Going Italian in Montana

Posted on 04 August 2004

Montana Italian: Bozeman's Italian restaurants offer authentic cuisine

Love is the key ingredient in Trattoria Adagio’s cooking

jim Liska
By Lara Vaienti

One of those torrid nights last July, Jim Liska did the Italian thing. After he closed the kitchen, he pulled a chair from the table and sat with his last guests. Exactly. Guests.
That’s how most trattorie (plural for trattoria) owners in Italy, treat their clients. Like friends to chat with, over a glass of good, just “christened” wine, a few slices of a farmer’s salami picked out of the adjacent cellar and rustic bread.

“Try this Chianti” said Liska as excited as if he bottled it himself. We smelled the wine’s intensely aromatic bouquet and toasted. “Salut!” he rushed, with a hint of “Godfather’s” inflection in his voice, as we clinked the glasses.

Jim Liska isn’t Italian, but he certainly knows what life is about. He knows that “La Dolce Vita” (or the sweet life) isn’t just a Fellini’s film-cult, but it may be a way of life.
La dolce vita is when people take the time to savor each and every grain of life and distinguish their different, subtle flavors. It’s when one takes the time to celebrate daily life’s simplest pleasures, slowing down the pace. And that’s also when the trattoria Adagio comes in.

Adagio, which in Italian means slow movement in music, reflects not only Liska’s passion for music, but also his passion toward food and wine. A man whose other careers have included writing jazz reviews for the Los Angeles Times, along with editing the Playboy Jazz Festival magazine, he now improvises, more than well, food in a restaurant.

Adagio Italian fare, down the street at Main and Callender in Livingston, is the closest thing in Montana to a trattoria/pizzeria. The building was a mercantile in the early 1900s and became a pharmacy around 1926 until the late 1980s, when it became a pizzeria, which Liska bought in 2003.

Homemade breads, excellent pizzas, a variety of pasta dishes, flavorful antipasti and salads are a constant at Trattoria Adagio. Intriguing gourmet-entries based on meat are available, scrumptious taste sensations by night.

“I have always cooked,” Liska says. “Ever since I was a little boy. It’s always been my great passion. Growing up in Chicago, my parents always took me to nice restaurants.”
A restaurant in a trendy north-side of Chicago, called The Bakery, which served French Hungarian food, was one of Liska’s favorite and inspirational places in the 1960s.
“The food there was unbelievable. They had bread boxes around and it looked modest, but they had Chinas, crystal and silverware on the table. It was beautiful and I loved that contrast,” Liska says.

His Adagio in fact looks a casual place, a typical Italian pizzeria, but where people can still go dressed up and find intimacy. Great jazz music in the background and a sophisticated wine list selection create atmosphere, especially in the evenings.
But what’s with Signor Liska and Italian food?

“My dad’s best friend was a Sicilian doctor, whose mother was around all the time. We used to spend our weekends with the Interlenghi family and that’s how I learned how to cook,” Liska explains. “They had a big family; they had six kids and all the action was in the kitchen. There were always extra people dropping in and everybody ate, constantly. So the fun was in the kitchen and I would stand between grandma Interlenghi and Uncle Joe and ask questions.”

Adagio features primarily Italian cuisine and Italian fine wines, but Liska does not exclude other countries’ flavors in his menu. He tries to use what he likes, what is fresh and seasonal when possible. Improvising food certainly befits a guy whose past was centered on Jazz music but it can’t be always the case in a restaurant.
Improvisation is good because it can offer pleasant, fresh surprises like Liska’s signature dessert made of sliced peaches and fresh basil, sautéed with sugar and butter and served over creamy vanilla ice cream.

But some things are sacred and need to be turned into habits. Like good-quality ingredients and superb wines at affordable prices.
“You always start with good ingredients to make good food,” Liska says. “For example, you can have a good piece of meat, and just by using salt and pepper, turn it into something great. Or you can ruin it completely. But you cannot have a bad piece of meat and turn it into something good.”

As a fan of “grape-juice,” describes is not a wine snob, but he expects his wine distributors to come up with different good wines and new ideas to try all the time. “When they keep coming up to me with stuff I don’t like to replace with what I asked for, I just change distributors,” he says. “I read constantly about food and most of the time I do not follow recipes. I care about flavors more than quantity. It’s the quality of food that counts,” Liska says. “Or as grandma Interlenghi used to tell me, while slapping me across the face (to stop all my pestering questions in the kitchen), “the only ingredient that matters is love.”
— Lara Vaienti

EMERSON GRILL, BOZEMAN

photos and text by Janie Osborne

eileen chopus

Everyone is welcome at Bozeman new Italian hotspot, The Emerson Grill, says owner Robin Chopus.

Serving lunch and dinner and located in The Emerson Cultural Center, the restaurant opened on April 11 and features everything from the Classic Caesar Salad to Tutti Mare over Fresh Fettuccine.
”We try to be the place that is upscale and affordable. The place where everyone is invited,” says Robin.
Chopus’ younger sister, Meghan Chopus, is the chef. The sister-sister team worked together to cr eate the restaurant’s northern Italian menu.[We describe the menu as] “Northern Italian,” says Robin, “because Northern Italian cuisine features lighter sauces, fresh vegetables and more simple preparations. The Emerson Grill’s food is very simple food.”
Both Robin and Meghan hail from a variety of interesting culinary experiences.The sisters’ enthusiasm for food can be traced back to their childhood in Connecticut where the Chopus family’s lifestyle centered around gardening and preparing homemade meals.
Before moving to Bozeman in 2004, Robin worked as a private chef and gala party planner in Alta and Snowbird, an executive chef at King Salmon Lodge in Alaska, and as the owner of Sweet Loretta’s, a retreat vacation property (Meghan is still the owner of Sweet Loretta’s).
Meghan attend ed culinary school at Seattle Central Culinary Academy and worked as a private chef and caterer throughout the Seattle area. Her claim to fame is the Seattle Freemont Art Market where Meghan introduced a very popular vending booth that served fresh homemade cuisine.

At The Emerson Grill, the signature dish is the Flatbread Pizzette. When perusing the menu, customers are happy to find that there are an assortment of pizzettes to choose from: the Roasted Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil; the Prosciutto, Carmel Onion and Chevre; the Mushroom, Pecorino and Herb Pesto and more. Made with a thin, crisp homemade crust, homemade sauce and fresh vegetables, the pizzette looks like what the teenage clientele call a “skateboard pizza.”
Another popular menu item , the tiramisu, is one of the few menu items that Robin creates. The secret to the dish, she reveals, is “a lot of booze.”
The Pizzettes and the Tiramisu are only a few of the fabulous menu items that are attracting customers to The Emerson Grill. On most nights of the week, the restaurant, which is located one block off of Main Street in a residential neighborhood, is bustling with local and out-of-town customers.
“We are so much busier than I thought we would be,” Robin says. “We’ve had 20 cruiser bikes out front. [Because of our location] Our patrons can easily walk or cruise on down to the restaurant.”
The Emerson Grill
for reservations: 406.586.5247
open for lunch, Monday-Saturday
for dinner: seven days a week

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