Denver is witnessing an explosion of Italian restaurants, with new openings and anticipated debuts in the next few months coming like a shower of Parmesan cheese — including Chow Morso, Dio Mio, Tavernetta, Cattivella and Marcella's, to name a few. With all the competition, Italian eateries have to be at the top of their game to keep customers rolling in. Here are the ten best Italian restaurants in metro Denver right now, listed in alphabetical order.
2227 W. 32nd Avenue
To mistake Juan and Katie Padro's Italian eatery, which opened right next door to their Highland Tap & Burger in the fall of 2015, for just another wood-fired pizza joint would be to miss out on the Italian and Italian-American fare from chef-partner Max MacKissock, who not so long ago thrilled Denver palates at the Squeaky Bean (another of our favorites, but definitely not Italian). This time around, MacKissock is channeling his younger days as a chef in Italy and New York, creating sophisticated dishes, knockout pastas and wood-fired pizzas that veer just enough from Neapolitan tradition to capture a style distinct to Bar Dough's kitchen. Add to that a long, stately bar serving Italian wines, beers and spritzes concocted with housemade sodas, and you've got a racy little joint akin to a top-down vintage Fiat (only without all those pesky mechanical issues).
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
Chef/owner Kelly Whitaker learned how to make pizza in Italy, sleeping on the floor of a venerable pizzeria in Naples to be close to his fire, then brought that knowledge to Boulder, where he opened Basta and proceeded to show everyone how good a gourmet pie can be. He makes his dough using a fifty-year-old starter from Naples, sources as many ingredients as he can from local suppliers, farmers and vendors, pickles his own vegetables, crafts his own mozzarella and ricotta, cures his own pancetta, and makes his own sausage. But pizza is only a small part of Whitaker's repertoire; everything on the menu is cooked in Basta's wood-burning oven: a selection of seasonal and rustic small plates — all kissed with smoke — and a few larger plates that focus on simplicity and the ingredients at hand. And he also recognizes that it’s not all about cooking: “Hospitality is about serving people – not yourself,” he says. “If you don’t like serving people, then you shouldn’t be cooking.”
3030 East Sixth Avenue
Barolo Grill changed ownership from founder Blair Taylor to longtime manager Ryan Fletter in May 2015. Under Fletter, the wine program is still a priority and the staff still takes annual trips to Italy to taste, learn and absorb the history of the country's food and wine. With chef de cuisine Darrel Truett overseeing a largely Piedmont-inspired menu, the posh Cherry Creek North favorite, now 22 years old, has not only reaffirmed its relevance to the Denver dining scene, but it's evolved into an even better restaurant.
400 East 20th Avenue
Brother-and-sister team Paul and Aileen Reilly couldn’t have picked a better spot for Coperta, their Italian followup to Beast + Bottle. Its location across from Benedict Fountain Park means that after a leisurely meal, you can walk out the door, belly full of wine and pasta and cheese, and engage in that most Italian of traditions: the passeggiata, or evening stroll. Prior to launch, the pair traveled widely throughout Rome and points south, and came home with a menu that includes several knockout dishes, including chewy cavatelli with meat ragù, bucatini all'amatriciana with salty nubs of guanciale, and polenta, which defies its humble origins with a richness that comes from butter and leftover whey. Chicken isn’t always the most exciting dish on a menu, but Coperta’s pollo allo diavolo makes you reconsider that assumption: Diavolo means “devil,” and this wood-charred half-chicken lives up to its name, fiery from its chile marinade, Calabrian chiles and the red-tinged chile oil ringing the plate. The Reillys have brought interesting touches to their newest restaurant, such as spuzzulia, a chef’s-choice selection of off-menu nibbles, and a mozzarella bar, which allows you to build your own cheese plate with add-ons from Sienese peppers to fig vincotto.
