By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Somewhere there must be a central clearinghouse for the sort of wall clutter so endemic to chain restaurants. In Jersey, I'll bet. Probably Passaic. When Brinker International wants to open a new Maggiano's, the boss just puts in a call to Leon over at Cheesy Wall Crap Ltd., tells him where to send the stuff, and then Leon boxes up twenty framed Vino Blanco posters, a fake signed photo of Dean Martin, 3,000 red-checked plastic tablecloths and a gross of "Somebody's Grandfather Leaning on New Packard" prints, suitable for hanging. Bam, you got yourself a restaurant.
Our lonely two-top is jammed in at the head of a long communal table where a couple dozen ladies sit spooning out tiny portions of lasagna and spaghetti marinara from family-style serving troughs and trying to answer movie-trivia questions being asked by their boss. Anyone who guesses right ("What was the movie with the big shark in it?") wins a five-dollar gift card or a scented candle from the pile of shlock in the middle of the table, and these people look like they're having the best time ever. It's frightening.
And so is our food. An order of bruschetta brings thick slices of garlic bread lumped up with fresh tomatoes, basil and more garlic, drizzled with a cheap, harmless balsamic vinegar -- but that's as good as it gets. A giant slab of breaded, fried mozzarella, topped with more mozzarella, arrives adrift in a puddle of embarrassing red sauce. Broccoli florets murdered on the steam table come snarled in a rat's nest of gummy linguine and topped with a clotted, chunky alfredo. Soft, doughy, undercooked gnocchi have been drowned in a strangled tomato-vodka cream sauce that tastes like milk-thinned Campbell's tomato soup threaded with wilted shoelaces of basil. The chicken piccata features grill-seared chicken breasts poached off God-only-knows-how-many hours before, so soft that each bite is like eating warm, chicken-flavored taffy.
7401 S. Clinton St.
Englewood, CO 80112
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
1631 Wazee Street, 303- 573-5050. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday
Pizza Margherita: $9.95
Lobster Ravioli: $17.95
Pollo Toscano: $13.95
The sauce, though, is surprisingly good -- butter-thickened and spiked with the bright bitterness of lemon and capers -- and we can't figure out why our waitress tried to talk Laura out of it three times, urging her to order the marsala instead.
We think about that for twenty minutes, which is how long it takes for dessert to arrive once the entrees are cleared away. The massive square of tiramisu, though served without a hint of liquor, is sweet and dosed with enough cocoa powder to keep us twitching for hours afterward. This is the only plate we clean. It's also the only thing on the table that tastes even vaguely Italian -- besides the big bottle of San Pellegrino bubbly water that the bar has the nerve to charge four bucks for.
We clear out quickly after settling the tab. Our table is desperately needed by forty real-estate agents in blinking Christmas-tree ties getting rowdy in the bar and still waiting to be seated.
The next evening, we head to LoDo. It's early enough that the sidewalks aren't yet frosted with recycled Jägermeister and the riot police are still nestled all snug in the cop shop. The folks at Il Fornaio seem happy to see us -- but then, there's not an office party in sight. (That could be because there's an Il Fornaio in the Tech Center, too, and another at FlatIron Crossing.)
This Il Fornaio is beautiful during the holidays -- not tarted up like some trampy working girl trying to bring in the Christmas trade, but dressed in tasteful whites and reds and golds, with just one tree set up in the doorway between the bar and dining room, and soft music fluttering from hidden speakers somewhere up in the hammered-tin ceiling. In this world of green and gold, Laura and I eat our way into a garlic-scented fog, devouring several courses prepared by a kitchen more Italian than a hundred Maggiano's kitchens stacked on top of each other, and more talented than any kitchen in a chain restaurant has a right to be. In the Il Fornaio empire -- which extends to twenty-some locations, none east of Colorado -- all kitchens are overseen by a single executive chef, Maurizio Mazzon, and individually bossed by one or more local chefs, most of whom have come from or been trained in Italy. In these kitchens, the cooks and bakers make their own breads, roll their own pastas, arrange their own deals with local suppliers for product. They roast in wood-fired ovens, finish pizzas the same way. And unlike those bullshitting scamps at the Olive Garden, these guys actually go back to Italy now and then -- with annual trips arranged for the chef-partners who run each location, all on the company dime.
Massimo Ruffinazzi is the chef at this Il Fornaio, and he's good. The crostini di polenta -- pan-fried squares of crisp polenta topped with Italian ham, zucchini sliced thin as paper, Gorgonzola, prosciutto and mushrooms kicked up with a lace of black-truffle oil -- are fantastic. An order of involtini di melanzane brings some of the best eggplant I've ever tasted, rolled around goat cheese, red bells and fresh basil, then served in a good, spicy red gravy that anyone's Italian grandfather would be proud of. There's beef carpaccio served with curls of shaved grana and capers; a stiff-crusted pizza margherita with fresh mozz and a sweet tomato sauce; half a chicken that's been rotisserie-cooked so well that I can taste the places where the wood smoke has snuck up under the skin; real gnocchi Bolognese in a proper beef-and-pork ragu; and simple spaghetti and tiny veal polpettine meatballs in a spicy red juiced with a shot of Trebbiano wine.