The List: Team Bonanno
My review of Bones -- Frank Bonanno's new restaurant at 701 Grant Street -- was a love letter, a total crush note from one shameless omnivore to another, to the kind of guy who would put bone marrow, ice cream, escargot and udon all on the same menu, from the kind of guy who would gladly eat all of that in a single sitting.
After I finished the review, I got to thinking about Bonanno's other restaurants in town -- both those still operating and those that failed, and it occured to me that Bonanno has never put his weight behind a restaurant that was just okay. He either runs restaurants that immediately take their place among the top tier of the city's best -- or die humiliating and ignominious deaths in full view of the public. The man simply does not work in half measures; his joints either dominate or suck out loud.
Here's how they shake out for me, in order of their appearance:
Mizuna, 2001, 225 East Seventh Avenue. Mizuna was Frank's first restaurant, and it remains his flagship. It is his training house -- the address from which he draws talent for staffing up his other operations -- and his darling. In a very general sense, Mizuna is a kind of French-Mediterranean restaurant, but it is really Bonanno's laboratory: a house that consistently reinvents itself with every menu change, driven by a high-octane kitchen staffed by some of the best station chefs in the city.
Luca d'Italia, 2003, 711 Grant Street. Italian, with Italian influences and an Italian sensibility flavored with notes of Italy. Whereas Mizuna may gleefully jump back and forth across borders, Luca stays true to its target concept with the focus of a sniper. What's more, Luca was (in my opinion) the restaurant that pushed Denver into a popular appreciation of modern Italian food. Seriously, before Bonanno opened this place, there was nowhere in this city to get thoughtful, high-end Italian food that didn't taste like it was being cooked by a spiteful Frenchman or some ham-fisted coked-out shoemaker. There was some good neighborhood Italian grub, but Luca was the first place in the city to treat modern Italian cuisine with the respect it deserved.
Milagro Taco Bar, 2005, 1700 Vine Street. Bonanno had this idea: He wanted to do a Mexican restaurant, a real Mexican restaurant, like El Taco de Mexico, only friendly and with booze and real chefs in the kitchen fussing with the tacos and chimis. After months of dithering, dealing with partners and trying to put together a menu, Milagro was what we got. Unfortunately, the place was a total embarrassment -- starting out weak and fading from there. By the end, it was doing ladies nights and shot specials just to get people in the door, and while I would gladly dress in falsies and a nice dress if it would get me a table faster or a couple bucks knocked off my bil at some of Bonanno's other restaurantsl, I wouldn't have brought one of my exes to this place even if I'd been feeling particularly vengeful.
Harry's Chop House, 2005, 2115 East 17th Avenue. Remember Harry's? That's okay. Neither does anyone else.
Osteria Marco, 2007, 1453 Larimer Street. Back on track by the end of '07, Bonanno debuted his ode to all things pork-er-ific on Larimer Square, and it's been busy since day one. Osteria Marco was a can't-miss concept: a proper neighborhood osteria and wine bar with plenty of little snacks, a solid wine list, nice pizzas and all sorts of handmade Italian specialties. Even being in a basement couldn't hurt this place, and it remains one of Bonanno's most open and honest expressions of his love for simple food left the fuck alone.
Bones, 2008 (by a day or so), 701 Grant Street. Just brilliant. Japanese/Chinese/French/Italian/Mediterranean/American fusion, almost goofy in its excesses and not much bigger than a big closet. Seriously, I've seen professional kitchens bigger than the entire floor at Bones, but that doesn't matter. Because I love this place more every single time I go there, and if I could figure a way to do it without dying, I'd put this kitchen's suckling pig Chinese buns into an IV bag so I could ingest them in my sleep.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.