Bread Alert

My two young daughters and I were playing ladies who lunch the other day when the four-year-old suddenly pointed at what was obviously a hard-as-a-brick loaf of bread in the window next to our table. "Can we eat that?" she asked. "No," I said. "It's just there for decoration."

"Why?" she wanted to know.
Sometimes it takes a four-year-old to cut to the chase. Why, indeed?
I tried to explain that Panzano probably put the bread in the window so the restaurant would look more rustic, more Italian, more authentic. From the look on her face, I wasn't doing a very good job. By the time I'd launched into an analogy between the bread and how when she plays Barbies she likes to put dandelions in Dixie cups in order to make the playhouse resemble our house, my daughter was giving me that look that I know will strike terror in my heart ten years from now. It clearly said, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

The truth is, I have no idea why Panzano thought it was a good idea to put loaves of bread that you can't eat in the windows. Maybe it does give the place an Italian feel--but after several meals there, I found myself wishing the food coming out of the kitchen was a little more real, too. Oh, it all sounds Italian, with the menu listing such dishes as pesce del giorno and penne al forno, and it all smells Italian, right down to the wood-burning pizza oven. The attractive restaurant space in the beautiful, eight-month-old Hotel Monaco looks Italian, with its open kitchens, Sistine Chapel-like ceiling frescoes, Tuscan-yellow faux-finish walls and fake loaves--and, of course, Panzano calls itself Italian.

But does it taste Italian? For the most part, a meal here is as Old World as Old Spice aftershave. While I found a few of the dishes quite good, they didn't resemble anything I'd ever eaten in Italy. Overall, the food smacks of a chef trying to get attention--but not paying enough attention in the kitchen.

That chef is Ben Davis, who studied classical French at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco before working at the renowned Campton Place Hotel. He helped open San Francisco's visually stunning, food-savvy Cypress Club in 1990; by the time he left there five years later, he was the chef de cuisine. More recently, Davis had teamed up with two other chefs--always a difficult ego trip--at Mel's Bar and Grill, where he was instrumental in fine-tuning the Mediterranean focus.

But all that resume means is that Davis should know better than to stand in an exhibition kitchen and wipe the rims of plate after plate with the same dirty rag.

Fortunately, I witnessed that after our meal was just about over. It had started with real bread from Panzano's in-house bakery: herb-dotted focaccia, a dense walnut bread and a thick, chewy, rustic-style loaf. Crafted in textbook style, they looked much better than they tasted; all three lacked both character and flavor. More successful was the accompanying tapenade, a chunky mix of sun-dried tomatoes, olives and capers with a salty bite. Better still was the assortment of amuses bouches that Davis sent out, a bruschetta of sorts covered with razor-thin shards of prosciutto and capers for me; for the girls, plates of delicately cut fruit with raspberry-coulis smiley faces painted alongside. Nice touch. (Panzano also got big bonus points for providing us with miniature Etch-a-Sketches, wooden puzzles and plenty of ooh-you're-so-cute attention from the staff.)

The best dish in the place came next: the Cesare salad ($6.50) (which rated a Best of Denver honor in last week's issue). This classic Caesar brought a generous portion (for the price, it should have been) of cold, crisp romaine, each leaf of which had been gently cut (that's important, too, because it's no fun to wrestle with unwieldly lettuce) and then coated with a rich, creamy, anchovy-salted, garlic-punched dressing. The salad was studded with fried capers (the frying took away some of the buds' bite and gave them an attractive texture) and a grana-type cheese and garnished with well-seasoned, house-made croutons. We wolfed it down, and then my daughters fought over the last bits as if the dressing-drenched cheese slivers were the highly prized soggy, grease-soaked fries at McDonald's.

