I was driving through Denver's old Italian neighborhood Friday, looking for a restaurant that might pair well with my review of Locando del Borgo. Unfortunately, being all weirded out on caffeine and Scotch cordial (check out Cafe Society for my diatribe on drinking glayva for breakfast), I first landed at Casas Paisano, which sounded like it ought to be an Italian restaurant (right?) but was actually a Mexican real-estate office. And you know what they won't do at a Mexican real-estate office no matter how nicely you ask? Make a plate of spaghetti carbonara.
And then it hit me: I hadn't been to Parisi in forever.
Started by an old-country transplant, Simone Parisi, and his Boulder-born wife, Christine, and fashioned (loosely) after their Tuscan culinary idylls in small, regional restaurants in and around Florence, when it opened a decade ago Parisi had a lock on translating the fantasy Italian experience for American eaters: small tables and a huge menu, twinkling lights strung across the ceiling, a strangely fast-casual concept (order and pay at a counter, then get a seat at a numbered table and wait for the food to be brought to you) and a kitchen that cooked around the powerful food memories of Simone's childhood. I'd loved the place (already in a new, bigger location) when I first wandered in almost five years ago because it did a fantastic risotto, as well as nice wood-fired pizzas topped with curled bits of prosciutto, and had an attached deli/market full of everything a home cook could ever want for faking his way through a trattoria menu.
Stepping in again after a long absence, I found Parisi physically unchanged. Still, the lights; still, the huge menu; still, the big pizza ovens in the back, attended to by white-jacket pizzaiulos with their long sticks. And it still smelled the way I remembered — like red sauce and garlic and char. I ordered spaghetti carbonara (to compare it to Locanda's version) and bread and the risotto Milanese I gushed over years back. The risotto tasted exactly the same, with its twists of saffron and green peas, prepared perfectly al dente, perfectly balanced in sweetness and savory, the carbonara packing less of a creamy punch then at Locanda, less of that eggy richness.
In fact, the only significant change at Parisi from my first visit is that the restaurant has expanded, opening up a basement space called Firenze a Tavola (Florence at Your Table) that's only open Thursday through Saturday (and for a community table at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays) and offers an amazing and ever-changing board of Italian specialties — from ribollita and pancetta salad to gnocchi sul coniglio and Livornese seafood stew.
Tragically, I was there too early for Firenze — but my Denver a Tavola was just fine.