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When I visited New York last month, I thought about Osteria Marco while walking back from Union Square — which was strange, because I usually dream of New York Italian restaurants when in Denver, not the other way around. In Philadelphia, sitting on my in-laws' front step smoking a cigarette, I found myself wanting very badly some of Bonanno's ciccioli (braised pulled pork, as close as the Italians get to Carolina barbecue) and a pinch of fresh, smooth mozzarella. With his dedication to craft, his obsession with ingredients, his focus and depth of knowledge, bracing temper and occasional flights of serious craziness (truffle amuse-bouche, selling black cod and foie gras at a loss, cooking on the Today show), Bonanno has risen into that realm of chefs whose allure has slipped beyond the bounds of time and place, gone interstate and trans-temporal. But he's still based in Denver, and I was just a day off the plane when I found my way to Larimer Square and the realm of King Pig.
At the garde manger station, the hostess was laying out plates and taking reservations with the phone pinned between her shoulder and ear. I'd stepped in from the frigid cold, hesitating as I always do for one stuttering step at the door because Osterio Marco always looks like it could be closed, then pulling it open and sliding into the huff of warmth and good smells and raised voices drifting up from belowground. It was the day after Christmas, and the place was busy — about three-quarters committed on the floor, with more parties coming down the stairs every couple of minutes.
1453 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
I took a lonelyhearts table against the back wall — pressed up against the wine racks that Bonanno has used to separate dining areas — and looked around the room, which is pleasantly spare and comfortingly warm, with dark wood tables, a long, elegant bar, high-backed chairs, a couple of mirrors. Minimalism serves to make this enclosed space seem less so, this bunker appear more like a cozy hole-in-the-wall than a hole-in-the-ground. And on this night, the hole-in-the-wall was loud, raucous, filled with light and laughter and tables heaped with food, understaffed on the floor but limping along with the kind of good cheer that makes every success seem valiant.
I ordered wine off Bonanno's exclusively Italian list — a Corbara cabernet from Umbria that hit my nose like the scent of forty-year balsamic or the first toot of high-powered blow — and dove straight into the menu, piling up foods like a man who hadn't eaten in days, desperate for one of everything and immediately, lest I start wandering the room and eating off other people's plates. I wanted Bonanno's burrata — handcrafted, creamy as mascarpone, with a stiff bottom and a taste that's indescribable — and his Capra ricotta, sour and made from goat's milk. Then meat: coppa and the prosciutto di San Danielle because it's the best in the world. Years ago, sweating over my own glossy red rotary slicer in another basement kitchen in another city, I'd sneak slices of San Danielle — cutting them paper-thin, laying them on my tongue and waiting for the fat to melt from the heat of my body. I lived on the stuff: prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella clipped off the stiffening balls in the cooler, bottles of Mondavi merlot written off as corked and hidden downstairs in a broken locker.
"Wait," I told the waitress as she started to walk away. "That's not all."
I needed Italian crochette, bread and bresaola. I needed a couple of panini sandwiches wrapped to go: picked chicken and fonduta, a Cubano of roasted pork, more prosciutto and imported provolone. And when the food began arriving (quickly, but still right on the edge of tolerance for me), it was beautiful. The meats came in starbursts and waterfalls, a flower of mottled coppa arranged in a circular fan of slices, touched with a splash of olive oil. The bread was perfect — grill-marked but not burnt — and mounded in a large pile beside a round of burrata the size of half a baseball, bisected by a line of olive oil and cracked black pepper. The crochette were small pastry puffs alternately stuffed with herbed potato, crabmeat, and a mix of potato, prosciutto and parmesan cheese — all just made to be dipped in a puddle of red sauce and eaten in one bite.
And I did. I ate everything laid before me with wild, finger-licking abandon, because Osteria Marco is a place where you can eat with your hands, where you're encouraged to eat too much and drink too much and just generally overindulge in every possible way. Because that's the way of things on the other side of the dark door, down the stairs and in the underground realm of King Pig.
And that's exactly the way Bonanno wants it.
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