When not in Rome, you can still eat great Italian food at Locanda del Borgo
Here's something that annoys me: people who, when talking about a restaurant, use some version of the phrase "transports you straight to blank" or "is like a little piece of blank right here in Denver." I have resorted to this verbal tic now and then, and it annoys me a lot. Other people use it often, and the words almost always make me wince, like the sound of nails on a chalkboard.
There are times when the phrase is accurate (when describing the dining room at Domo, for example, or the food at Oshima Ramen, or those rarest of moments when the light, the smell, the crowds and a few glasses of wine all conspire to make the transition between street and dining room at Z Cuisine truly like crossing a veil — a wormhole trip between the Platte and the Seine), and there are times when it is apt (very occasionally, the only way to describe an affecting meal is in the way it transported you). But the phrase has become hackneyed and cliched through overuse, a crutch for the lazy, almost a substitution code for a dirty little comment on Denver itself: This place is so good that, for a moment, it can make you forget you're stuck in Denver.
The phrase was used frequently in describing a handful of good Italian restaurants operating in our red-sauce wasteland of a few years back — fans of certain rooms who said their fave was like stepping back to the East Coast, to Philly or Little Italy or (in my case) the street corners of the neighborhoods in which we were raised. It was almost defensive praise — an admission that Denver had nothing on home, couched in an admission that this place (Luca d'Italia or Patsy's or Il Posto or wherever) was almost an exception. But there was truth to it, too.
Until fairly recently, Denver's culinary universe had a gaping black hole at the center that consistently swallowed the vain attempts of well-meaning chefs and barfed out scads of pretenders offering "Colorado accented" Italian cuisine that rarely rose above the level of a tomato-and-mozzarella tamale with an Italian flag stuck in it. In those dark days (which only started brightening a half-dozen or so years ago, still putting us dangerously close to the event horizon), there was every reason for transplants to tempt each other by saying that this place or that place was like a brief trip home again, because all of us (myself included) were dying for a simple bowl of spaghetti or a linguine with white clam sauce and, on occasion, were actually flying home just to get a fix. To be able to do the same thing without the plane tickets, the cab rides, the body-cavity search by the TSA, was like a fantasy come true: If you close your eyes, we'd say, and take a small bite, you can almost imagine being in the dining room at Lupa again.
But today, Denver has drifted clear of the black hole of suck. No longer are we the dry sticks for those looking for highly specific red-gravy kicks. Though far from overburdened with dependably good ziti, agnolotti or hand-crimped ravioli, lovely golden-brown veal scallopine or gnocchi that don't taste like clotted wallpaper paste, things have improved considerably. The opening of one truly good room led to two more, those two to an additional four. A tradition of right flavors and right preparations is taking hold, as is an understanding among diners that the Olive Garden's Alfredo sauce does not represent any baseline of taste.
Not when we can now have raviolini with braised pork in a cremini mushroom sauce. Homemade lasagna with béchamel. Bucatini Amatriciana. Cioppino in a garlic-heavy broth and grilled pork chops in a port/Dijon mustard sauce with roasted Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes, and pizzas out of a wood-fired oven with the crib, half-stocked and flaking down wood chips and sawdust like dandruff, set at the far end of the long bar. Pastas presented like nests of starch in plain white bowls pulled from stacks of plain white bowls balanced along the rails in the kitchen. Windows that look out, not on some dream-vision Venice or Roman piazza, not on a sun-washed cobbled street in the weaver's quarter or the rowhouses of Boston or the skyscraper pickets of the Lower East Side, but on Denver — on a frozen, frost-rimed January sidewalk, on a high-tone strip mall stuck in a bend of the road, on brand-new brownstones in an old residential neighborhood, on the 303 in all its arguable glory.
Eating at Locanda del Borgo takes me nowhere. It does not transport me or move me or remind me of somewhere else I'd rather be. It is rooted firmly in the dirt and blacktop of Denver, Colorado, a place where the kitchens sometimes behave as if they've just discovered the sweet, awesome power of the tomato, the onion, the garlic clove, and must use them quickly and powerfully before they are taken away.
