Stella Spanu grew up surrounded by food. Splitting her time between New York City and Rome, she fell in love with Italian cuisine at a young age (it also helped that her father was a chef and restaurateur from Sardinia!).
She moved to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado Boulder and, ultimately, decided to put down roots here.
Now, she’s honoring her heritage and embracing her love of all things food and hospitality with Stella’s Cucina, a new Boulder restaurant and lounge that opened this month at 1123 Walnut St., the former home of Walnut Brewery.
“Food has always been a vital part of my life,” Spanu says.
The restaurant’s head chef is Filippo Piccini, who was born and raised in a small, Tuscan seaside village called Saturnia.
We sat down with Spanu to learn more about the new restaurant, the cuisine and her approach.
TB: What’s your overarching philosophy at Stella’s Cucina?
SS: My philosophy was to create a dining experience that stimulates all senses by incorporating visual art, design, music, premier service, comfortable seating and fresh, authentic Italian cuisine. I aimed to create and operate a restaurant that serves spectacular, authentic and clean Italian cuisine, and provides a unique sense of culture and design to Boulder that the community has yet to experience. Additionally, I wanted to incorporate a lounge component that opens after dinner service that offers a wide selection of music and a dance floor.
I wanted to open something I was passionate about and felt like the Boulder community could benefit from.
TB: What can diners expect from the restaurant’s ambiance, decor and vibes?
SS: Miguel Quismondo designed Stella’s Cucina, incorporating Art Deco inspiration. When diners join us for an evening, they can expect a sexy, sophisticated, inviting and elegant ambiance. I want people to feel comfortable and relaxed, and I wanted to create something revolutionary that provided a unique experience to guests and made an impact.
We see our space lending itself to all kinds of occasions, from first dates to celebrations, to just wanting to go out, have a delicious cocktail, listen to incredible music and meet and interact with people. We also want people to know they can rent out the event space and a private dining room that seats 12-14 people.
TB: How did you approach the menu? What are a few of your favorite dishes at the moment?
SS: The main goal with the menu was to have authentic Italian cuisine, not focusing on one particular area or influence, but incorporating traditions from all over the country. We also wanted to highlight and utilize local ingredients from here in Colorado.
As an Italian, I’m particularly drawn to our menu’s pasta and risotto section. Our chef has our fresh pasta recipe down to a science, so being here in Colorado and knowing how exceptional the quality of the lamb is, I recommend our house-made tagliolini with a lamb ragu. Another dish I love is the veal Milanese, a thinly pounded, breaded veal chop that’s pan-fried with a bright, fresh, citrusy arugula salad with baby tomatoes. This is a large dish and perfect for two. The mar Tirreno, our seared octopus, is cooked to perfection with a vibrant olive and tomato sauce. Our whole-roasted spigola (branzino) is flown in overnight three to four times a week from the Mediterranean. This dish really transports me back to Italy. Lastly, all of our desserts are quite special. However, my favorite is the montenevoso. This is a semifreddo made of terrone, a nougat with pieces of assorted nuts and a dark chocolate drizzle.
TB: Why Boulder? What brought you here, and what has kept you here? What is it about this community that led you to open a restaurant here?
SS: I was first at Tulane University in New Orleans for a year and was not the biggest fan of living there. It was very humid, with no seasons and heavy food. So I wanted to go somewhere almost “opposite” and landed in Boulder, Colorado. I finished school at CU Boulder and couldn’t get enough of Boulder or Colorado. I had never experienced mountain life before, but was absolutely and still am blown away by the Rocky Mountains. After living here for almost 10 years, I wanted to open something I was passionate about but also something I felt like Boulder was missing.
As a community member who only wants the best for Boulder, I wanted to bring something Boulder could use. I found it very hard to find authentic Italian cuisine and somewhere to get drinks or listen to music after 10 p.m.
TB: Can you share more about the music program you hope to offer at the restaurant?
SS: Music is a vital element of a good dining experience and, on top of that, I noticed the community lacked cocktail lounges. I appreciate all music and would love different genres for different nights of the week, including a jazz night, R&B night, disco night and more. For now, we are starting on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. After dinner service has ended and our kitchen has closed between 9 and 10 p.m., our music will progressively get louder while still offering our entire beverage menu until close.
We have a state-of-the-art sound system and insulated velvet walls to enhance your musical experience. Eventually, we will expand our music nights to the other nights of the week as we gain more notoriety and exposure.
TB: What else do you want more people to know?
SS: I am deeply passionate about Stella’s Cucina; It is my heart and soul. I picked every detail, from the glass and silverware to the art. I want people to know how much I love and care for it and how excited we’re to share it with them.