Best Italian Restaurant 2015 | Panzano | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Kristin Pazulski

Panzano may be located in the Hotel Monaco, but this is not your usual hotel restaurant. Unless, that is, your usual hotel restaurant happens to be in northern Italy. The motto of chef Elise Wiggins and her team at Panzano is Chi mangia bene, viva bene — "Those who eat well, live well" — and we can guarantee you'll eat very well indeed at Wiggins's place. While the menu is inspired by Italy, she sticks close to home for her ingredients — including incredible Colorado lamb — and the result is one of the freshest dining experiences in town. While the menu features plenty for gluten-free and vegetarian diners (don't miss the Cavolini di Bruxelles), Wiggins's dishes also include such sinful indulgences as chicken-liver mousse, duck mousse and wild boar, tucked inside pasta, tossed on salads or served on its own. Wiggins is as colorful as her food, so try to grab a spot at the chef's counter — or cozy up in one of the booths overlooking 17th Street.

Readers' choice: Osteria Marco

This is Denver, so not every dish of East Coast origin must conform to the exact specifications of the pizzas, bagels or deli sandwiches that rule in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Ernie's serves up delicious New York-style pizza without the slavish devotion to the ideal that gets many other pizzerias bogged down in details — so the slices may not be as floppy as those back East, and the pools of cheese and pepperoni grease don't need to be mopped off with a napkin. Instead, Ernie's focuses on great ingredients and a crust that achieves a perfect balance between chewy and crunchy. Fresh mozzarella handmade daily blends with whole-milk mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a simple but flavorful sauce; old-school toppings like meatballs and Denver-made Polidori sausage share space with white anchovies, clams and smoky bacon. But no matter which toppings you choose, slices from Ernie's twenty-inch pies can still be folded down the middle, just like those back home. And if that's not enough to induce a little nostalgia, step up to the Skee-Ball machine.

Readers' choice: Fat Sully's

Patxi's proves that you don't have to be from Chicago — or even the Midwest — to know how to dish good deep-dish pizza. Somehow, this California-based chain has nailed the secret to can't-get-enough Chicago-style pie. Patxi's pizzas have a smooth, buttery crust loaded with quality ingredients and the perfect ratio of zesty sauce to cheese. In the Mile High, this is the closest you'll come to Lou Malnati's or Giordano's without having those pies shipped directly...and that's not an option yet on Amazon Prime.

Readers' choice: Patxi's

Oh Hey Creative

Cart-Driver is a sliver of a restaurant, not much larger than the Italian carrettiera's horse-drawn cart that inspired the name. But this converted shipping container is big enough to hold a wood-fired oven, and that's all that Kelly Whitaker's team needs to put out those blistered pies we can't get enough of. These are Neapolitan pies with a twist. There's a mushroom pizza with burnt onions, ash-laced vinegar and pungent oma cheese, and a Four Season that incorporates the best of each season — such as Brussels sprouts, pears, ham and potatoes — in four quadrants of the pie. Crusts come out of the oven white with a few black blisters, and are good enough to eat with even the simplest of toppings. Oysters, Prosecco on tap and housemade gelato seal the deal.

Readers' choice: Hops & Pie

Best Central/South American Restaurant (not Mexican)

Maria Empanada

Courtesy Maria Empanada

Lorena Cantarovici originally opened her Argentine bakery in a tiny Lakewood shack that didn't have room for much more than a pastry case bursting with savory empanadas and tartas. But a move to bigger digs on South Broadway last year meant that Maria Empanada was able to finally become the Buenos Aires-style cafe that she'd always envisioned, with modern decor, a state-of-the-art espresso machine, and enough space for families to come in and enjoy malbec, beer, and yerba matté served in the traditional way. And, of course, there are still those flavor-packed little pies filled with everything from classic seasoned beef with hard-boiled egg and olives to sweet corn in cheese sauce to a vegan veggie mix doused in chimichurri. Fat wedges of quiche-like tarta or potato-paved Spanish tortillas round out the savory options, while tender alfajores, roll cake oozing with dulce de leche and miniature sweet empanadas are there to satisfy dessert cravings. No matter what your choice, Maria Empanada is the perfect place to let life slow down and pass by the sunny windows while enjoying the warm hospitality of Cantarovici and her staff.

