Denver has many great Italian restaurants. As I wrote this week, Mark & Isabella is not one of them. Here are ten of my favorites:
Il Posto (2011 East 17th Avenue, 303-394-0100). Il Posto has an excellent location, crammed between other bars and restaurants, their patios shoulder to shoulder. The concept is also interesting: a purely and unapologetically Italian trattoria with chalkboard menus, changed daily and almost always brilliant, an open kitchen and a dining room alive with bodies, light and noise. On a good day and with a little luck, a meal at Il Posto can rank among the best that Denver has to offer. And on a bad day, this spot is still a fun place to hang out.
Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street, 303-832-6600) 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 anymore.
Osteria Marco (1453 Larimer Street, 303-534-5855) Hanging above the entrance to Osteria Marco is a brass pig. You could miss it if you weren't looking for it; as a matter of fact, you could easily miss the entire restaurant -- which is mostly below ground. But in that warm, welcoming basement space, you'll find another gourmet wonderland from Frank Bonanno, full of artisan cured meats, handmade cheeses, beautiful wood-fired pizzas and paninis and salads.
Venice Ristorante (1700 Wynkoop Street, 303-534-2222) This second Venice from owner Alessandro Carollo is a beauty: coldly stylish, undeniably luxurious and with a menu that reads like a primer of every good idea the Italians ever had. It's expensive, though not murderously so. It's fancy, though jacket and tie are not required. But most important, this restaurant finally offers a fitting frame within which Carollo, exec Christian Delle Fave and chef Gustavo Amaro can work their wonders with Italian cuisine.
Cafe Jordano (11068 West Jewell Avenue, Lakewood, 303-988-6863) Maybe you've heard stories about the little Italian place in Lakewood that won't take reservations because if it did, there'd never be an open table for the neighbors, and where regulars arrive a half-hour before the start of dinner, jockeying for position and counting heads to make sure they'll get a seat. Cafe Jordano is that place. The menu is classic Italian strip mall done phenomenally well by the Heitman family, who have done nothing but that for the past two decades.
Farro Restaurant (8230 South Holly Street, Centennial, 303-694-5432) Classic strip-mall Italian with a twist. Veteran chef Matt Franklin is behind the grills at Farro, bringing a fine-dining sensibility to all those plates of strozapretti, roasted salmon and Tuscan meatloaf. The room is big and casual, the service friendly, and the food far better than you might expect if you were walking into Farro cold, knowing nothing of the menu or the talent in the back of the house.
Parisi (4401 Tennyson Street, 303-561-0234) When Christine and Simone Parisi moved to a larger location, they just wanted room to handle the crowds and a couple more hours in their day to create the kind of quick, casual joint that Simone had known in his native Florence. They wanted a menu so deep and broad that it could include the best of everything: mozzarella made in-house; veal done five ways; homemade tagliatelle and tagliolini pasta; two dozen varieties of pizza. That's exactly what Parisi now offers -- in addition to a perfect little deli and Firenze a Tavolo, a community table downstairs.
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Old Fashioned Italian Deli (395 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton, 303-794-1402) The Old Fashioned has held down this corner for two generations, beginning with Tom Panzarella -- a born-and-bred Buffalo native who came to Denver in 1976 -- and continuing today with Tom and his boy Dave working the counter side by side. On the outside, the silvered windows are covered with hand-painted advertisements for deli sandwiches, calzones and Sahlen's hot dogs. Inside, there's fast, friendly service and great food. The Old Fashioned is just what its name implies: an old-fashioned place for old-fashioned tastes.
Frasca Food & Wine (1738 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-442-6966) 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.
Radda Trattoria (1265 Alpine Avenue, Boulder, 303-442-6100) Matt Jansen, owner of Mateo, opened Radda in the midst of north Boulder's low-rise sprawl, and it's a welcome addition. This is an Italian restaurant, a small-plates restaurant, a comfortable and casual restaurant where the food serves as hearty sustenance, stimulus for conversation and an excuse to gather together with friends. Everything here, from the rustic pizzas to the salumi plates and meticulously balanced entrees, is excellent and represents the best that a modern Italian American restaurant can offer.