The ribollita ($4.50) that followed was a big disappointment. In Tuscany, the concept is to create a Monday meal from Sunday night's supper; for example, beef stew with carrots and onions the first day is reconstituted with rice or bread and beans the next. But at Panzano, the soup was an unappetizing bright orange, incredibly salty, speckled with herbs that offered nothing, and so thick with bread cubes that I quit eating about four bites into the bowl in order to save room for the main course. And I was glad I did, because the risotto con funghi e treviso ($11.75) was a musky marvel. Wild mushrooms had released their essence--and, it seemed to me, the chef had added some truffle oil--into a convincing risotto, double-cooked, creamy and thoroughly yielding. Radicchio the consistency of creamed spinach brought a bitter bite to cut the richness of the dish, and thyme provided an important flavor boost.

A second lunch entree, the piccata di vitello ($10.50), was nothing more--or less--than old-fashioned veal piccata. The thin medallions of ultra-tender meat had been cloaked in a traditional caper-sparked lemon sauce that boasted the unusual addition of sun-dried tomatoes. The tomatoes were a mistake: They hadn't been soaked or cooked long enough, and their annoying chewiness detracted from an otherwise good dish.

With two kids, dessert was not just desirable, it was a promised good-behavior bribe. And they earned the trio of gelato ($4.50) in sublime pistachio, chocolate and coffee flavors. We also devoured a delectable chocolate tower ($5.75), a thin cylinder of good-quality chocolate encasing a thick, mousse-like substance.

But then I saw Davis wiping those dishes and almost lost my lunch.
When I returned for dinner, he was on better behavior. And I did a better job of ordering: We skipped the bread and headed straight for the Caesar. More capers arrived with another starter, the mozzarella del giorno ($7.50): spinach-stuffed cheese that was freshly made, almost velvety in texture and deliciously creamy. The cheese-covered slices of bread that had been dried into crackers and then--sadly--slicked with what smelled and tasted like rancid olive oil. Although we left most of the cheese on the plate, our server, who otherwise was quite attentive, never bothered to ask why. And by then we'd moved on to the capesante arrosto all salvia e rosmarino ($9.50). That's a long way of saying "scallop appetizer," although the sauteed bivalves were also succulent, satiny and a host of other "s" words, including sage-flavored.

Few of the menu's secondi offerings stood out. We gambled--and lost--on the gamberi al limone ($17.50): chewy, overcooked jumbo shrimp that had been sauteed in lemon juice and garlic with spinach and button mushrooms. Why button? Why bother? The other entree, filetto di cervo ($18.95), had an intriguing port-blackberry sauce, a decadent reduction that didn't really go with the venison. But I could have dispensed with the meat altogether, since the four medallions were skinny and missing the promised thyme crust. The menu had also mentioned parmesan creamed onions; we found precisely three stingy scraps on the plate.

But once again, dessert was generous in both portion and flavor. Another round of gelato played well off an intense chocolate terrine ($6), studded with pistachios and centered with one bitter wad of candied ginger. Surprise!

During two meals, Panzano's performance had been surprisingly uneven--and so I returned for one more round. This dinner got off to a good start with the salsiccia pizze ($8.95), an abundance of house-made fennel sausage, goat cheese and arugula toppings sitting on a thin, crispy-crackly crust. But the ossobuco alla Milanese ($20.95) was awful: A small part of a veal shank had been braised with white wine, then sided with a disastrous saffron risotto that tasted as though someone had accidentally dumped raw rice into the cooked, so tooth-breakingly hard were some of the grains. There was a similar problem with barely cooked cranberry beans in the orecchiette con pollo alla Calabrese ($11.25). The "little ear pasta"--that's orecchiette--was fine, but the braised chicken was dry, there was way too much rosemary in the dish, and the beans were like little rocks.

After that, we almost didn't have the heart to try dessert. But our courage was rewarded with a tiramisu ($5.50) so spectacular that we ordered two more rounds of the espresso-laden ladyfingers, which were padded with amaretto-spiked mascarpone. Hey, Mom cannot live by faux bread alone.

Like my girls, Panzano is trying to act grown up. But this restaurant has a lot of work ahead if it really wants to play with the big boys.

Panzano, 909 17th Street, 303-296-3525. Hours: 7-10:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7-10:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday.

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