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Last week, Osteria Marco opened for a party of friends anxious to see what Frank Bonanno had done with the old Del Mar Crab House space at 1453 Larimer Street and, specifically, whether he'd gotten the dead fish smell out of the place.
1453 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
The good news is, yes, he did. As a matter of fact, he's chased all the old memories and ghosts of Del Mar (and the Mexicali Cafe before that) from the building and replaced them with a decidedly casual and down-scale paean to his Italian roots — a place for a good glass of wine, a bit of prosciutto, hand-made mozzarella, maybe a pizza or some snacks from the rotisserie.
"My wife, Jacqueline, fucking deserves all the fucking credit," Bonanno said when I got him on the phone the day after the very soft opening. Jacqueline did all the sourcing, all the design. She picked the colors, she found a guy who could turn a set of old bleachers into stained mahogany tabletops, and then, along with partner Ryan Gaudin and chef-partner Jean-Philippe Failyau, they'd built an entire panini bar.
"We just humped it ourselves," Bonanno told me. "It's really been awesome. It's been a lot of fun."
They'd hoped to open the space on October 17, the birthday of his and Jacqueline's second son, Marco, but missed that date because they needed to replace the kitchen's entire Ansel system. "Oh, yeah," Bonnano said bitterly. "That was expensive and fun." But the result is a space that's almost entirely redone, with a menu that features all the stuff Bonanno loves at Luca d'Italia, their restaurant at 711 Grant Street that's named after their first son, plus all the things he never got a chance to do there. Although he confessed he was still a bit nervous about whether people who are used to the more upscale fare he serves at Luca as well as the flagship Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue) will come for rustic, Italian osteria-style cuisine (and a killer wine list), he'd already put a couple hundred people through the space and was feeling better with every table.
"It's a fucking nice, cool place to come," he said. "Have a little sopressata, a little homemade burrata, some good wine. People really seem to be digging it."
An unlikely anniversary: On October 20, SAME Cafe — the purely humanitarian (the name is short for So All May Eat), pay-what-you-can venture started by Brad and Libby Birky at 2023 East Colfax Avenue — marked its first birthday. Which is amazing, because I had no faith at all that SAME would last even one month. I mean, the concept was completely counterintuitive. Here were two people with virtually no restaurant experience opening a restaurant with no prices, just a donation box by the door, working with an all-volunteer kitchen staff in an industry in which half of all restaurants (real restaurants — ones that actually charge for meals and are run by ostensible professionals) fail in their first couple of years. And yet SAME has not only kept the doors open, but it's flourished — albeit in its own, difficult-to-score way.
When I talked with Brad Birky last week, he seemed sorta surprised himself. "Not to get too cheesy or whatever," he said, "but this really puts our faith up in humanity."
Since it opened in October 2006, SAME has seen about 7,000 customers come through the doors, with an average now of close to thirty a day, which is "two or three times the number of customers" it was drawing in the beginning, he added. But SAME is offering pretty much the same soups, salads and pizza it's been offering from the start, made from organic, locally produced ingredients, with the same staff of volunteers (who can trade hours of work for food) and Brad and Libby still working every day in the kitchen, in the office, doing the books, the buying and the menu planning.
Some things have changed, though. SAME has partnered with both Work Options for Women and Colorado Work Force, which have been providing the cafe with more labor. Also, the donation box has been moved from beside the door to further inside the dining room. "Yeah, we had that run away on us once," Brad explained, laughing. But seriously, what kind of dick steals a donation box?
Leftovers: Over at the Dish Bistro (400 East 20th Avenue), owner Leigh Jones has picked up wayward chef Carl Klein to run the kitchen. Klein, who'd been let go from Corridor 44 right after he brought the place back from the brink ("Bubbling Up," October 18), got the gig after Jones and her opening chef, Chris Daugherty, parted ways. Jones was looking for someone who could keep the menu simple and comforting. And Klein — a veteran of Steuben's, where comforting (if not necessarily simple) is a watchword — was on the hunt for a new kitchen where he could make his mark. The timing was perfect.
Cafe Star (3201 East Colfax Avenue) is also making some major changes. The owners have hired chef Mike Carlin (ex of Bang! in Highland and Mezzaluna in Vail) to take over the kitchen that Rebecca Weitzman left when she made tracks for Manhattan and a spot on the line at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain. Though I've never had much nice to say about Flay, he gets props for one thing: He had a hand in training Weitzman during her first stint in New York, when she worked at his Bolo and Mesa Grill, and he was smart enough to take her back after her time at Star. Frank Bonanno also played a key role in Weitzman's career: She opened Mizuna with him and was Bonnano's chef de cuisine at Luca before jumping ship for Star.
I haven't been back to Star since she left, but an operative reports that Carlin has been given a mission at Star: to simplify the menu and make the restaurant more of a neighborhood spot, rather than the "special occasion" place it had become.
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