big, so big that Denver’s alternative newspaper recommends ordering a bottle of wine first thing and taking a good long time to read the menu, discuss the unusual combinations and pick one to order. The wait staff is used to this approach and doesn’t mind. More bread is just a hand signal away. The restaurant’s wine list is short but interesting, with selections made by the wine shop staff across the street.
Trattoria Stella’s dinner menu includes a half-dozen appetizers, about a dozen salads and a couple dozen home-made pasta dishes as well as daily specials. For starters, scoop into the fluffy walnut-studded gorgonzola spread served with bread and fruit. Salads and pastas mix traditional ingredients in whole new says. The crispy prosciutto salad adds crunchy slices of the salty ham to a pile of greens, dried fruit, red onions and more. Stella’s signature dish, the 32nd Street pasta, boldly tosses spinach pasta with goat cheese, dried cherries and huge shrimp.
Stella’s dinners are stunning, but other fans swear the best meal of the week is Sunday brunch, with seasonal fresh fruit crepes, a weekly frittata special, egg scrambles and omelets. Whenever you go, try to get a patio seat for people-watching as the evening or weekend crowds wander the boutiques, restaurants and bars of the Highlands.
Reservations are not taken, so weekend waits can be a little long. Parking also can be an issue in the primarily residential neighborhood, so pay attention to signs and restrictions.
A: 3470 W 32nd Ave., Denver, CO 80211-3104