Not many restaurateurs reach the ten-year mark. Of those who do, some throw a party and carry on, assuming that if the restaurant ain’t broke, there’s no reason to fix it. Others use the anniversary as an excuse to redecorate or expand. Then there’s Andrea Frizzi, who celebrated in the manner you’d expect from a native Italian whose blunt, endearing machismo is outmatched only by his culinary skills. “You have to jump when it’s fucking scary,” he says. And jump he did, closing the nearly decade-old Il Posto after service on New Year’s Eve and reopening it in January, just nine days later.
In that week and a half, everything changed. Despite perennially strong fare, the original Il Posto felt increasingly sidelined in Uptown, a neighborhood with plenty of fine restaurants, but close enough to City Park to feel sleepy at night. The space was humble, homey, cramped, with hardly enough room for Frizzi to make his rounds in the dining room, much less for cooks on the line to spread out. In contrast, the new Il Posto is situated on the same high-traffic block in RiNo as Denver Central Market, home of Frizzi’s casual pizzeria, Vero. Three times the size of the original, it boasts design elements with the wow factor of the candela, a flickering beef-fat candle that drips into puddles of garlicky richness intended to be sopped up with crusty bread.
Black, gold and clear orbs wind on thick copper wires, glowing and waving near the ceiling like octopus arms. Mezzanine tables — for once, not a restaurant’s equivalent of no-man’s-land — offer spectacular views of the twinkling skyline. Round booths with impossibly tall backs echo that skyline, letting in just enough noise from the bar — also a first for Il Posto — to bring in energy without compromising intimacy. A two-story glass door swivels with all the heft and grandeur of a palace entry. Best of all is the word wall, with black 3-D letters spelling out quotes reflecting Frizzi’s beliefs — “great food is an accumulation of small details” — and inviting guests to treat the kitchen to whiskey. The only improvement would be to add still more quotes filled with Frizzi’s boundless passion and candor, such as these from a recent conversation: “I’m from Milano! I’m risotto! I’m like 69 percent water and 10 percent risotto!” or “Holy fuck, that sounds great!”
Given all the changes in size, neighborhood and decor, I wondered if the Il Posto I’d loved over the years would be gone, replaced by a restaurant with lots more glamour but none of the soul of its predecessor. I needn’t have worried: Frizzi’s changes only polished up the rough edges, keeping — dare I say improving — all that was integral. Critical to that stability is the culinary brain trust: Frizzi, of course, plus culinary director Mario Pacheco and chef de cuisine Wes Park. Never ones to play it safe, this trio pushed boundaries even in Il Posto’s tiny former home, focusing on Frizzi’s “simple and sophisticated” fare with menus that changed nightly. Although the new menu is more stable, the emphasis remains the same. Thus Il Posto follows in the footsteps of Italian chefs cooking in Italy for locals, using tradition to take their country’s cuisine forward, not preserve it in time.
Instead of touristy repetitions of cacio e pepe and bucatini all’Amatriciana, you find a play on spaghetti, with slender, housemade noodles draped with strands of spaghetti squash and generously appointed with sweet crab, asparagus tips, chiles and leeks. Twirling both threads together, one wheat, one vegetable, gives you a new gustatory encounter, one that’s organically fun. Cheap thrills such as foams and popcorn garnishes aren’t this team’s thing, but they clearly delight in handling ingredients so you see them anew. Peas imbue panna cotta with the subtle sweetness of a spring afternoon. Chicken chicharrones turn a haystack of carrots, radishes, frisée and pickled ramps into a side that stands up to the perfectly crisped branzino alongside it. Strawberries venture from the realm of dessert and become foils of luxury, out-seducing even the creamiest of grains in a robiola-pine nut risotto. And that’s saying something, considering all the pampering bestowed on these grains, which are worth every minute of the 25 or so you’ll spend waiting for them. The wait is more bearable if you order your risotto first, long before you consider the assaggini (tastes), primi and secondi. Sommeliers — there are two, one for downstairs, one for the mezzanine — do their best to ease the wait, conversing warmly and knowledgeably, confidently suggesting not just a wine, but a dish that you and the server might have overlooked, and at times pouring a little extra in your wine by the glass, just because they can.
With more space to prep and more people to do it, the new Il Posto delivers plates that are more fully realized versions of themselves and more beautiful than ever. Housemade burrata dimples when you push it, its skin somehow containing the impossibly creamy cheese within. The ball is generously portioned, too, the gift a grandmother would give to her secret favorite. Octopus carpaccio, listed as polpo, would make chef de cuisine Park famous if people knew it was his. Sliced as thin as a whisper, the polpo stars in one of the loveliest dishes you’ll ever eat: white octopus circles pressed into purple potatoes like stained glass, finished with lemon and topped with bands of orange kumquats, red chiles and crinkly purple potato chips. The only regressions came in the dessert department: a molded panna cotta had the look and texture of a tire swing, while doughnuts were sprinkled with shockingly pink fairy dust reminiscent of strawberry Jell-O.
Steeped in old-time techniques, the kitchen knows when to draw on tradition for maximum effect, such as spiking the brodo lapping at roast chicken with pungent parmesan rinds, as is commonly done with minestrone. The resulting broth is sweet, nutty and comforting, and it’s the real reason servers talk up the chicken the way they do, without a hint of exaggeration. Risotto is still cooked to order, despite the restaurant’s increased volume. To do otherwise would be to disrespect the dish, and Frizzi sees disrespect in every thick, gummy version he encounters elsewhere. Restaurants “are using the ‘risotto’ word,” says Frizzi. “I want to sue them for fraud.” Respect even dictates how this risotto should be eaten: clockwise, from the outside in, so it doesn’t cool down too fast and tighten up.
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Most recipes on the new menu are lifted from Il Posto archives, but given the historic pace of change, guests might not remember all of them. (The candela, for example, came out only at special events.) But one longtime staple that guests are sure to recall fondly is pappardelle with pork-marjoram ragu. In its many steps, the dish — borrowed from Frizzi’s mother — recalls the long stages of childhood and the motherly love that carries you through them: wide noodles blanketed with Berkshire pork, patiently splashed first with wine, then milk, and finally marjoram-scented San Marzanos.
Moving was obviously a big risk. But the scariest jump, the one that allowed Il Posto to emerge better than ever, involved something far less obvious: Frizzi’s ability to trust his talented team. “It took a long time to get my ego in check,” admits the chef, who’s been in the business since he was thirteen. “I call it maturity.”
In restaurants as in life, that characteristic always pays off.
2601 Larimer Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and
5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday,
5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Select Menu Items:
Polpo carpaccio $18
Pea panna cotta $10