A Fresher Fresco 

A regime change at Fresco Italian café mixes the old with the new.

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Not all of the changes have been implemented yet. Look, for instance, for splashes of color to liven Fresco’s bright white walls, and for the restaurant to begin Sunday brunch service on Mother’s Day. But evolution is afoot at Fresco Italian Café, and if you haven’t visited in a while, you might want to drop by and check out the changes—particularly now that spring is well on its way, and summer’s just around the bend. After all, there are few locations in Salt Lake City more popular for “al fresco” dining than Fresco’s garden patio, already brimming with tulips.

The reason for all this change is new ownership. Last year, business partners Mikel Trapp and Mark Stamler purchased Fresco from longtime (and original) owner David Harries. Before the restaurant was sold, some dedicated Fresco aficionados felt that the restaurant had become predictable, even boring. Others bemoaned the loss of Chef Lane Pellinger and didn’t think the kitchen ever quite recovered. I was of the opinion that the restaurant menu had lost focus in recent years. The food was getting too complicated and prissy; sometimes you just want a plate of pasta with hearty Bolognese sauce. Still, there are aspects of Fresco—like the simple décor—that everyone seems to love. And the new owners were smart not to screw with that.

If the names of the new Fresco owners sound familiar, it’s not surprising. Mark Stamler opened Log Haven restaurant and was food and beverage director at Snowbird before relocating to Bend, Ore., to do restaurant and wine consulting there; Mikel Trapp stepped into the Snowbird position vacated by Stamler, having previously worked as executive chef at Metropolitan and Stein Eriksen Lodge, among others. The point being that these two guys know a thing or two about food and running successful restaurants. Their professionalism over the years has impressed me, and I was cautiously happy to know that Fresco was in good hands.

More recently, Stamler and Trapp have added executive chef David Derfel to their team. He’s overseeing the kitchen at Fresco in concert with R.J. Peterson, longtime chef de cuisine, in addition to running Fresco’s new catering operation (see Food Matters). And if his name also seems familiar, it might be because David Derfel also was executive chef at Stein’s, in addition to more recent stints at the prestigious Pelham Country Club in Westchester, N.Y., the 5-Diamond Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia, and New York City’s acclaimed Union Square Café.

So what do all these heavy credentials mean to a small local Italian café? Well, for one thing there’s been an improvement in consistency at Fresco. The new owners have deleted Fresco menu items that were hit-and-miss, while leaving intact longtime customer favorites like the aforementioned papardelle Bolognese, which is now as good as it’s ever been—a thick, creamy meat sauce made from pork, veal, pancetta, roasted red peppers and Gorgonzola ($17). The homemade thick papardelle noodles make this dish hard to improve upon. Other staples like the chef’s nightly crostini selection ($7) and the risotto special of the day were also left intact. Gone from the menu is any trace of foie gras or dishes that worked better on paper than on the plate.

A good example of the “back to basics” approach at Fresco is the hefty-size melon and prosciutto appetizer ($7). It’s about as traditional an Italian antipasti as I can think of—chunks of ripe melon wrapped in paper-thin slices of prosciutto—but slightly updated with a splash of saba syrup and sea salt. The dish reminds me, in its simplicity, of Fresco itself. I’ve always liked the minimalist décor of Fresco: clean white walls with a few antique farm implements (rakes and the like) hanging on them and crisp white tablecloths with vivid splashes of color from freshly cut flowers. I tend to think of Fresco’s décor as a canvas or a backdrop for the food, which is the real centerpiece of the restaurant.

Under the new regime, food at Fresco again seems to have taken center stage. A simple bowl of mussels and clams steamed in Cinzano, garlic and shallots has the perfect balance of red chile pepper to give it just enough kick, and the slices of grilled bread served alongside serve as tasty edible sponges to soak up the delicious broth. If you’re eating light, a selection of Fresco’s Mediterranean olives ($7) and the steamed mussels and clams ($10) would make a very appealing springtime dinner.

I’ve never been to Fresco when I didn’t taste the nightly risotto special, and I don’t recall ever not loving it. Until this week, that is. A risotto made with green apples and shrimp just seemed to miss the mark. Maybe green peas would have been a better notion than green apples. But the dish also had a funky, pungent smell which I think might have come from using Pecorino cheese or something similar where the subtle, nutty flavor of Parmigiano-Reggiano was called for. On the other hand, a falling-off-the-bone braised lamb shank served with a classic risotto Milanese was undeniably delicious. I’ll say the same for Fresco’s grilled ribeye steak, cooked to perfection and served with horseradish mashed potatoes, toasted pine nuts and sultanas—Turkish golden-green raisins that for some reason are spelled “saultanis” on the Fresco menu.

Excellent table service and a killer wine list (not to mention a reasonable $8 corkage fee) round out Fresco’s appeal, where dining now is sort of like running into an old friend that you thought you’d lost but now have found.

FRESCO ITALIAN CAFÉ,1513 S. 1500 East,486-1300,Dinner served nightly,from 5 p.m.>

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