Panzano has been a rock-solid downtown destination for the past twenty years, owing much of its consistency to a twelve-year stint from chef Elise Wiggins, who left in 2016 to open Cattivella across town. Since then, two other chefs have come and gone, but the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, which operates both Panzano and the surrounding Hotel Monaco, recently brought on someone with remarkable similarities to Wiggins to take the helm.
Logan Stephenson just signed on as Panzano's new executive chef and, like Wiggins, he moved to Denver specifically to take the roll. He's also been a devotee of Italian cooking for much of his sixteen-year career, and — most coincidentally — he's also a native of rural Louisiana.
Stepping into his new role has been a longtime goal for the chef, since he's worked at other Kimpton-run eateries (most recently in Sedona, Arizona) and has looked at Panzano as top-tier in the group. "Panzano was always the top restaurant," he points out. "And now that I'm here, I've got line cooks who have been working here for sixteen years. All I have to do is inspire them and teach them a little bit of my style."
Regular customers at Panzano know that handmade pasta is the cornerstone of the menu; they'll be in good hands with Stephenson. After graduating from culinary school in Arizona, the chef took an apprenticeship under Michelin-starred chef Michael White at Fiammo. "I was the only one making pasta for three years," he recalls, estimating that during his tenure at the restaurant, he made some 60,000 tortelli, along with pizza, bread and many other pasta shapes.
Stephenson adds that he's spent about 80 percent of his career in Italian restaurants. "I appreciate the simplicity and respect for food — sometimes just a couple of ingredients done really well," he says.
The chef says most of the changes on his new menu come in the "Secondi" section of the menu, where he's had a chance to introduce new entrees and apply his love of simplicity to others. There are also a few new pasta dishes, but the antipasti, soups and salads remain mostly unchanged. One of Stephenson's most eye-catching new pasta dishes is his grano arso orecchiette, made with Italian flour that's nearly black from being toasted. He combines the little ears of pasta with house sausage, broccoli rabe and a hit of Calabrian chile, expanding the culinary reach of Panzano beyond its traditional northern Italian focus.
Stephenson has been quick to pick up on Colorado's homegrown meats and produce, using lamb loin in place of veal in a new saltimbocca dish, which is also topped with locally grown wood sorrel and mushrooms.
Although he's been in Denver only for a few months, Stephenson is already impressed with the ingredients available, as well as the restaurant scene. "I've dined around town — there's substance here," he notes. "I've had some unbelievable cuisine."
An avid cyclist who at one time had aspirations of going pro, Stephenson plans on delving into Colorado produce more this summer — and using his bike to do it. Panzano will be introducing a Saturday brunch/lunch excursion to the Union Station Farmers' Market, where participants will be able to ride bikes with the chef from the restaurant to the market, shop for ingredients and head back to Panzano to enjoy a meal with the day's haul. Stephenson says all levels of cyclists will be welcome, so you needn't worry that you'll be left in the dust.
The chef is also training to participate in Chef Cycle, a three-day, 300-mile race that will raise money for No Kid Hungry in mid-May.