Steamboat Springs Lynne Romeo gets passionate when talking about panini.
And don't even get her going about the gelato.
Romeo and her family, including husband Massimo Erspamer and sons Mirko and Gabri Erspamer, are preparing to open an Italian-themed family restaurant, Ciao Gelato, later this month near Seventh and Yampa streets in downtown Steamboat Springs' Howelsen Place development.
The opening date depends on the final touches, but Romeo said they were shooting for Nov. 21, with possibly a soft opening a week or so earlier.
She and family members planned to pass out coupons Saturday, during the Downtown Halloween Stroll, to build excitement about the business. Whenever Ciao Gelato opens, Romeo said, customers should come ready to experience new, homemade tastes.
"A lot of places advertise gelato, but it's not stuff that's made on the premises," Romeo said. "Our stuff is going to be made here in the store."
Gelato is an Italian dessert that is similar to American ice cream, Romeo said, except with "less air whipped into it" - meaning it has a creamier texture, is served warmer and has about half the fat of "normal" ice cream, she added, even though it's made with whole milk. Because there is less fat to coat the tongue, Romeo said, the flavors in gelato are vibrant. Mirko Erspamer, a junior at Steamboat Springs High School, seconded that sentiment.
"You can taste the flavor from beginning to the end," he said, noting that his favorite flavors are hazelnut and pistachio. His brother, Gabri, a freshman at the high school, said he prefers amarena, a flavor similar to cherry.
Romeo said she realizes that Steamboat Springs' wintry climate could make it difficult to rely on gelato sales year-round - about a week ago, the local Ben & Jerry's ice cream store closed up shop in Wildhorse Marketplace. So Romeo plans to also offer espresso and coffees; pizza, baked in the store by Massimo Erspamer and cut into squares, Italian-style; and panini sandwiches, served on focaccia bread with ingredients such as artichoke hearts, pesto and grilled zucchini that feature more of a European flair, she said, than traditional deli sandwiches.
Fixture and appliance installations continued Thursday. The restaurant's color palette is soft greens, reds and yellows that Romeo said are intended to create a warm atmosphere that welcomes lingering conversations at tables.
"It's a place to come and congregate, and that's what Italy is all about," she said. "It's definitely a mom-and-pop kind of place."
Romeo lived in Italy from 1980 to 2001, she said. Mirko and Gabri were born there, in a town about 45 minutes north of Verona. The family moved to the United States when Mirko and Gabri were 8 and 6, Romeo said - old enough to have learned Italian as their first language, which could be heard around the counters in Ciao Gelato.
"We want to be speaking some Italian here," Romeo said. "There are people in Steamboat who speak Italian, and it will be a way for us to practice."
Romeo said ingredients including almonds and cherries would come from Italy along with the language.
Green Courte Partners owns Howelsen Place. Green Courte is a Chicago-based private-equity real estate firm that also owns the Alpen Glow mixed-use development at Sixth Street and Lincoln Avenue.
Jon Sanders is a commercial broker for Ski Town Lifestyle Properties, which Green Courte owns. Last month, Sanders said Howelsen Place had four retail vacancies, plus an office space available on the alley. Felix & Fido, a boutique pet store with Lincoln Avenue frontage in Alpen Glow, closed last month.
Romeo was undaunted by the tough local business climate and said she and her family were ready to put significant hours and work into the restaurant.
"I think the recession has given us a chance to get better deals," she said. "It's easier to negotiate."
Romeo said she hopes to offer inexpensive dishes - with scaled-back, "human-size portions" - such as gelato for $2 to $4, to attract younger crowds and families. The family already has a conduit to local teens - Mirko said at the high school, friends ask him about the restaurant's opening every day.
Mirko said the down economy and the idea of opening a gelato store in a cold-weather climate don't bother him.
"I'm not nervous at all - I know this place will do really well," he said. "Even on a cold day, I would still want gelato. It's so good."
- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4233 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org