Frank Bonanno admits he's a "dick" when it comes to court battles with the health department
Opinionated. Tenacious. Temperamental. And, at times, a "dick," especially when he's in a courtroom arguing his case on front of a judge, who's presiding over the latest infraction levied against him by the Denver Department of Environmental Health, with whom Frank Bonanno, who owns Luca d'Italia, Mizuna, Bones, Lou's Food Bar, Russell's Smokehouse, Green Russell, Wednesday's Pie and Osteria Marco, has had an ongoing caustic relationship.
Two months ago, I was in the courtroom with Bonanno, while he attempted to explain to a judge why cheese -- namely burrata -- should be served at room temperature, rather than at 41 degrees, which is the legal requirement. It was one of several violations that landed him in court that day. Bonanno has been unabashedly outspoken against the policies of the Denver Department of Environmental Health for the last year, even posting a missive on his blog aimed at Danica Lee, the department's food program manager, who's also inspected several of Bonanno's restaurants.
But he didn't stop there: Matt Rodbard, a contributing editor of Food Republic, an online site devoted to food, drinks, design, travel and politics, was recently in Denver, where he embarked on a five-hour, five-restaurant binge, allocating some of his spare time in the Mile High City to shoot the shit with Bonanno, who tells Rodbard, among other things, that if the department of health is going to waste his time, it's no skin off his back to waste theirs.
Read on for Bonanno's other musings.
Let's get to this Danica Lee of the Denver Department of Environmental Health. You're probably not going to name your next restaurant "Danica," right? So what is the problem right now with her and the way that restaurants are being fined in Denver?
I think it's just a matter of the city finding a source for revenue. It used to be that the Health Department used to work with you to make the restaurant safer, and now they just don't work with you. They come in and are looking for a fine. We had a health inspection at Green Russell for two hours and 15 minutes and they couldn't find anything. She walks out the back door, goes down a hall into a door that we're not even allowed to touch because it's Larimer Square's door. It's a back door that comes down from a flight of stairs outside. "You don't have a sweep on that. A rodent could get in there." Critical violation and she was out the door.
This is why you were in court today?
No, I was in court for having burrata at 46 degrees.
Is that a safe temperature?
I would prefer to serve burrata at around 72 degrees. I would prefer to serve all cheese between 58 and 72 degrees. It's like wine and I don't think that it's going to get anyone sick. The Health Department has an agenda and they won't admit that this is their agenda. My one solace is that I fight every fine that I get. If I get a $250 fine like I got today, Bob McDonald, the head of the Health Department, showed up. Two inspectors, including Danica Lee, showed up. I got a judge and two court people and we were there for an hour and a half. I figure all those people's salaries together probably equal what my fine is. I figure, if they waste my time, I'll waste their time. Sometimes I know I'm not going to win, but if all these people show up just for me...
And they've ramped up their fines because of a budget shortage?
No one will admit that. What else could it be, though? For 10 years, I have operated these restaurants without any critical violations. I guess if you're Lon and you're new to the city and this started right when you opened, you don't have any course. But if you sit down and ask Alex [Seidel] if it was like this three years ago, he's going to say absolutely not.
We used to feed them! If the health inspector came at three, we used to ask if they would like to sit and have family meal. We used to have a great relationship. I used to have an unbelievably great relationship with Danica Lee until all of this started, and she doesn't like me going to court and I'm kind of a dick when we're there and I'll ask all the questions. They're nervous and I'm not because I public speak all the time, and I can trip them up very easily. The problem is also very black and white because at the end of the day, the judge just says, "The law says 41 degrees and this inspector measured it at 46." So the judge who hears this kind of has his hands tied.
He's probably been to some of your restaurants. Judges like to eat good food.
He says no [laughs]. Because with the burrata, I asked him if he's ever had cheese at room temperature and he was like, "What?" And I asked, "You've never had brie at room temperature?" and he just didn't know how to answer.
They need money in Denver, clearly.
Well, Denver is almost bankrupt. You have to find a source. I'm sure speeding and parking tickets have risen. I haven't done that research, but I know from the amount of fines and citations. The funniest thing is that they will tell you it's all about getting everyone to be compliant, but they're not even being consistent. Like, you've inspected Green Russell six times but that back door sweep was never in violation until today, but you're the same inspector that's always been here and so you're going to need to go and find something. Why wasn't that a critical on your first visit? Why didn't you notice that on your first visit?
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.