Hanging above the entrance to Osteria Marco is a brass pig. It's a smallish thing that you could miss if you weren't looking for it. As a matter of fact, you could easily miss the entire restaurant if you didn't know where it was — behind a dark door, down a flight of stairs, in the cavernous basement space that once was home to the execrable Del Mar Crab House. Although there's a sign on the street, as well as a small patio and a large menu standing sentry, this is Larimer Square, and on this block anyone could easily be overwhelmed, transfixed by the glitz of other restaurants, the alluring fog of spice and butter-warm light that spills out the big windows of ground-floor houses dedicated to the various glories of Spain, of steak, of wine and coffee and French pastries.
Competition is fierce here even on slow nights. The foot traffic ebbs and flows, forms currents, whirlpools around bums, parking kiosks and knots of stunned pedestrians riveted by this menu, that valet stand. Option paralysis strikes the unprepared. Cuban or Italian? French or Mexican? Big plates or small?
Seek the pig, ye foodie snobs, ye noble gastronauts, ye bewildered and befuddled and besotted masses. King Pig, hanging under the lights like a beacon, like a promise. Find Osteria Marco, go down into its embrace and eat until you pop.
When he took on this difficult spot a few months ago, Frank Bonanno — who already owns and very personally runs two of Denver's best restaurants, Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, and recently bailed on a couple more questionable enterprises — worked hard to put everything vital and defining about Osteria Marco at ground level, taking full advantage of every inch of the strangely shaped space. First and foremost, there's the pig: nature's most delicious creation and incontrovertible proof that the food gods love us and want us to be happy. Then there's the sign with the word "Osteria" — which can mean many things, but here translates to "a place to drink wine and get weird and eat of the hog."
Just inside the heavy, dark doors, on the other side of Osteria Marco's only window, is the garde manger station — removed from the kitchen in a turn of something like genius and placed almost right out on the street. There's a beautiful, candy-apple red rotary meat slicer, a second squat, silver slicer with all the style of a battleship's bulkhead, a short stretch of butcher's block, some shin-level cooler space. During pre-opening exertions, back when Bonanno and his wife, Jacqueline, along with partners Ryan Gaudin and Jean-Philippe Failyau and the rest of the crew, were trying to quickly transform this former crab shack into a little piece of Alto Adige with nothing but sweat, fervent prayer and lots of money, they considered putting the massive rotisserie oven in the front window so that people could see the rosticceria menu being created — with whole chickens, prime ribs of beef, suckling pigs and legs of lamb, glazed in jus, turning round and round under the lamps. But instead, Bonanno put the big oven downstairs behind the ad hoc salumi bar and installed the garde manger station in the window.
He made the right choice. Not only are there some people (madmen, vegans, radical animal-rights activists, impressionable young children) who would most definitely not want to see a baby pig making its slow, glaze-eyed transit on the spike, there are others (like me) who might be tempted to just stand there all day licking the glass.
Besides, a good garde manger man or charcutier is a walking, talking advertisement for deliciousness — an all-day, all-night commercial for your menu. I've walked by Marco and been stricken by visions as timeless as cuisine itself: the gleam of soft light on the chrome pasta roller and a girl with mauled, line cook's fingers and the grace of a concert pianist rolling and cutting handmade pastas beside a snowdrift of flour; hands raising the olive oil bottle high for the perfect, lacy pour across a plate of Parmacotto mortadella; a cook laying his weight against the slicer's works, humping it, with forearm pressed to the guard and free hand waiting beneath the blade for that one, wisp-thin piece of San Danielle prosciutto to fall. You see that, and there's no question about what you're walking into once you pass under the cold eyes of King Pig.
But on a first, early visit to Osterio Marco, my server seemed completely mystified by the way the menu was supposed to work. To my way of thinking, Bonanno's menu is near perfect, with cheese and salumi and antipasti taking up more than half the board, the rest occupied by pizzas and paninis made with rotisserie meats. You're supposed to get a little of this and a little of that — but a portion of salame off the slicer was simply too skimpy, and I could have skipped the burnt bread and wilted salad. But there was also cow's-milk ricotta still warm from the cheesemaker's hand, hauntingly sweet; a rough and rustic margherita pizza made with San Marzano tomatoes, fruity-sweet and coddled, and basil and homemade mozzarella; and rotisserie chicken stung with a blessedly spare and strong lemon-caper sauce. Every restaurant takes time to find itself, and I was willing to wait — although not exactly patient.