Locanda del Borgo, which chef Giancarlo Macchiarella (a native of Italy, ex of Tavolaccio in Edwards and Farfalla in Aspen) opened a year and a half ago, has an open kitchen. A wide-open kitchen, laid out like a gastro-porn centerfold. If the little window peeking in on the line at Lala's (which I reviewed two weeks ago) is the demure and teasing Playboy spread, then the kitchen at Locanda del Borgo is something out of Screw — bare and exposed and hiding nothing. It has a menu that writes in broad strokes, refusing to specialize or to culinarily economize. Little bites on the top offer prosciutto with olives and marinated artichokes, bruscetta, fritto misto (a fisherman's platter of squid, scallops, shrimp, artichokes and zucchini, all fried) and straccetti — a Roman stir-fry of beef "tatters" and arugula (used frequently at Locanda del Borgo the way Picasso used the color blue: notably, and to devastatingly good effect), topped with sweated onions and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, all served over that most Venetian of staples: the grilled polenta cake. There are salads and soups (cannellini bean with bits of pasta like a perfectly rustic lunch of long-simmering leftovers), a daily scallopine special, chickens from the grill with fingerling potatoes and Swiss chard, and pizzas from a blazing, smoky, single-bay oven that, ten years ago, would've driven Denver's foodies into paroxysms of drooling joy because it would have been such a good and proper rarity, but today is simply right.
The room is both plain and lovely, the tables sitting on a stone floor, polished silver and gleaming wine glasses sitting on the tables. It has an energy that makes pointless any adornment, any distraction from the dance in the kitchen and the play of flavors on the plate. I could go an entire night at Locanda del Borgo without noticing whether it had a roof or paint on the walls or even any other customers, simply because I care only for what is placed in front of me — wine list first, to order the ubiquitous Tempranillo Rioja, then menu, then plate after plate after plate. The servers are friendly, solicitous but never intrusive. Questions are answered with — wonder of wonders — correct information (no, the straccetti isn't served raw, yes, it is Roman, and the kitchen would be more than happy to alter that pizza to your liking, sir...) and genuine friendliness. Even on slow nights, the floor seems alive. And on busy nights, it feels like something just to the left of the center of the universe.
I showed up early for dinner on a cold night to eat meatballs (veal and Angus beef, rolled small and cooked in a bath of thinned red sauce) and polenta and spicy orecchiette with pesto and Italian sausage, because every server seems to recommend it whenever a customer seems temporarily stunned by option paralysis. The meatballs were delicious (I now sometimes order a second round to go and eat them on my couch at home) and the grilled polenta exactly what I've been craving since several restaurants in a row had fucked it up for me. But I never got my orecchiette: The kitchen was running a special of spaghetti carbonara instead, and I was a sucker for the soft sell. What came was a beautiful tangle of thick spaghetti, creamy, egg-thickened sauce and sweet, caramelized pancetta like pork candy. The smell of it was so heady and so strong that I could've made a meal out of it alone, and the carbonara so good that I felt it in my chest like joy, in my brain like the closing of a door, like never having to wonder where to go for carbonara again.
On another night, ricotta gnocchi with speck, peppery arugula and a parmesan sauce as deep and intriguing as the bottom of a cream ocean. Yet another night, pizza: capricciosa, with a quivering sunny-side-up egg in the middle. I've tried the spaghetti and meatballs, which was good, not great, with the sauce used as an accent rather than a theme, and the lasagna, layered with soft sheets of rolled pasta, béchamel and browned meat. I keep promising to get to the bowl of clams and mussels in a garlic-tomato broth, the shrimp risotto, the whole striped bass served tableside, pulled to pieces and set with roasted vegetables and potatoes: comfort food for those who live surrounded by the threatening sea and take their sustenance from the interstices between water and earth.
All this food, and never once did I think of myself as anywhere but in Denver, as anywhere but in a city that, over five or six years or seven, has gone from nothing to this. Locanda del Borgo inspired in me no dreams of running off to the Italian countryside, no visions of the coast, no fantasies of being anywhere other than where I was — rooted in the moment, planted behind my plate.
Because now that we have learned and now that we know better — now, when I can get food like this in Denver — why should I dream of being anywhere else?
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