Denver has a strong Italian heritage, and the northern part of the city, in particular, once played host to dozens of red-sauce joints offering competing versions of spaghetti and meatballs to loyal patrons who made the bars their neighborhood hangouts. Those original restaurants are dwindling in number, but Denver still has a few holdouts -- as well as a handful of newer spots that have moved in to fill the gaps.
When we think of neighborhood Italian, we think of comfort food in an unpretentious atmosphere. And if that's what you're craving, here are Denver's five best spots.
5. Mama Sanninos Once you inventory the wall-to-wall kitsch, the menu of classic red-sauce Italian and the friendly lunchtime crowd at Mama Sanninos, you may very well conclude that the restaurant has been around forever. It hasn't -- the joint has only been at this address for six years -- but Jimmy Sannino's family owned another iconic Denver Italian restaurant, 3 Sons, for four decades, and he's brought that heritage, as well as 3 Sons's original recipes, to this charming spot in an Arvada strip mall.
4. Patsy's Stepping into Patsy's is like stepping into the past: The dining room and the saloon, with its giant wooden bar, are bathed in shadows -- which cover some, but not all, of the spot's weathered shininess on the walls and tables and wooden booths. The original dining room has been a regular spot for north Denver neighbors since the 1920s, and it's still the best place to sit and enjoy a classic plate of spaghetti and meatballs: a tangle of fat, chewy homemade noodles and fat, juicy meatballs, infused with parmesan, smothered in a thick, savory marinara that reeks of garlic and basil. If you dare, order it spicy, with red-pepper flakes adding a tingling lift to the rib-sticking heartiness of the pasta.
3. Il Posto Chef Andrea Frizzi keeps things simple at his breezy trattoria on 17th Avenue. A chalkboard menu changes daily, incorporating seasonal finds and imported ingredients from his native Italy into stunning risotti, tagliatelle with housemade noodles, osso bucco and beautiful displays of meat and cheese. Meals start with lambrusco, end with grappa and everything in between progresses at a leisurely, Italian pace. As a result, Il Posto feels like a neighborhood joint, but it pulls crowds from across the city.
2. Gaetano's Restaurant Gaetano's has always been a neighborhood joint, though the neighborhood has definitely changed from the days when this restaurant was owned by the Smaldones, Denver's legendary organized-crime family that served up red-sauce Italian and specialized in illicit ventures behind closed doors. Today, the Wynkoop group owns the spot, and while its made some cheesy updates to the space -- including the slogan "Italian to die for" -- the bar remains a great place to nurse a glass of wine and chat with neighbors. A constant influx of patrons cycles through the doors, grabbing booths where they can feast on spaghetti in spicy, garlicky arrabiata sauce and meatballs the size of billiard balls.
1. Locanda del Borgo Chef Giancarlo Macchiarella has 25 years of experience in Italian cooking, and he's mastered the art of creating simple, comforting dishes. His menu at Locanda del Borgo includes hand-rolled pastas, housemade ravioli, stunning cioppino and a pretty stellar plate of spaghetti and meatballs. And he serves it up in digs that are both comfortable and classy, great for just about any occasion and any day of the week. That's what earned the spot our Best Neighborhood Italian award in the Best of Denver 2011.
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