Foodstuff: The more things change …
New ownership takes the reins at Acquolina, Duemani with aim of ‘keeping Aspen, Aspen’
When Carlos Solorzano-Smith gets nostalgic, he isn’t longing for the past. He is also eager for the future — that “I can’t wait to go back next winter” feeling inspired in more than a few Aspen visitors who dine here, he said.
He can recognize that in part from his time at Matsuhisa, the long-running Japanese and sushi restaurant on Main Street where Solorzano-Smith credits hard work and mentorship for his rise from back server to wine director. (He also spent time at the Little Nell.)
“It became the home away from home, you know? It still has that kind of feeling of nostalgia in so many ways,” Solorzano-Smith said.
The feeling is one he aims to maintain at the helm of Aspen Hospitality Group, a new restaurant partnership that just acquired Duemani and Acquolina from the previous owners, Luigi Giordani and Gretchen Leary.
Solorzano-Smith, a co-founder and managing partner for Aspen Hospitality Group, will oversee day-to-day operations of the sibling Italian restaurants in Aspen with a team of mostly familiar faces on the roster and a new culinary director, Jason Franey. (Franey has been coming to Aspen for nearly a decade and won Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef award in 2011; his resume includes stints at Eleven Madison Park in New York, Campton Place in San Francisco, Canlis in Seattle and Restaurant 1833 in Monterrey, California.)
“It takes time to understand the Aspen community, but we’re just blessed to be part of it, and we’re going to learn as we go,” Solorzano-Smith said. “We don’t come here to say we know what we’re doing. We just want to be part of something good and something great.”
Franey and Solorzano-Smith aren’t out to reinvent the cheese wheel at Acquolina and Duemani, but it’s not for lack of inspiration. The new team is “committed to ‘keeping Aspen, Aspen,’” as a release announcing the acquisition put it.
“You can come in here closed-minded and try to change everything and then nobody comes,” Franey said. “It doesn’t work.”
So there’s a lot about Duemani and Acquolina that will remain the same, or similar enough, anyway. Duemani, which has dished out coastal Italian flavors plus a variety of seafood and meat since it opened in 2019 on Monarch (where Rustique used to stand), will broaden the “playing field” to a variety of Mediterranean cuisines, Franey said.
Acquolina, which opened in 2014 in a space on Main Street that had long been home to other Italian restaurants like Gisella, Farfalla and Gusto, will remain the Italian trattoria that it’s always been, with Chef Berto Paglia still onboard in the kitchen, according to Franey. (Paglia has been with Aquolina since it opened and has clocked decades on Aspen’s Italian dining scene.)
“Acquolina is a staple in this town, right? So to change that abruptly would be pretty dumb,” Franey said. “Plus… (Paglia) knows that restaurant better than anybody.”
Familiar dishes are likely to stick around on the menu with a continued focus on the sourcing of the ingredients as well as the preparation. Solorzano-Smith talks of “elevated cuisine” — that buzzy catchphrase seems to be a perennial theme on the Aspen restaurant scene — but his vision isn’t one of gussying things up so much as bringing them back to their roots and focusing on simplicity.
“Every time you go to Italy or you go to France, you go to any country, you eat and then you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, this was the best,’” Solorzano said. “And it was very simple. … ‘Elevated’ can take it so many ways, but when you go back to the simplicity of food, it’s just good ingredients put together with good techniques, and served with a smile on your face.”
Franey said much of the same.
“Product is elevation, right? I’m not saying take a peach like they do in California, put it on a plate and be like, ‘I’m done with it,’ no — but, like, sourcing the best ingredients and respecting them and changing seasonally (is elevation),” Franey said.
That doesn’t mean everything will stay exactly as it was before, though. How could it, in a town where change is the only constant?
Solorzano-Smith has seen a “big evolution” in Aspen’s restaurant scene over the past decade-plus he’s spent entrenched in it here, but he sees this new chapter — like most change — as a positive one.
“Like anything else in life, change is good, change keeps you alive, like blood flows around your body, and I think change — sometimes it’s hard, but it’s just the right thing and time,” Solorzano-Smith said.
Kaya Williams is a reporter for the Aspen Times and the Snowmass Sun who’s just as likely to get nostalgic about the present as she is about the past. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.