Trattoria Stella is cold and dark. It doesn’t seem at this point in the morning – 8:00 am to be exact – that this restaurant is going to turn into the packed, energetic bustling dining room that folks in the Highlands expect. Then Chef Nick Abeyta begins to talk and you can feel the passion and warmth of this chef, who has been at the helm of Stella’s for the last six years.
Tall, dark, handsome and single Chef Nick is bouncing between Stella and Stella Too – the second Stella location on Colfax and Steele in the old Café Star space. Last week he worked 94 hours. “There has never been a sous chef position at Stella – until now. The menu at Stella Too is 25% the same however, the kitchen there is much bigger and is conducive to doing a few different dishes that won’t work in this kitchen.” The kitchen at Stella’s on 32nd is quite small. Just three chefs work the line during service where they sometimes do upwards of 200 covers a night.
Nick worked in restaurants doing front of the house jobs since he was a teenager. When it was time to either apply to CU Boulder or go to culinary school, Nick picked the latter. He attended Johnson and Wales. After culinary school he honed his skills as a line cook at restaurants like IHOP, Tom’s dinner and P.F. Changs. He started at Stella as a host and then began picking up pantry shifts.
On the menu: The menu at Stella is a history map of all the chefs who have worked here. Everyone has left their touch on it.
On specials: I call our cuisine “Shock” Italian food. My line cooks come up with nightly specials. I do not allow them to do pasta specials. That’s an easy out. Neither do I allow them to “use up” ingredients for a special.
On making things in house: We make pasta in house 3 times per week. The original name of Stella’s was actually going to be Passion Pasta. We have a big extruder so we can make big batches – we’ve been using the same pasta recipe for the last 10 years. We also make our sausage and our chorizo in house. It’s more cost effective that way.
On “the calamity we know as Stella”: It’s organized chaos but it works for us. I thrive on the intensity of service. I love a loud, boisterous and energetic kitchen. This is an advanced kitchen. I can’t have someone work sauté who is not super experienced. We are just too busy for that.
On what sells the best: The best selling pasta is the 32nd street pasta. It has black tiger shrimp, goat cheese, dried cherries and pecans in a lemon olive oil sauce. This is our signature dish. The chocolate bread pudding is our most popular dessert. Other best selling menu items include the truffled asparagus spaghetti and the ravioli with pumpkin and gorgonzola cheese.
On being a chef: My first year of being an executive chef I had to learn how to manage people. I couldn’t be friends with my employees anymore. I was a soft-spoken, nice guy and it was a challenge for me to become more of an asshole. That said I always take care of my staff. If someone needs a ride to work they call me and I’ll pick them up.
Rules in my kitchen: Have fun. Have passion. Be serious. Get stuff done. Make the customer happy. Be clean. Work hard. No egos. Don’t place blame on others.
If a guest doesn’t like a dish I always send the chef to the table so he can find out why. A customer will tell you exactly what didn’t work for them. This way you learn more about what works and what doesn’t. We always make a guest who didn’t like something a special dish so that they go home happy.
Biggest Kitchen Disaster: On a super busy Friday night a little kid broke the sink in our only bathroom by hanging on it. Water started spurting everywhere. The drains backed up in the kitchen and on top of that a shelf that held our plates fell. Luckily we held it together and no one in the dining room realized what was happening. We had a plumber install a new sink during service and I just kept the plates coming out of the kitchen. Needless to say we drank a lot of wine at family meal that night. At Stella the staff gathers after service to enjoy a glass of wine and a meal to review the night.
On Days Off: Stella is closed Tuesdays. On Tuesdays you will find me doing laundry, running errands and indulging in my white trash snack of beef ramen with A1 and a package of airhead candy. Or you may find me eating at Yahala’s or the Squeaky Bean, two of my favorite restaurants.
Denver Chefs I respect: Frank Bonanno, his restaurants are amazing. I also like Scott Parker from Table 6.
Favorite Kitchen Tool: a mandolin, I love the danger that comes with it.
Favorite Cookbook: Silver Spoon.
Favorite ingredient: Shanks or any tough cut of meat. It’s such a science to make it tender.
If you could eat anywhere in the world: Rome.
At home I’m cooking: I try out new items I want to put on the menu.
On current trends: Obviously I am trying to source as locally as possible. The food truck thing – I think it’s great but sometimes I just want to be waited on. Full service dining is on the decline but there is still a place for fine dining.
Last words: Come to Stella’s. Join our family. I’m not trying to get in a magazine. I just want you to have fun, enjoy some good food and leave with a full belly.
Trattoria Stella – 3470 W. 32nd Ave., Denver. 303-458-1128. Closed Tuesdays.