Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, Frank Bonanno's two (and counting) houses, exist today almost beyond the bounds of classification. They're neither casual eateries nor necessarily fine dining. They're each dedicated to their own style of cuisine -- Italian for Luca, French-Mediterranean for Mizuna -- but neither work from any kind of standardized canon, depending instead on improvisation and reworking classics into modern interpretations. The crews in both restaurants are fiercely talented and incredibly well trained, and they consistently knock out some of the best plates in the city, night after night, week after week. And at the center of all this is Bonanno, who -- after years of working his ass off and paying his dues -- is now coming into his own not just as Denver's best chef, but as an artist, craftsman and businessperson who's known and respected throughout the industry. For years, Bonanno spent every one of his rare vacations cooking stages
(short apprenticeships) at some of the best houses in the country; now line dogs and galley kids from some of the best houses in the country are coming to him, asking for a week, two weeks, a month in his kitchen so that they might learn the tricks and techniques that make his restaurants so good. What's more, a lot of these cooks are choosing to stay after their stints are complete, joining Bonanno's crew permanently or asking him to help them find work at Denver's other top addresses. So for all of this -- for his personal talent behind the burners, his dedication to Denver's ever-struggling scene and his vicious competitive streak, as well as for the way his restaurants have thrived, his reputation traveled, and his crews gone from merely great to a rarefied sort of brilliant smoothness over the past couple of years -- Bonanno takes the prize.