Frasca Food & Wine
1738 Pearl Street, Boulder
After all the gushing, all the awards, Frasca still remains the best we've got. Some people would say that the expectations are too high, that no restaurant can possibly live up to such standards. But those people would be wrong. Frasca stands in the top tier of restaurants not just locally, but nationally. The service is better, the knowledge deeper, the menu broader and brighter than sometimes seems possible. And yet Frasca still feels like a special place meant just for you. That's because owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson ignore all the hype and just focus on the next table, the next plate, the next glass of wine. And the Friulian inspiration that guides the menu still allows for modern interpretation and innovation, keeping Frasca fresh even after more than a decade.
Keep reading for the rest of our list of Denver's best Italian restaurants...
2011 East 17th Avenue
For nearly a decade, chef/owner Andrea Frizzi has been watching over Il Posto, his traditional Italian trattoria crammed between other bars and restaurants along East 17th Avenue. But his restaurant stands out. The dining room is alive with bodies, light and noise; the action in the open kitchen is entertaining to watch; and the always-new menu -– listed on a single sheet of paper -– may be small, but it includes dishes that can be brilliant. (The risotto -– made to order -– and calamari never disappoint.) Although there have been some changes over the years, what hasn’t changed is the kitchen’s commitment to technique, its exquisite sourcing, and the dominant presence of Frizzi. Though not often behind the burners, he stands guard in the busy corridor between open kitchen and tables, making sure that Il Posto lives up to its commitment of serving classic Italian cuisine. We look forward to how Frizzi's restaurant will evolve when Il Posto moves to a modern new space on Larimer Street in the coming months.
711 Grant Street
Frank Bonanno doesn't cook anything that's not memorable. What's more, he's fearless. And Luca's menu is designed for gluttonous abandon, arranged for wild flights of pairing and sharing, set up in an attempt to make people eat the way the Italians do — with several courses of small plates leading up to the entrees. The portions are small, the combinations divine, and while you may get lucky and hit some of the best choices following the old app-entree-dessert structure, it works better just to eat and keep eating until you can't hold any more.
909 17th Street
This is not your usual hotel restaurant. The culinary team at Panzano has as its motto "Chi mangia bene, viva bene" (Those who eat well, live well), and although we can't guarantee how you'll live, or even sleep, at the Hotel Monaco, you can certainly live it up in the elegant yet comfortable dining room that specializes in perfectly prepared northern Italian cuisine. In addition to the impressive menu, there are regular specials, and the attached bar has both an excellent happy hour and a few very cozy booths that are just the spot to sip martinis. Under new executive chef Patrick Kelly, Panzano continues to impress with housemade pastas and luxurious presentations.
2900 W. 25th Avenue
Sarto means “tailor” in Italian, and when owners Taylor and Kajsa Swallow opened the space in fall 2014, they explored that very concept with the cicchetti bar; it sets the restaurant apart with small plates tailor-made to guests' preferences. Start with an Aperol or Campari spritzer; you’ll be primed for the drink after seeing the red bottles set like pop art on white shelves above the bar. Move on to prosciutto di Parma, grilled octopus or a bracing arugula salad made briny with white anchovies before settling in with heartier fare such as a flame-kissed Duroc pork chop, tuna with striking black risotto, housemade pastas, or even a wedge of lasagna that would make mama proud. There's nothing homey about the dining room, though; cool whites and soothing grays with splashes of orange make for an elegant ambience. Sarto's is a modern Italian eatery just right for an old Italian neighborhood.
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2639 West 32nd Avenue
Spuntino is Italian for “snacks,” but this Highland restaurant has grown far beyond snacks; when chef Cindhura Reddy and general manager Elliot Strathmann (who were both already employees of the restaurant) purchased Spuntino in September 2014, they put their own stamp on the Italian-inspired menu featuring medium-priced Italian dishes that emphasize local, seasonal ingredients and handmade pasta. One of Spuntino's signature proteins is Colorado goat, prepared in a number of styles as the seasons change. And don't miss a cordial of housemade amaro, Strathmann's contribution to the bar. Through all the changes, Spuntino remains a reliable grill next door for northwest Denver.