Elizabeth Milias: L’Host with the most
The Red Ant
With the closure of yet another cherished local institution, at what point do we concede that Aspen has lost its soul?
On Friday night, following an incredible 25 year run, L’Hostaria Ristorante, Aspen’s welcoming, garden-level favorite on East Hyman Avenue, poured its last Barbaresco. This one hit harder than most. Perhaps it’s the culmination of a season of popular local restaurant closures, with The Red Onion, Piñons and Jimmy’s closing earlier this year. Perhaps it came during a particularly reflective off-season that followed a chaotic and exhausting summer. Yet perhaps it also defines a frightening precipice, a new vantage point from which we are forced to reimagine what Aspen is becoming.
Aspen’s story is a collection of soul-filled eras, the most important one being the one when we each arrived; the one that is imprinted in our individual memories as our own version of “old Aspen,” the place we fell in love with that we never wanted to change. But change, especially in Aspen, is inevitable. Over my 34-year “Aspen life,” change has been the only constant, or so the saying goes.
The list of long-lost favorites is extensive: Little Nell’s, The Tippler, The Smuggler Land Office, Little Annie’s, The Ute City Bank, The Steak Pit, The Motherlode, to name a few. Each closure was painful and left a terrible void, and not just for the regulars. But in recent years there have been profound gut-punches that signaled something bigger and not just a little more foreboding, like when La Cocina closed and the building was torn down. Mead Metcalf’s iconic Crystal Palace dinner theater soon followed. The Wienerstube’s and Main Street Bakery’s closures marked the demise of the “stammtisch,” or shared table, where all comers were welcome, and local news was both made and shared. We’ve been losing our special places, and the pace just sped up.
Throughout it all, year-round, for birthdays and graduations and celebrations of all kinds, in support of every community cause, for drinks and music and that casual bite from Aspen’s best-loved bar menu, L’Hostaria was there. Or, more precisely, we were. As the proprietors liked to say, “It’s no secret. It’s the place to be.” Since its 1996 opening, this frasca-style restaurant that epitomized the rural, informal restaurants in Italy’s Friuli region served as Aspen’s comfortable, convivial community hang-out. You were as likely to see friends and neighbors there as you were to see the sheriff, your attorney or the Italian ski team, in town for the World Cup races. “Complicated simplicity,” as they described their fare, appealed to everyone.
With a focus on great food and a welcoming atmosphere, the genuine Italian experience at L’Hostaria transpired literally under the watchful eye of Florentine artist Giacomo Biussi’s “Pasta Ambra,” the iconic painting of a woman eating a simple bowl of pasta, specifically tagliatelle with chopped tomato, garlic and olive oil. “I’ll have what she’s having.” Most of us never needed to look at a menu.
Last winter, during the darkest days of the pandemic, L’Hostaria owner Tiziano Gortan boldly orchestrated a photo documentary of our local restaurant workforce, featuring nearly 600 masked employees, to dramatically illustrate the far-reaching human impacts of stringent county restrictions and regulations that limited operations to outdoor dining and take-out, and put thousands of livelihoods at risk. In a sobering display of community spirit and restaurant industry solidarity, the haunting black and white images were prominently displayed throughout the restaurant, covering its own colorful and festive art collection from February 2021 until late September. Being good by doing good, Gortan was not one to stand on the sidelines when the fates of Aspen’s restaurants and their employees were so obviously in jeopardy. Nor did he focus exclusively on his own business. His leadership, advocacy and powerful political statement highlighted the precarious restaurant landscape through the fearful eyes of those front- and back-of-house employees who make the industry run; a brave commentary in a charged time.
Change is a powerful force, but so too is opportunity. And opportunity recently knocked. As L’Hostaria closes the book on its Aspen story, those who hosted, fed and cared for us, season in and season out, can now contemplate actual vacations, quality time with family both here and back home in Italy, and life’s next adventures.
There’s a stanza in an old poem entitled St. Augustine’s Definition of Friendship that reminds us “to expect those absent with impatience and embrace their return with joy.” As one of Aspen’s many wayward travelers, I was never really home until I crossed the threshold at L’Hostaria.
Grazie di cuore, Tiziano and the Gortan family. Ottima cucina e accoglienza calorosa, grazie per la meravigliosa ospitalità, Fabrizio and team. Cin cin, Lance. Thank you for the pasta, the wine, the camaraderie, and yes, the memories. We are so proud of you and grateful for all you have done for this community. For a quarter century, you exemplified the very best in all of us. Salute.
Aspen is in the hospitality business. In these changing times, may we remember, learn from and aspire to the standard set at L’Hostaria. Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net
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