These words have become the unofficial mantra of Elise Wiggins’ new Italian restaurant Cattivella. The longtime Denver chef opened her doors earlier this year in Stapleton and knows giving guests a complimentary taste or two is anything but an oversight. “I really want people to feel like they’re coming into their family’s house,” Wiggins explains. “The goal is to really get to know every guest. Really know their names. Welcome them back. Give them little bites. Like a grandma would.” And the formula’s working. Thanks to Wiggins’ influence in the Eastbridge neighborhood, Stapleton is finally becoming a dining destination.
So how did she do it? Her big personality helped; one that earned her scores of loyal customers during her 12-year stint as executive chef of Panzano. She’s also got decades of experience working in restaurants. “It really paid off to wait,” Wiggins says, “because I really know what I’m doing.” And sure, you could say she’s got confidence too. She employed all her weapons, along with her stellar work history, to secure herself a 100% loan for the space despite the fact that she had plenty of possible investors lingering.
“Everybody told me I wouldn’t get a loan,” she explains, “but I’m one of those people that the minute you tell me I can’t, I do. I really wanted to just do it on my own.” So she poured literally everything (including her home and car as collateral and all her retirement savings) into it. But it’s all hers, and after a lifetime of working for others, that’s more than worth the risk. Now, Wiggins is full steam ahead with Cattivella.
It’s no mistake that the menu is packed with a litany of completely unfamiliar sounding Italian dishes. “I intentionally put the full name on [the menu]. The Italian name," she says. "Because I want [the guests] to engage with the server, with the cook, so we can tell them that story.” And there are stories aplenty, which Wiggins absorbs during her yearly travels in Italy, the place she’s constantly finding inspiration in. “People are transported,” she explains, “and it just adds to their experience.”
Let’s explore the currently available pasta dish, Fileja. “It’s a very ancient pasta,” Wiggins says. “Mariners would go around the Mediterranean from all over and port into Southern Italy. They’d grab a dried grass reed, really stiff, and snap it off. Then they’d take this pasta recipe that they learned from Italians, and they’d wrap it around the reed.” That tubular pasta is served at Cattivella with a spicy sauce, inspired by Southern Italy’s Calabrian region.
There’s also the wildly popular focaccia di Recco, a dish that made it’s way to Denver thanks to Wiggins’ time in Recco, a modest Italian town where, after the fall of the Roman empire, residents would retreats to the hills to avoid marauders, taking with them only the essentials: flour, water, olive oil, a young cheese, and a cured meat. At Cattivella, the thin layers of crust envelop prosciutto and crescenza cheese, then the dish is topped with fresh, peppery arugula and 12-year-old balsamic for good measure.
It wasn’t easy to pick Cattivella as the best new restaurant in a dining scene nearly overrun with newcomers, but the wood burning pizza oven and grill helped. So did the massive 26-seat chef’s counter. There’s also the fact that Wiggins can almost always be found at the restaurant during service (and between services, she teaches a packed schedule of cooking classes). But what it really boils down to is Wiggins herself and the dishes she prepares. “I’ve grown, I’ve learned a lot, I made a lot of mistakes,” she says. “But I’m excited for the future.” And so are we.
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Molly Martin is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado who could happily live on pasta alone. Follow her Mile High dining adventures @mollydbu on Twitter and Instagram.