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Oodles of Noodles

In the dog-mangia-dog world of Italian restaurants, local eateries must work hard to create something that sets them apart. No longer is specializing in the food of Northern Italy or offering a wine roster of small regional vineyards enough, because someone else has already thought of it.

"We noticed that Denver's Italian restaurants are either red-sauce or high-end, like Barolo Grill," says Mark Johnson, who owns the Bent Noodle in Aurora with his wife, Audrey. "I've always loved the food of Italy, and since pasta's been popular for years, and I think it's going to be popular for many more, we knew we had to do something different to get people in here if we wanted to go the Italian route."

So the Johnsons brought in Mark's friend Kevin Taylor, of Zenith American Grill fame, to consult on some gourmet-type Italian recipes. Then they balanced out the menu with a few red-sauce items and opened the Bent Noodle last July. "We didn't even have spaghetti and meatballs on the menu at first," says Mark, who cut his restaurant teeth as a manager at the Paramount Cafe and who still owns part of Jimmy's Grille in Glendale. "But you wouldn't believe how many people demanded it. It's the neighborhood."

Although the Johnsons soon added those basics to their lineup, they've found some takers for the fancier stuff, too. Chef Thomas Tyrer, a Culinary Institute of America grad, added several of his own dishes to Taylor's original suggestions, and for the most part, everything works well.

I didn't think so when I first ate there last fall, however. The Bent Noodle makes its own sausage on the premises, and back then, I got the impression the restaurant was so proud of its sausage that the kitchen put it in everything. And while it was good sausage, after I encountered it in the minestrone ($3.25), the ravioli ($6.50) and the lasagne ($6.50), I thought the place should change its name to the Bent Sausage. Ironically, I could have used some sausage on my pizza margherita ($4.95), which held only two leaves of basil and so little sauce and cheese that it was like eating a disk of dull, dry bread. On top of that, the kitchen was very slow for a lunch when the restaurant was only a third full.

In short, there was nothing to draw me back to the place--until a friend who lives in the area and really likes the Bent Noodle urged me to try again.

I recently did just that and found myself pleased with the changes that had been made; the Bent Noodle clearly is using its noodle. While the sausage was still good, its spices had been cooled down, and I didn't find its presence as overbearing as I had before. It even worked in the minestrone, which tasted as though it had been cooked a little longer to better meld the flavors. And while sausage still came alongside the ravioli, the pasta pillows stuffed with ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella and plenty of basil didn't need any more dressing up than the sweet, well-proportioned roasted-red-pepper-and-tomato sauce that blanketed them. Even the salsiccia lasagne was improved, with more cheese and less sausage in the mix than the first time around. The pizza margherita also benefited from more cheese, as well as more sauce and basil. "We revamped that one," Mark admits. "We realized it wasn't what it should be, and so we decided to chiffonade the basil and toss it all, and we improved the portions." Those adjustments made for a nice individual-sized pie with a good price, particularly at lunch.

Value is a big part of the Bent Noodle's appeal, and nowhere was it more evident than in the brodetto ($10.25), a fisherman's-style seafood stew teeming with herbs, juicy bits of roasted tomatoes, clams, two big chunks of salmon and a lot of shrimp for the price. With plenty of spongy bread (the Noodle bakes its own dough) to soak up the last of the garlicky tomato base, this was an extra-filling meal. The spaghetti alla pollo ($9.25) brought another generous helping, with large planks of well-roasted chicken covered in a rosemary-heavy (but itself rather thin) parmesan cream sauce. The fettuccine Alfredo ($9.25), on the other hand, featured a perfect sauce, with just the right amount of cheesiness to create depth but no clots. We finished off this satisfying meal by splitting a wedge of tiramisu ($3.95), a delicious traditional version with mascarpone sandwiched between espresso-saturated ladyfingers.

As with the Bent Noodle, the first time I visited Basil Ristorante several months ago, I was unimpressed. Unlike the Bent Noodle, though, Basil has not improved.

Peter Wolfgang Schlicht bought the little cafe of the same name a year ago and has been tinkering ever since to find the right format for what is essentially a neighborhood spot. Although the previous owners had specialized in bargain lunches that drew diners from all over town, when Schlicht and his original partner, chef Ernesto Spinelli, took over, they dropped lunch and offered fancy dinner dishes better suited to their earlier enterprises, Baci and the Bistro at Marshdale. After chef Willy Butera came on board in May, Basil kept serving Spinelli's menu for a while, until it became obvious that it was costing too much in overhead. "Ernesto's dishes were very prep-intensive," says Schlicht. "By changing the menu, we've eliminated one and a half people from the kitchen, and we're finding that people love this concept."

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