When I visited New York last month, I thought about Osteria Marco while walking back from Union Square — which was strange, because I usually dream of New York Italian restaurants when in Denver, not the other way around. In Philadelphia, sitting on my in-laws' front step smoking a cigarette, I found myself wanting very badly some of Bonanno's ciccioli (braised pulled pork, as close as the Italians get to Carolina barbecue) and a pinch of fresh, smooth mozzarella. With his dedication to craft, his obsession with ingredients, his focus and depth of knowledge, bracing temper and occasional flights of serious craziness (truffle amuse-bouche, selling black cod and foie gras at a loss, cooking on the Today show), Bonanno has risen into that realm of chefs whose allure has slipped beyond the bounds of time and place, gone interstate and trans-temporal. But he's still based in Denver, and I was just a day off the plane when I found my way to Larimer Square and the realm of King Pig.
At the garde manger station, the hostess was laying out plates and taking reservations with the phone pinned between her shoulder and ear. I'd stepped in from the frigid cold, hesitating as I always do for one stuttering step at the door because Osterio Marco always looks like it could be closed, then pulling it open and sliding into the huff of warmth and good smells and raised voices drifting up from belowground. It was the day after Christmas, and the place was busy — about three-quarters committed on the floor, with more parties coming down the stairs every couple of minutes.
I took a lonelyhearts table against the back wall — pressed up against the wine racks that Bonanno has used to separate dining areas — and looked around the room, which is pleasantly spare and comfortingly warm, with dark wood tables, a long, elegant bar, high-backed chairs, a couple of mirrors. Minimalism serves to make this enclosed space seem less so, this bunker appear more like a cozy hole-in-the-wall than a hole-in-the-ground. And on this night, the hole-in-the-wall was loud, raucous, filled with light and laughter and tables heaped with food, understaffed on the floor but limping along with the kind of good cheer that makes every success seem valiant.
I ordered wine off Bonanno's exclusively Italian list — a Corbara cabernet from Umbria that hit my nose like the scent of forty-year balsamic or the first toot of high-powered blow — and dove straight into the menu, piling up foods like a man who hadn't eaten in days, desperate for one of everything and immediately, lest I start wandering the room and eating off other people's plates. I wanted Bonanno's burrata — handcrafted, creamy as mascarpone, with a stiff bottom and a taste that's indescribable — and his Capra ricotta, sour and made from goat's milk. Then meat: coppa and the prosciutto di San Danielle because it's the best in the world. Years ago, sweating over my own glossy red rotary slicer in another basement kitchen in another city, I'd sneak slices of San Danielle — cutting them paper-thin, laying them on my tongue and waiting for the fat to melt from the heat of my body. I lived on the stuff: prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella clipped off the stiffening balls in the cooler, bottles of Mondavi merlot written off as corked and hidden downstairs in a broken locker.
"Wait," I told the waitress as she started to walk away. "That's not all."
I needed Italian crochette, bread and bresaola. I needed a couple of panini sandwiches wrapped to go: picked chicken and fonduta, a Cubano of roasted pork, more prosciutto and imported provolone. And when the food began arriving (quickly, but still right on the edge of tolerance for me), it was beautiful. The meats came in starbursts and waterfalls, a flower of mottled coppa arranged in a circular fan of slices, touched with a splash of olive oil. The bread was perfect — grill-marked but not burnt — and mounded in a large pile beside a round of burrata the size of half a baseball, bisected by a line of olive oil and cracked black pepper. The crochette were small pastry puffs alternately stuffed with herbed potato, crabmeat, and a mix of potato, prosciutto and parmesan cheese — all just made to be dipped in a puddle of red sauce and eaten in one bite.
And I did. I ate everything laid before me with wild, finger-licking abandon, because Osteria Marco is a place where you can eat with your hands, where you're encouraged to eat too much and drink too much and just generally overindulge in every possible way. Because that's the way of things on the other side of the dark door, down the stairs and in the underground realm of King Pig.
And that's exactly the way Bonanno wants it.