First look: Lower 48 Kitchen opens tonight in Ballpark
All photos by Lori Midson. Owner Mario Nocifera and the Lower 48 kitchen crew, led by exec chef Alex Figura and sous chef Greg Schesser.
Earlier today, in the kitchen of Lower 48, the all-male squadron of cooks and chefs were prepping for tonight's blast of bodies that will undoubtedly want a first glimpse -- and taste -- of one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of year. And considering it's the crew's first night of regular service -- and the dining room chairs are somewhere in transit -- they're remarkably calm, their soft chatter broken up by theatrical displays of muscle flexing, hearty laughter and jokes about the shortest guy in the room perfecting his balancing routine on a ladder that doesn't quite stretch to the height of the ceiling, where there are light sockets that need bulbs.
"I've worked in restaurants my whole life," says Mario Nocifera, who co-owns Lower 48 with his business partner and executive chef Alex Figura. "I've always wanted to build a restaurant -- that's been my dream for years -- and our goal is to continue to make Denver a great dining destination; we're striving to be great regionally, and we want to be a part of why people go on destination food trips," he explains.
The two men -- restaurateur and kitchen magician -- originally worked together in 2011 at Frasca Food & Wine, the restaurant powerhouse in Boulder from which culinary talent emerges at every turn. And while they were at Frasca, they met Greg Schesser, the sous chef of Lower 48, who, says Nocifera, "everyone calls 'Bear.'" And the trio of heavyweights have, among them, an extraordinary wealth of pedigreed experience. Nocifera started washing dishes at fourteen while living in Phoenix, Arizona, where his grandparents, he interjects, were the first restaurateurs to introduce pizza to Phoenix, via a food bazaar they opened in the early '70s.
When he was 21, Nocifera moved to Aspen, where he worked for several years at the Little Nell; Bobby Stuckey, co-owner and sommelier of Frasca, was there, too. "Bobby and I were housemates for two years, and he's been an incredible mentor to me," says Nocifera, who then spent seven years in San Francisco, first as the beverage manager and assistant general manager of Spago, and later as the general manager of Charles Nob Hill, a now-closed Michael Mina restaurant that, in its heyday, was one of the top restaurants in the country. He returned to Denver, along with his then-wife to open his own restaurant -- a restaurant that would have been a "forward-thinking Italian restaurant," he says -- but not long after he married, he got divorced and after "getting kicked in the teeth," as he puts it, he brushed himself off and headed back to San Francisco to take advantage of numerous consulting gigs. At the time, he says, "If I wasn't going to open a restaurant in Denver, there was no reason for me to stay."
Meanwhile, Schesser was the in-house butcher at The French Laundry, a position he held for two years, and Figura, a native of Washington DC, was pushing the boundaries in the superstar kitchens of Vetri and Osteria, both in Philadelphia; Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York and, most recently, El Celler de Can Roca, a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Girona, Spain. And it's Figura's widespread experience, stresses Nocifera, that made him the ideal fit to command Lower 48's kitchen. "He has a huge depth of experience in multiple global markets, which is really important," says Nocifera. "And he's incredibly disciplined, too."