At home at L’Hostaria
November 10, 2006
Tiziano Gortan wasted little time making his way into the kitchen. There were two forces that combined to bring Tiziano to the stove in his family’s home, in Udine, Italy, before he reached his teens. One was the pull of his paternal grandmother, a widower, who nonetheless spent inordinate amounts of time preparing meals for herself.”She could cook for herself, then sit down to eat,” said Gortan, who has lived the last 12 of his 37 years in Aspen, and this month celebrates the 10th anniversary of his restaurant, L’Hostaria. “I thought it was silly, but in the years, I realized she was able to enjoy her meal. The feeling was like she had people around, always. Because there was a lot of love in what she was doing; it was a warm feeling.”The pull of his grandmother was accompanied by a push from Gortan’s mother, Agata. Gortan never liked her cooking, so he took culinary matters into his own hands.Turning that love of food into a profession, however, has always been a slow, and carefully considered process. When Gortan was 14, his father sent him to a local trattoria. For seven years, Tiziano worked in restaurants, from Udine to Milan, not for a wage – he didn’t start earning money till he was 21 – but for an education.”My father taught me how important it was to learn without thinking about compensation,” said Gortan. “If you’re learning, they don’t need to pay you. I was just into it to learn everything.”The owners were amazed, because I was dedicated. I enjoyed it.”As soon as cooking and waiting tables – Gortan had experience in both ends of the restaurant – brought in money, the feeling changed. “I felt it was my job,” he said. “I felt I had to do something – cook, be in charge. I wasn’t learning anymore. It was a different relationship.”Gortan practiced cooking as a profession, working in kitchens in Ireland and Sardinia. In Sardinia, in 1994, he met fellow Italian Christina Medri, who, with her husband Dante, owned La Baita, a restaurant then-situated along Ruthie’s Run on Aspen Mountain. The Medris offered a job, and Gortan spent the winter of 1994-95 as a chef in Aspen. It was his first trip to the States, but already he felt at home.”I remember the first time the plane opened,” he said. “I get that same feeling now, that long breath. Like I found my space. Some places you feel squeezy and claustrophobic. Here, I felt comfortable.”
A new country, a new homeOne day, in January 1996, La Baita was short on lobsters and, it being a weekend, couldn’t get a delivery. Tiziano was dispatched to locate some lobsters at Abetone, a now-gone Aspen restaurant. Dante went for a quick pickup that turned into a sales pitch.The owner of Abetone “showed Dante the restaurant, asked him on the spot if he wanted to take it over,” said Gortan. Dante came back, told Gortan about the offer, and proposed a partnership.
“I didn’t pay attention. I thought it was a pushy decision,” said Gortan. Instead, he visited Abetone repeatedly and let himself warm to the idea in his own time. “We tried to see the picture with our eyes. Every time I started to feel a little more comfortable. I loved the space. I saw my future.”In the summer of 1996, Gortan and his wife, Enrica, a native of Italy’s Piedmont region, and the Medris returned to Italy to shop for chairs, tables and decorations for their new business venture, L’Hostaria. Gortan handled the kitchen at L’Hostaria, while the Medris worked the front of the house. In 2002, Gortan bought out his partners, a transaction that led to a change in job title, from chef to host. That move also led to Gortan looking at his business, and his place in it, in a new light.Udine is in the Friuli region, in Italy’s extreme northeast corner. The region, far closer to Salzburg than to Rome, is marked, in its cuisine, by the frasca, a breed of rural, informal restaurant. (In Colorado, this style of restaurant has been put on the map by Frasca, a Boulder restaurant that has earned national acclaim.) Gortan says the frascas he grew up around were more of a low-key bar than a restaurant, a place where a diner could expect the owner to share some words and a glass of the local wine.”The mentality is a place where you feel very comfortable,” said Gortan. “Where you have a relation which goes over the business. Frasca is a place where you hang out without any weird feeling.”In Italy, you need to dress up, the right shoes. It’s very trendy. In a frasca, this disappears, and what is important is the food, the atmosphere.”From the beginnings of L’Hostaria, the idea was to bring a genuine Italian experience to Colorado. Gortan’s father, Silvano, a carpenter who specializes in furniture construction, came to help with the construction. The bar tables were built by Gortan’s cousin. The art is by Florentine painter Giacomo Biussi. Gortan even drives around town in a pair of Fiats. The look of the restaurant has barely changed in 10 years – Biussi’s “Pasta Ambra,” an image of a woman eating a bowl of spaghetti, has been around long enough to qualify as an Aspen icon – but hasn’t become either dated or musty.
The food is what Gortan experienced in Italy: pastas, carpaccios, fish, all prepared with lots of fresh herbs and a basic simplicity. Cheese and tomatoes are plentiful; the combination of burrata – a softer cousin of mozzarella – with sautéed cherry tomatoes and rosemary is a highlight of the appetizer selections. The wine list skews Italian, and Gortan favors those from Langhe, a grape-growing region in his wife’s native Piedmont.”That was my goal, to show where I come from,” said Gortan, whose two young daughters are named Viola and Vittoria.Gortan sees L’Hostaria as a frasca-style restaurant: “A very simple restaurant, where people feel comfortable. It’s not a place where people need to show off,” he said.But it has taken time for L’Hostaria to replicate the feel of the frascas of Gortan’s native Friuli. “Before, it was a restaurant – people come in, they pay, they go, good food, goodbye, see you,” he said. But as Gortan has become more comfortable as a host, as his managers and chef accumulate years – his current chef, Ruben Bonomi, from Bergamo, Italy, has been at L’Hostaria eight years – a personality has emerged. Gortan says the steady clientele, like the Brazilian group that dines there every February, and the numerous events L’Hostaria has done with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, have been as important as he and his staff have been in building a family atmosphere. (During a recent meal there, our waiter got a visit from his own family.)”In the years, we have learned to give the restaurant a little more warmness,” said Gortan, who is celebrating the 10-year anniversary with a party for some 500 friends and family, later this month. “I think that L’Hostaria is no more a restaurant. I think it’s a place that’s involved in Aspen. It’s involved with the town. This is my home, and I care. All the restaurants that work here, there is a reason. Because there’s a personality in the restaurant.”Gortan said that L’Hostaria, at 10 years old, gives him the feeling he had watching his grandmother eating the meals she prepared for herself, and the feeling he had as a teenager when just being at a restaurant was a special experience.
“It’s like having people come over my house for dinner,” he said. “It’s the exact same feeling.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org