How to fill a dining room during a pandemic
At 8 p.m. last Friday night, every table at L’Hostaria Ristorante is full — though there are many empty seats. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a restaurant packed with diners, technically, is illegal per new social distancing regulations. Aspen restaurants reopening for dine-in service as of May 27 must seat groups at least 6 feet apart and operate at just 50% capacity.
So, instead of removing tables from the dining room — or, perhaps worse, leaving stark white tablecloths blank — L’Hostaria owner Tiziano Gortan hatched a plan. Then he went to storage and hauled out artifacts from the restaurant’s 24-year history.
Now the surface of every other table is decorated with a colorful collection of ephemera, marked with hand-cut cork price tags. One table is fanned with “vintage” L’Hostaria gear: logo hats and shirts, including two azure jerseys identical to those gifted to the kitchen crew following a trip to Florence. Another displays an array of imported dried pasta — Rustichella d’Abruzzo, favored brand for the few dishes that do not use house-made noodles, such as garganelli alla carbonara currently — plus three types of extra-virgin olive oil, Modena balsamic vinegar, and gianduja chocolate-hazelnut spread (the OG artisanal Nutella).
There are bottles of wine from Gortan’s dear friend and frequent wine dinner collaborator Enzo Boglietti, among others, in blond wood keepsake boxes interspersed with Riedel stemware. Another area showcases delicate, hand-blown Venetian glass carafes for grappa, and original artwork, framed and unframed, that echoes wall art found throughout the restaurant. (Collectors from New York and Chicago snapped up paintings this past January; an open secret here is that all art is for sale.)
“It’s a really difficult situation, but (this) can be an attraction for the people,” Gortan explains. “I don’t want to leave an empty table, it’s flat. This is like shopping the restaurant … little things that have big meaning for me.”
Chopping boards iron-branded with the L’Hostaria logo are crafted from wood sourced from West Africa by way of California and stained to accentuate a unique grain pattern. “I love it because my dad was in the furniture business,” Gortan shares.
Nearby is a mosaic of modest tigerwood serving boards; a ballerina cutout sculpture, leftover from an Aspen Santa Fe Ballet fundraiser; and simple puzzles sliced from raw, burled wood, all made by Gortan’s brother, Luigi, who lives back in their homeland of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Recalling vibrant bicycles hanging from the ceiling above the bar are neatly folded Italian cycling jerseys custom-printed with a world map graphic in grayscale, the boot of Italy featured squarely between the shoulder blades. “I wear that when I ride my bike,” Gortan notes.
L’Hostaria’s pop-up boutique — arranged after nearly two months of painstaking cleaning, when staffers showed up to paint walls, sand doors, stain beams, reupholster bar chairs in royal-blue suede, refinish outdoor tables, and completely revamp the kitchen by laying new tile grout and installing brighter overhead lighting — represents a wholly refreshed atmosphere.
As a local who has visited this haunt regularly for eight years, I feel the energy. It’s hopeful. And on a guided tour, it’s apparent that Gortan had fun orchestrating the project, funneling creativity toward arranging these tabletop scenes.
“Oh yeah!” he says, face brightening. “It took three or four days. This (coronavirus) situation was like stopping and facing reality. I wake up, like, ‘Is this happening?’ But I tried to fix things right away. There (were) days where I couldn’t see the end, stuff everywhere, it was a mess! But cleaning with the guys or questioning what color fabric for the bar seats…we had time to think about the menu and this summer.”
Four months ago, one ubiquitous item might have seemed strangely out of place among this curated content. Yet the bottles, produced by Aspen’s own LIFT Vodka, are clear signs of our new reality. “Of course,” Gortan concludes, “we put hand sanitizer on each table.”
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.