Best Panini 2011 | Shangri-La | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

For several years, Massimo Ruffinazzi, who was born and raised in Casteggio, Lombardia, Italy, was chef/partner at Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant that once occupied prime real estate in LoDo and was always lauded for its breads. Ruffinazzi remains a bona fide bread-head, turning out loaves of love at Shangri-La, his groovy cafe in Highland. The menu — salads, a salumi plate and a pantheon of panini — is simple and small, but the panini, pressed in a tiny kitchen, ooze with big flavors. Ruffinazzi uses a custom-baked bread, filling the halves — properly baked so they yield the ideal amount of chew and crackle — with everything from arugula leaves and weightless shavings of Parma prosciutto to bresaola, imported Sicilian tuna and an exquisite wild-mushroom spread lightly whiffed with truffle. The panini are only available till 3 p.m., when Shangri-La closes its doors for the day — but at any hour, you are simply not going to find better panini in Denver.

Danielle Lirette

Morning, noon and night — and way past midnight — this iconic East Colfax institution, illuminated with fluorescents, hums with the melodic chatter of bankers, beatniks, bikers and buggy-eyed drunks, all of whom co-exist in hungry harmony, tucking into gigantic plates tricked out with slabs of bacon, well-seasoned sausages, flapjacks, omelets and mounds of hash browns glistening with gobs of butter. Pete's Kitchen is a joint that's great for a late-night group romp when you're tipsy, a morning-after hangover fix, or a midday gut-buster just before a late-afternoon nap. Given the irresistible vibe, the diverse cross-section of diners, short-order cooks who keep it real, and an affable owner in Pete Contos, who has his own Denver restaurant empire but often hangs out at the counter here, it's no wonder there's never a lull in the action.

If we lived in a perfect cheesesteak culture, every Philly cheesesteak would be constructed with a fresh roll that's neither too hard nor too soft, but still has plenty of chew; enough cheese, preferably Cheez Whiz, to require more than a single napkin; and finely chopped ribeye that's never too tough to chew. Not every cheesesteak subscribes to those rules — in fact, most fail epically — but at Large Marge's, the Philly cheesesteaks follow the textbook rules to a T. They're gleefully messy, served on Amoroso's rolls and enlivened, if you want, with Flaming Poo, a tongue-searing hot sauce that captures the moxie of Marge, the affable owner who kindly brought brotherly love from Philly to Denver.

Mark Antonation

Pho Duy has been slinging pho — and not much else — for nearly two decades, and the kitchen makes the noodle soup in a way that'll please even the most resolute purist. The dish starts with dark and pungent beef broth, with depth added by slices of onions, cooked soft, their flavor infused into the liquid. That base plays host to different kinds of meat: thin strips of peppery, tender flank steak; slices of fatty brisket; chewy chunks of tendon and textured strips of tripe, kissed with sweetness; hunks of chicken. The meats play against the nest of bouncy noodles, supplemented by chile, vinegar and a plate of produce that includes bean sprouts, basil and cilantro. It's piquant, savory and deeply warming.

So often, things get lost in translation when you're transporting one country's cuisine to another part of the world. So instead of trying to create an exact replica of an Italian pizzeria when he opened Pizzeria Basta, chef/owner Kelly Whitaker drew inspiration from Naples, where he'd spent a year making pizzas. But Whitaker definitely grounded Pizzeria Basta in Boulder, focusing on local ingredients for his pies: He uses domestic flour to make his crust, topping it with a thin sauce created from local tomatoes, house-stretched mozzarella and other Colorado ingredients, some grown in his own patio garden, then bakes it all in a scorching, wood-fired oven for a base that's crisp along the edges, chewy in the center, and bubbling with local flavor. Just about every rendition, whether a classic Daisy (the English translation of "Margherita") or a seasonal special, gets drizzled with olive oil and topped with a pinch of salt for the perfect finish. Deceptively light and intensely satisfying, Whitaker's pies successfully capture the essence of Italy while also smacking of Colorado.

From the moment Pupusas Sabor Hispano opened five years ago in a dilapidated roadside shack in north Boulder, the citizens of the People's Republic clamored for more. They clamored so hard, in fact, that last fall owner Nancy Reed shuttered the original Pupusas and relocated to a bigger, more contemporary spot across the street. But while the new space is larger and loftier, the pupusas — orbs of masa stuffed with everything from fiddlehead ferns and Anaheim chiles to chicharrones, beans, rajas, zucchini and molten cheeses — remain as humble and delicious as ever. They're served with curtido, the tart and fiery slaw that's a pupusa's proverbial sidekick; if you want to take a ride on the wild side, you can dress them up from the well of flavor-bombed, fire-jolted salsas.

Mark Manger

Tucked into a corner of the Niwot Market grocery store, the modest Sachi Sushi spends most of the week serving up raw fish offerings. But on Sundays, owner Tsukasa Hibino cooks up a batch of authentic, Kyushu-style ramen that's better than anything you'll find along the Front Range. Cloudy tonkotsu broth, made by boiling pork and chicken bones for hours until the liquid is infused with heady flavor and velvety collagen, holds a mass of springy noodles, dense enough to balance a bevy of ingredients near the surface: cuts of fat-laced pork, strips of black seaweed, half a hard-boiled egg, bits of scallion, a sprinkling of sesame seeds and a star-shaped slice of pink-swirled narutomaki, a fish cake that adds more color than flavor to the bowl. The result is deeply aromatic and savory, the noodles fattening as they soak up liquid, your lips getting sticky with fat as you slurp the soup.

When Kevin Delk and John Skogstad opened Beatrice & Woodsley, they crafted an elaborate backstory, weaving a tale of a woodsman and a daughter of a winemaking family who came to settle in the Colorado mountains. And then the restaurateurs brought the story to life, outfitting their Broadway spot with light wood slats, round booths that appear almost carved into the walls, chainsaws that hold up shelves behind the bar, and the most interesting — and puzzling — bathroom sinks we've ever seen. The whole place is softly lit by hanging lanterns and imbued with a fairytale ambience that makes you feel as if you're really dining in an enchanted forest.

Right beside the 26-year-old Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, the two-year-old Squeaky Bean unleashes a porkerific platter of fine swine followed by Brussels with mussels. A few doors down the street, there's the burble of frivolity emanating from LoHi Steak Bar, home to the city's best chocolate pudding and blue-cheese fondue. Down the block and around the corner, culinary creativity awaits at Z Cuisine, a tiny French bistro with more regulars than an army. And then there's Lola, swimming in coastal Mexican seafood, and an itsy-bitsy bakery called the Wooden Spoon, and half a dozen more great restaurants within as many blocks. What do they all have in common? They all boast addresses at the edge of Highland — LoHi, as the real-estate pushers now call it — and those of you who live in that 'hood should consider yourselves extremely lucky, because this urbanized enclave boasts a group of restaurants that make the rest of the city sigh with envy.

One of Denver's main north-south thoroughfares, Federal Boulevard is lined with dilapidated strip malls, a patched-together network of parking lots and unkempt buildings. Still, there's plenty to look at: an unbelievable assortment of excellent restaurants that serve cuisine from all over the globe. Federal is home to countless pho shops, several restaurants offering dim sum, many more Asian joints, and Mexican spots that range from seafood stops to burrito joints to kitchens that sling authentic menudo. And wherever there might be a gap in the buildings, there are taco trucks and carts serving fresh shrimp cocktail. Whether you're craving xiao long bao, banh mi or street tacos, you'll find it on Federal.

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