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Locanda del Borgo, which chef Giancarlo Macchiarella (a native of Italy, ex of Tavolaccio in Edwards and Farfalla in Aspen) opened a year and a half ago, has an open kitchen. A wide-open kitchen, laid out like a gastro-porn centerfold. If the little window peeking in on the line at Lala's (which I reviewed two weeks ago) is the demure and teasing Playboy spread, then the kitchen at Locanda del Borgo is something out of Screw — bare and exposed and hiding nothing. It has a menu that writes in broad strokes, refusing to specialize or to culinarily economize. Little bites on the top offer prosciutto with olives and marinated artichokes, bruscetta, fritto misto (a fisherman's platter of squid, scallops, shrimp, artichokes and zucchini, all fried) and straccetti — a Roman stir-fry of beef "tatters" and arugula (used frequently at Locanda del Borgo the way Picasso used the color blue: notably, and to devastatingly good effect), topped with sweated onions and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, all served over that most Venetian of staples: the grilled polenta cake. There are salads and soups (cannellini bean with bits of pasta like a perfectly rustic lunch of long-simmering leftovers), a daily scallopine special, chickens from the grill with fingerling potatoes and Swiss chard, and pizzas from a blazing, smoky, single-bay oven that, ten years ago, would've driven Denver's foodies into paroxysms of drooling joy because it would have been such a good and proper rarity, but today is simply right.
The room is both plain and lovely, the tables sitting on a stone floor, polished silver and gleaming wine glasses sitting on the tables. It has an energy that makes pointless any adornment, any distraction from the dance in the kitchen and the play of flavors on the plate. I could go an entire night at Locanda del Borgo without noticing whether it had a roof or paint on the walls or even any other customers, simply because I care only for what is placed in front of me — wine list first, to order the ubiquitous Tempranillo Rioja, then menu, then plate after plate after plate. The servers are friendly, solicitous but never intrusive. Questions are answered with — wonder of wonders — correct information (no, the straccetti isn't served raw, yes, it is Roman, and the kitchen would be more than happy to alter that pizza to your liking, sir...) and genuine friendliness. Even on slow nights, the floor seems alive. And on busy nights, it feels like something just to the left of the center of the universe.
5575 E. 3rd Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Region: East Denver
I showed up early for dinner on a cold night to eat meatballs (veal and Angus beef, rolled small and cooked in a bath of thinned red sauce) and polenta and spicy orecchiette with pesto and Italian sausage, because every server seems to recommend it whenever a customer seems temporarily stunned by option paralysis. The meatballs were delicious (I now sometimes order a second round to go and eat them on my couch at home) and the grilled polenta exactly what I've been craving since several restaurants in a row had fucked it up for me. But I never got my orecchiette: The kitchen was running a special of spaghetti carbonara instead, and I was a sucker for the soft sell. What came was a beautiful tangle of thick spaghetti, creamy, egg-thickened sauce and sweet, caramelized pancetta like pork candy. The smell of it was so heady and so strong that I could've made a meal out of it alone, and the carbonara so good that I felt it in my chest like joy, in my brain like the closing of a door, like never having to wonder where to go for carbonara again.
On another night, ricotta gnocchi with speck, peppery arugula and a parmesan sauce as deep and intriguing as the bottom of a cream ocean. Yet another night, pizza: capricciosa, with a quivering sunny-side-up egg in the middle. I've tried the spaghetti and meatballs, which was good, not great, with the sauce used as an accent rather than a theme, and the lasagna, layered with soft sheets of rolled pasta, béchamel and browned meat. I keep promising to get to the bowl of clams and mussels in a garlic-tomato broth, the shrimp risotto, the whole striped bass served tableside, pulled to pieces and set with roasted vegetables and potatoes: comfort food for those who live surrounded by the threatening sea and take their sustenance from the interstices between water and earth.
All this food, and never once did I think of myself as anywhere but in Denver, as anywhere but in a city that, over five or six years or seven, has gone from nothing to this. Locanda del Borgo inspired in me no dreams of running off to the Italian countryside, no visions of the coast, no fantasies of being anywhere other than where I was — rooted in the moment, planted behind my plate.
Because now that we have learned and now that we know better — now, when I can get food like this in Denver — why should I dream of being anywhere else?
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