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Hanging above the entrance to Osteria Marco is a brass pig. It's a smallish thing that you could miss if you weren't looking for it. As a matter of fact, you could easily miss the entire restaurant if you didn't know where it was — behind a dark door, down a flight of stairs, in the cavernous basement space that once was home to the execrable Del Mar Crab House. Although there's a sign on the street, as well as a small patio and a large menu standing sentry, this is Larimer Square, and on this block anyone could easily be overwhelmed, transfixed by the glitz of other restaurants, the alluring fog of spice and butter-warm light that spills out the big windows of ground-floor houses dedicated to the various glories of Spain, of steak, of wine and coffee and French pastries.
Competition is fierce here even on slow nights. The foot traffic ebbs and flows, forms currents, whirlpools around bums, parking kiosks and knots of stunned pedestrians riveted by this menu, that valet stand. Option paralysis strikes the unprepared. Cuban or Italian? French or Mexican? Big plates or small?
Seek the pig, ye foodie snobs, ye noble gastronauts, ye bewildered and befuddled and besotted masses. King Pig, hanging under the lights like a beacon, like a promise. Find Osteria Marco, go down into its embrace and eat until you pop.
1453 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
When he took on this difficult spot a few months ago, Frank Bonanno — who already owns and very personally runs two of Denver's best restaurants, Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, and recently bailed on a couple more questionable enterprises — worked hard to put everything vital and defining about Osteria Marco at ground level, taking full advantage of every inch of the strangely shaped space. First and foremost, there's the pig: nature's most delicious creation and incontrovertible proof that the food gods love us and want us to be happy. Then there's the sign with the word "Osteria" — which can mean many things, but here translates to "a place to drink wine and get weird and eat of the hog."
Just inside the heavy, dark doors, on the other side of Osteria Marco's only window, is the garde manger station — removed from the kitchen in a turn of something like genius and placed almost right out on the street. There's a beautiful, candy-apple red rotary meat slicer, a second squat, silver slicer with all the style of a battleship's bulkhead, a short stretch of butcher's block, some shin-level cooler space. During pre-opening exertions, back when Bonanno and his wife, Jacqueline, along with partners Ryan Gaudin and Jean-Philippe Failyau and the rest of the crew, were trying to quickly transform this former crab shack into a little piece of Alto Adige with nothing but sweat, fervent prayer and lots of money, they considered putting the massive rotisserie oven in the front window so that people could see the rosticceria menu being created — with whole chickens, prime ribs of beef, suckling pigs and legs of lamb, glazed in jus, turning round and round under the lamps. But instead, Bonanno put the big oven downstairs behind the ad hoc salumi bar and installed the garde manger station in the window.
He made the right choice. Not only are there some people (madmen, vegans, radical animal-rights activists, impressionable young children) who would most definitely not want to see a baby pig making its slow, glaze-eyed transit on the spike, there are others (like me) who might be tempted to just stand there all day licking the glass.
Besides, a good garde manger man or charcutier is a walking, talking advertisement for deliciousness — an all-day, all-night commercial for your menu. I've walked by Marco and been stricken by visions as timeless as cuisine itself: the gleam of soft light on the chrome pasta roller and a girl with mauled, line cook's fingers and the grace of a concert pianist rolling and cutting handmade pastas beside a snowdrift of flour; hands raising the olive oil bottle high for the perfect, lacy pour across a plate of Parmacotto mortadella; a cook laying his weight against the slicer's works, humping it, with forearm pressed to the guard and free hand waiting beneath the blade for that one, wisp-thin piece of San Danielle prosciutto to fall. You see that, and there's no question about what you're walking into once you pass under the cold eyes of King Pig.
But on a first, early visit to Osterio Marco, my server seemed completely mystified by the way the menu was supposed to work. To my way of thinking, Bonanno's menu is near perfect, with cheese and salumi and antipasti taking up more than half the board, the rest occupied by pizzas and paninis made with rotisserie meats. You're supposed to get a little of this and a little of that — but a portion of salame off the slicer was simply too skimpy, and I could have skipped the burnt bread and wilted salad. But there was also cow's-milk ricotta still warm from the cheesemaker's hand, hauntingly sweet; a rough and rustic margherita pizza made with San Marzano tomatoes, fruity-sweet and coddled, and basil and homemade mozzarella; and rotisserie chicken stung with a blessedly spare and strong lemon-caper sauce. Every restaurant takes time to find itself, and I was willing to wait — although not exactly patient.