Each year, during the first few weeks of July, Barolo grill owner Ryan Fletter takes any interested member of his staff on a tour around Italy. Fletter believes the trip — designed to be a full-fledged culinary immersion into the country’s many great wine regions — is the backbone of the passionate food culture found at his well-respected Cherry Creek North establishment. The restaurant was opened 25 years ago by original owner Blair Taylor. This was at a time when Fletter says, “Italian food was still obscure.” But over more than two decades, Barolo has managed to thrive by providing an authentic experience based largely upon the staff’s legitimate, personal knowledge of the land and culture. The wine list featuring over 2,100 options doesn’t hurt either.
Fletter, who was born in Chicago, has deep roots both in Denver and at Barolo — having attended both East High School and the Auraria Campus. After starting at the restaurant a mere 18 months after opening, he rose in the ranks, eventually buying the place in 2015. His love for all things Italian is deeply sincere and influences nearly every aspect of his life. He has lived in Italy twice, intentionally scorning the beaten path in favor of what he viewed as a more genuine experience. His first time over, he lived with a host family complete with three boys and grandma all living under one roof. Each day, some members of the family would attend market, dutifully choosing ingredients for their meals — an entrenched custom that has come to define Barolo’s local and seasonal style. The spot’s menu changes every six to eight weeks, only leaving a few items that, “people would picket if we removed,” said Fletter.
This year Barolo received Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, a highly prestigious honor that has only been awarded to 88 restaurants worldwide. Barolo is the first Denver restaurant to receive the award. The sheer volume of the wine list — flush with some of Italy’s finest bottles, organized by region — surely plays a role, with Fletter’s passionate curating being central to the potentially intimidating tome that arrives on the table during the nightly dinner service. But the prize was not won on size alone. The contents reveal a cultivated structure that will excite enthusiasts and entrance casual drinkers. “The best wines come from amazing places,” said Fletter, observing that many of the world’s great regions generally have a rich culture and fascinating history. “Greatness attracts wine, and wine attracts greatness,” he continued.
The annual trip to Italy was originally instituted by Taylor, with a young Fletter embarking on the first voyage 23 years ago. Italy has an extraordinarily diverse food culture, and much of the point of the trip is to expose employees first-hand to the vast regional differences. Often staying on family vineyards, the experience is very personal. Fletter was deeply moved by his initial immersion and feels that his staff are equally elevated by the experience. In his quest to provide a world-class experience for his customers, travel is at the heart.
After years of building Barolo into what Fletter now describes as a “well-oiled machine”, the restaurateur will be investing a fair amount of time and energy into developing the new Chow Morso — his more casual venture currently at Avanti — into a full brick and mortar location at 15th and Wynkoop. Set to open mid-August, the venue will be a midway point between Barolo and Morso’s current incarnation. He will be expanding the fairly sparse concept to a full-service restaurant with an open kitchen, a 70-seat dining room and a 30-seat bar area. The menu will still highlight top-notch wines, but the small-plate orientation will set the tone for a more casual atmosphere. “Buried items here will be lead items there,” said Fletter.
Fletter is deeply devoted to both of his restaurants, and between him and culinary executive director Darrel Truett, the two locations will continue to transport diners. Italian food has always been marked by a culture of devotion and a deep personal commitment to quality food — chef’s whole identities often being wrapped up in their work. This tradition is alive and well at Barolo, and by every indication, Chow Morso will follow suit.
Barolo Grill is located at 3030 East 6th Ave., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Friday 5:30 – 10:30 p.m., and Saturday 5:15 – 10:30 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.