Readers' choice: Cuba Cuba

Mark Antonation

Finding a Mexican joint that specializes in a certain style of meat or regional specialty is often the best bet when hunting for hidden treasures; the perfect tacos al pastor and the most mouthwatering barbacoa are seldom found in the same place. But at La Calle Taqueria, every choice on the long list of grilled, roasted or stewed options is the right choice. Whether your preferred style is a simple order of carne asada or carnitas, a marinated marvel like succulent cochinita pibil or tender cabeza, or more adventurous offerings like chivo (goat), buche (stomach) or campechana — a rich mixture of shredded pork and thick curls of slow-cooked pork skin — you'll find toothsome textures and deep, complex flavors atop tender tortillas. A burgeoning salsa bar provides all the zip and zing needed from a wide variety of salsas, pickled vegetables, lime wedges and chopped cilantro. La Calle's variety offers enough street-food satisfaction for even the most discerning taco hunters.

Readers' choice: Pinche Taqueria

El Taco Veloz operates two taco joints on Federal Boulevard; both are worth a visit for their salsa bars, but for different reasons. The more southerly hut never has the streams of customers who visit its hermana just north of Interstate 70, which is a detriment when it comes to fresh tacos al pastor but a bonus for a tidy and well-stocked salsa bar. Whether you like a zesty and vegetal salsa verde made creamy with avocado or a tongue-melting, bright-orange salsa with chile de arbol, you won't have to jockey for position or risk scraping the bottom of the pan for any of the salsas they offer in varying degrees of heat and hue. Additional pans of chopped cilantro, onion, pico de gallo, radishes and limes offer every combination of possibilities for the discerning taco addict. At the northern station, a busier dining room means a messier salsa station, but it also means the kitchen can set out a massive stone molcajete brimming with a smokey chipotle-and-tomato salsa studded with cubed avocado that will be gone long before it ever warms up to room temperature.

Readers' choice: Tacos y Salsas

Danielle Lirette

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina, a comfortable neighborhood spot that opened in May 2013 on South Broadway, blew us away last year with its house margarita, and the best got even better this year, when owner Brian Rossi switched out his house tequila. He's now using Cimarron Tequila, a highland-agave tequila that lets the bartender control the sweetness of the drink. In fact, the sweetest thing about this superlative house marg, made with fresh lime juice and a lot of care by friendly bartenders, may well be its price: $5, or $4 during the two daily happy hours, from 3 to 6 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to close. But the best deal of all is on Margarita Mondays, when these babies are two for one.

Readers' choice: Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant

Molly Martin

Yes, you know that Work & Class is incredibly hip, with very long lines. Take advantage of the $5 wait drink and you might care a little less about waiting — especially when you know that the town's best vegetarian green chile awaits. All of the traditional ingredients — minus the pork — are featured in this mix, and the masterminds at Work & Class also offer the mouthwatering sauce poured on top of a pile of French fries, then topped with cheese. Say it with us now: green-chile cheese fries. Need we say more?

Readers' choice: Illegal Pete's

La Fuente is a little hard to spot during the day, but the neon cacti over the door lead the way at night. For many, breakfast burritos are the main attraction, but bags of corn-husk-wrapped tamales under a heat lamp are a giveaway that the kitchen can do more than just roll flour tortillas. Available with either pork and red chile or chicken and chile verde, La Fuente's tamales strike a perfect balance between dense and fluffy, achieving toothsome results with just the right burn from the tender meat fillings. Enjoy them à la carte in the tiny dining room, smothered with some fiery house green chile, or by the dozen to go for a celebration at home (or a late-night snack by refrigerator light).

Readers' choice: Tamale Kitchen

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