Patzcuaro's
Summer Powell
With all the high-end Mexican and nouvelle Mexican and fake chain Mexican restaurants coming and going in Denver, it's easy to forget places like Taquera Patzcuaro. It's easy to forget how friendly owner Francisco Almanza and the guys who work the floor are, how forgiving they are of our abysmal Spanish, how generous the kitchen can be when it comes to dishing out the pride of the house, giant hunks of par-cooked and fried pork shoulder that pass for carnitas down in Michoacn. But this forgetfulness is a shame, because Taquera Patzcuaro is a place just built for eating a couple pounds of fried pig with guacamole, drinking buckets of margaritas and cold Tecates while watching a couple of Latino middleweights pummel the crap out of each other on the big TV on the back wall.
This is International Street. It's not Mexico, not Vietnam, not Korea or China or Costa Rica or any of those places in their entirety, but neither is it entirely the United States. It's an American smash map where things like borders and capitals and national languages have ceased to matter. Drive it, and you're in the middle of the engine of the new economy, the new multiculturalism. And nowhere is this more apparent than at the Avanza Market in Fiesta Plaza. Outside, mariachi music blares from nowhere in particular -- from the sky, as if that's the music that God likes -- while signs on scrap-metal frames scream in bright colors, in Spanish and English, in pictograms. And inside, you'll find piatas, pickled pig's ears in brine, wheels of asadero and a hundred dead Mexican saints: prayer candles in such lovely variety as to burn away innumerable sins.
New Saigon
Mark Manger
Back in the day, this stretch of Federal was called Little Saigon because it was the neighborhood most densely populated by the recently arrived wave of post-war Vietnamese immigrants. Not surprisingly, these newcomers to the Rocky Mountain West brought some of the flavors of their old home with them and began founding authentic Vietnamese restaurants among the strip malls. A lot of Vietnamese restaurants. And though many have since closed and successive generations moved out beyond the old neighborhood, New Saigon is still here, working from an expansive menu of dishes once completely foreign but now comfortingly recognizable, offering the same uncompromisingly authentic flavors of Southeast Asia that it has since day one.
For generations, Three Sons served as the defining taste of Italian cuisine in north Denver -- but a few years ago, the place was almost moribund. Then came changes in ownership, in kitchen staff, in menu, even in style, and Three Sons has gone from bad to very, very good. It still looks like a cast-off movie set from some un-produced Godfather sequel, it still smells like garlic all the way out into the parking lot on a good night. But with its new focus on classical Italian cooking and quality ingredients, Three Sons could be a worthy restaurant for generations to come.
Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar
Five years ago, owner Alessandro Carollo had just one small storefront restaurant. Then there were two. Then there were name changes and alterations in concept. And then, completely out of the blue, Carollo moved into an enormous space recently vacated by one of the hottest, most talked-about restaurants in Denver (Adega), which anchors one of the hottest, most talked-about neighborhoods in Denver (LoDo) and opened a restaurant that pretty much everyone (us included) thought was going to fail before the fryers were even warmed up. It looked like hubris, like madness, right up until people started eating there and realizing they'd never had Italian food as simple, true and good as what's being done by Carollo's executive chef, Christian Delle Fave, and his crew: perfect pastas, upscaled comfort-food classics like lobster-stuffed ravioli, and multi-course tastings creatively based around Italy's regional cuisines. Right now, the best Italian food in Denver is being done in LoDo, and it's coming out of the kitchen at Venice Ristorante.

Best Neighborhood Italian Restaurant

Frasca

Frasca Food and Wine
Kelly Kaoudis
Yes, Pearl Street is a neighborhood. Just because it isn't your neighborhood doesn't mean it doesn't count. And though chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson has a tendency to go off-book with wide-ranging plates influenced by countries all over the map, at heart and in spirit, Frasca is still an Italian restaurant. As a matter of fact, at heart it's a neighborhood Italian restaurant -- full of regulars, with a small menu heavy on comfort foods and a serious commitment to cooking for the community. Don't let all the hype fool you. Pork belly, agnolotti, tajuts of wine and salumi platters? That's all classic neighborhood comfort food. And though Frasca might be drawing crowds from around the country and winning awards usually reserved for only the hoitiest and toitiest of white-tablecloth restaurants, it is and always has been the greatest neighborhood Italian restaurant anyone could hope for.
Luca
Scott Lentz
Frank Bonanno's been dealing with a lot, and his load was starting to show at Luca d'Italia. It's not that dinners here were ever bad; they were just less amazing than they'd once been, less effortlessly blissful. But over the past year, Bonanno has put his legendarily obsessive focus back on Luca, and the restaurant has come back strong. Once again, the deliriously complicated farmhouse entrees -- dishes like truffle-scented rabbit three ways and pan-roasted black cod with ravioletta -- are coming out tasting like the simplest, most natural things in the world. And the beautiful plates of rustic pasta have that spark of joy and fanatical vitality that have always been the hallmark of Bonanno's best efforts.
Dolce Sicilia Italian Bakery
Cassandra Kotnik
Dolce Sicilia has authentic Italian cookies, tasty sandwiches and serious tiramisu, but we're most partial to its remarkably inexpensive scratch-baked breads, including semolina, baguettes and heavenly ciabatta: a powdery crust, not too tough or too flaky, wrapped around a wonderfully textured, chewy-airy center that screams of quality ingredients and straight-from-the-oven freshness. A jug of wine, a loaf of this stuff and thou...heck, we'd be just fine without thou. More for us.
The Oven Pizza E Vino
There's something to be said for a place that does pizza and nothing but pizza. No pastas, no hoagies, no chicken parm sandwiches or slices of up-from-frozen cheesecake. Although the Oven doesn't quite rise to that level of obsessive focus -- you can get apps of olives and fresh mozzarella, still almost liquid, and there are a few other slight departures -- it comes close with a menu that has pizza as its heart and soul. Really good, really consistent, really rustic pizza served with love and pride. The Oven crew makes everything to order (including the dough, cheese and sauce) for a house that is almost always full, shuffling pizzas around in the big, exposed wood-fired ovens and boxing takeout requests with shocking speed. Every neighborhood should have a pizza place as good as the Oven.
D Note
Get past the naming conventions (every specialty pie here is named after a song, a band, a musician, whatever), get past the open-mike nights and the D Note's double life as a live-music venue. Get past the location -- smack in the middle of cutesy Olde Town Arvada -- and the overt half-vegetarianism of the place. Just get here for some of the best pizza in town, courtesy of ex-Mercury Cafe cook Amy Wroblewski. The pies are big, piled impossibly high with well-sourced and earth-friendly ingredients, in combinations that manage to be tastefully original. Yes, the D Note has a distinctly hippie vibe and the service can sometimes be less than lightning-fast, but who cares? When the pizza is this good, nothing else matters.

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