Los Cabos II
Eric Gruneisen
The true measure of a good ethnic restaurant is its ability to not only serve something that no non-native in his right mind would dream of eating, but to make that thing so good that it immediately becomes part of the reluctant gastronaut's gustatory lexicon. And Los Cabos does just that with its chupe de camarones, an unquestionably bizarre soup/stew that combines whole, head-on shrimp, all legs and feelers and sweet, delicate meat like baby lobsters, as well as rice, diced potatoes, streamers of egg white, slivered onion, dense garlic, smoky Hungarian paprika and some other stuff that we wouldn't be able to identify even with a field guide to Peruvian fauna. The soup is full of strange flavors you find yourself chasing toward the bottom of the bowl, and so filling that we've never actually seen the bottom of the bowl.
Potager
Lindsey Bartlett
In the late '70s, American cuisine was in such a sad state that the notion of taking local, seasonal produce and fresh vegetables and grilling them up for dinner was considered absolutely revolutionary. This simple act of rebellion against the staggering heaviness of classicism and the old European canon gave rise to the American food revolution, and Potager continues to carry that flag forward. Chef/owner Teri Rippeto cooks a rigorously seasonal and ever-changing menu of beautiful and perfectly realized dishes. Her command of cuisine is impressive, and her crew is committed to her vision of showcasing the best ingredients in the best possible ways. Although Denver today is packed with bright young chefs doing freaky things with your food, dinner at Potager remains nothing short of revolutionary.
There's no place like home, and there's no taste more reminiscent of home than mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, the creation of these spuds is often sloughed off by cooks who see them as nothing more than a cheap way to fill a plate and a belly. But Rialto Cafe takes this dish seriously and takes great care in making its wonderful, fluffy, smooth and buttery Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, served heavy on the cream and with a few clinging tatters of skin. As a result, this hotel restaurant serves Denver's best taste of home to travelers and locals alike.
The Oven Pizza E Vino
Mark Tarbell, owner of the Oven, has won many awards at his various restaurants. And now he's earned another with the thin-crust pie made at the Oven, his very winning restaurant in Belmar. These pizzas aren't traditional, New York-style thin crusts, but rather very rustic, very scratch-built natural pies that just happen to have thin crusts. The kitchen here makes its own everything, from dough to sauce to cheese (including mozzarella and a fantastic smoked ricotta), and infuses it all with a true love and dedication to craft that's sadly lacking in a lot of neighborhood pizza joints these days. And even though Belmar is a very upscale neighborhood, the Oven suits its needs -- and ours -- nicely, packing the place with friends and neighbors every day.
The pizzas aren't just thick-crust at Beniamino's, they're deep-dish. And they're not just deep-dish, but stuffed pizza, the sort made famous by any number of restaurants on Chicago's South Side. Owner Ben Guest knows the difference, because he came straight from the Windy City to Denver, bringing his skills and the proper pans with him. While it may be a little weird that he gets his knowledge from a certain Italian fraternal organization and the man is missing a couple fingers, who are we to argue with genius? One slice -- a meal in itself -- is enough to settle any debate.
Big Bill's New York Pizza
Mark Manger
If you're looking for a raucous, crowded, family-friendly, suburban Italian restaurant with New York city transit maps, 9/11 memorials and a lot of crazy crap on the walls, Big Bill's is your place. But this is also the best spot in town to get a slice of a serious, New York-style thin-crust pizza -- a gooey, greasy, foldable wedge that doesn't just taste, but also looks and smells, exactly like the kind Brooklyn made famous. The sauce is mild and sweet, the pepperoni thin-cut, the cheese stretchy 'til forever, and the grease -- that most magical of elixirs -- as orange as a traffic cone.
John and Patrick Pool came up with a quirky way to take pizza global at Pizzeria Mundo: They simply name pies after cities (or areas) around the world, then cover them with ostensibly appropriate toppings. The New York, for example, is a fairly straightforward version of the classic Bronx 'za, with cheese, pepperoni, sausage and then a spicy red sauce, one thing that New York pies actually made in New York never have. But then a quick ride on the virtual D-train gets you to Coney Island (home of The Warriors, the Wonder Wheel and the Coney Island hot dog) for a pie covered in chili, chopped onions, sliced all-beef hot dogs, cheddar and mozzarella. The Kennebunkport is done like a lobster bake, with white corn, roasted potatoes, sausage, bechamel and chunks of lobster; the Death Valley version features habanero pepper sauce, rabbit and rattlesnake sausage and nopalito. Go global with a sweet-potato-smeared Jamaican jerk pie or the Kathmandu, with tikka masala sauce, tandoori chicken and roasted onions. All in all, these international pies are out of this world.
Patsy's
Technically, Patsy's isn't in a strip mall -- but it's tucked into a strip of co-op galleries in northwest Denver and embodies all that's great about the strip-mall-Italian experience. First and foremost, it's a neighborhood joint and knows how to take care of its regulars. And some of those regulars have been coming a long time. Patsy's has been making history -- and wonderful homemade pasta -- since 1921, when Chubby Aiello opened the place, named it after one of his daughters and ran it like a clubhouse for his friends and neighbors from across the city. The family dining tradition is so strong here that it survived a change of ownership ten years ago, when Patsy's was sold to Bill Taylor and Cindy Knippel. The new owners wisely kept their meddling to a minimum, making a few changes to the menu and giving the joint a little polish. But today Patsy's looks and feels much as it did in the '20s: The service is friendly, the vibe comfortable, and the meatballs gigantic.
Luca
Scott Lentz
Since the moment it opened two years ago, Luca d'Italia has turned out Denver's best high-end Italian food, no contest. Since its very first day of service, since the first plate hit the rail, Luca has been doing the most overdone cuisine in the food world better, smoother, sharper and with more obsessive precision than anywhere else in town. Even the least of the plates on chef/owner Frank Bonanno's discursive menu -- the pappardelle or the bricked chicken, say -- beats out the competition. And Bonanno's best? Well, Luca's "Rabbit, Three Ways" is a wonder of excess, its mozzarella tasting plate the definition of three-note simplicity, and we're just waiting for him to get his call to appear on Iron Chef so we can watch him school Mario Batali and then do a victory dance around Kitchen Stadium, waving Batali's clogs over his head like a trophy.
Want to take your date out for an Italian meal? That's amore. Really. Ristorante Amore, Greg Goldfogel's intimate outpost in Cherry Creek, is a wonderful little spot that turns out carefully prepared and beautifully executed Italian fare. From the pumpkin-and-butternut-squash ravioli and gnocchi with prosciutto to a simple fondue of roasted garlic, fontina and sundried tomatoes, chef John Smilanic-Beneventi understands that Italian cuisine should never underwhelm. And Goldfogel instinctively appreciates how service should never smother. At Amore, both the food and the floor are in such intimate balance that by the time the plates hit the table, half the work of charming your significant other is already done. All you have to worry about is the conversation and the bill.

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