Panzano chef Elise Wiggins makes the most of Colorado lamb

Although cattle have overtaken sheep as America's favorite ruminants, local chefs are hard at work pushing Colorado lamb. Lamb doesn't carry the same expectations at beef, nor is it saddled with the same baggage. Lamb can be handled with feather-light minimalism, or used as a canvas for outré experimentation, while beef is defined by its heaviness. At Panzano, executive chef Elise Wiggins, a self-described "lamb pimp," and her team interpret old-world cuisine through local ingredients — including Triple M Bar lamb. "We elevate and modernize any kind of Italian dish to use it with the lamb," Wiggins says, and her lamb ribs reflect this philosophy.

See also:
- Can Triple M Bar's flock create a Colorado lamb comeback?
- Mint condition: Why does lamb go so well with a certain jelly?

Compared to pork and beef, lamb ribs are notoriously light on meat but long on flavor. Wiggins coats the ribs in a fig-maple glaze with a touch of cayenne pepper, then adds a dollop of Jumpin' Good Goat Cheese from Buena Vista; chopped walnuts serve as a crunchy counterpart. Each rib goes quick, but from the toothsome meat on the bone to the crispy fat on the edge, the subtle, floral taste of Triple M lamb is evident.

Aside from providing what Wiggins calls "the best lamb I ever tasted," Triple M is one of the few producers that will supply her with whole carcasses that she and her team can butcher in-house. "When I came here nine years ago, I really wanted to use everything and not waste anything," she explains. "I started wondering, 'If you get the tenderloin inside a cow...say, that's eight pounds. Where's the rest of the fifteen hundred pounds of hanging-weight cow? Where is it?' And it's the same thing for lamb."

Wiggins's waste-not, want-not philosophy got a workout last year when she went to Italy to train with Dario Cecchini, the Mad Butcher of Panzano. "He butchers in a sixteenth-century style.... Italians are the kings and queens of never wasting anything. They still use parts of the steer that we don't use," she says.

In his butchering lessons, Cecchini taught Wiggins that there was no such thing as a useless part of an animal. "The animal below the knee, you don't see anybody using," Wiggins says, demonstrating on her arm as if it were a hanging carcass. "All the tendons and all the connective tissue and everything! You were like, 'What are you going to use it for?' But he would make us clean everything off, all the way down to the bone.... Then he would grind it. That made the best burger I ever had."

Panzano's kitchen includes plenty of cuts you won't find in the King Soopers cooler, like veal knuckle for the restaurant's veal scaloppine, and lamb neck that's slow-roasted, along with spare ribs, to make tender, juicy lamb polpettes. Wiggins serves these polpettes — that's fancy-speak for little meatballs — with a portion of potato gnocchi, a drizzle of reduced balsamic and a rich, fatty mint pesto.

Still, Wiggins finds herself running up against the divide between traditional Italian practices and the requirements of the modern day. "If it were a utopian restaurant situation, I would have my own farm, I would raise my own animals, and I would slaughter them there. And that's where the disconnect is," she laments. "You can't do that. You have to have an abattoir somewhere else and have the USDA inspect it."

But with Triple M Bar, she has the next best thing to her own farm.