"Look, I see a lot of things in restaurants that I think are really unacceptable, and it pisses me off, because I think that Denver diners deserve a lot better than what a lot of places are doing, and if that view makes me seem too outspoken, that's okay with me."
That's Frank Bonanno laying down the gauntlet. The Denver chef who raises eyebrows and turns heads as much for his brash honesty as for his unassailable cooking is in the kitchen of Luca d'Italia (one of four restaurants he owns) making burrata, stuffing and shaping tortellini, grilling bread, bantering with his cooks and sharing his thoughts on his peers and the state of Denver's restaurant scene -- a scene that Bonanno has been instrumental in making a success.
"Even though I'm 43 years old, I'd like to think that I know what's going on -- that I'm still on top of things," says Bonanno, a Jersey native whose first kitchen job was rolling meatballs in an Italian joint in New York. He continued to work in restaurants in New York and New Jersey, then headed west to attend the University of Denver. He dropped that gig before graduating, but picked up another one making pizzas at Sfuzzi before spearheading the kitchen at Creekside Grill. He did a stint with Anthony's Pizza for a year -- "so I could learn how to play golf" -- then headed back to the Big Apple for culinary school at CIA at Hyde Park. A girl, Jacqueline (now his wife), lured him back to Denver, where he's been pushing the culinary envelope -- and ruffling the feathers of his colleagues -- ever since. "I work really, really hard, I love Denver, I strive to be the best at what I do, but because I voice my opinion, not all the chefs in town are going to love me," he says.
There's little chance, however, that they wouldn't love his burrata. After I ate mine (and Bonanno's, too), we sat down at the bar at Luca, where he confessed his love for lard, expressed his disdain for fetal duck eggs, admitted that if the grocery store had nothing left but Kraft Singles, he'd still buy two because he's a cheese addict, put forth his wish for Denver chefs to stop littering their plates with too many ingredients, and admitted that another Bonanno restaurant is imminent.
Six words to describe your food: Passionate, simple, clean, honest, modern and consistent.
Ten words to describe you: Lucky, hardworking, comedic, aggressive, opinionated, karmic, determined, provocative and thoughtful.
Favorite ingredient: It changes according to my mood, but right now it's Cure Organic Farm's cauliflower, because it provides countless possibilities to take center stage or assume the role of a supporting character. The last thing I did at Luca was a brown-butter cauliflower purée with mushroom ravioli.
Most overrated ingredient: Spinach. It doesn't have the crunch or spicy bite of, say, kale, Swiss chard or rapini. Spinach is overused, fairly flavorless and produced on a scale that's way too mass for me to respect.
Most undervalued ingredient: Lard is inexpensive, abundant, easily rendered from scratch, and it imparts that rich, nutty, sweet pork flavor to anything lucky enough to soak in it.
Favorite local ingredient: That always changes, but right now, it's a red tomato from Jay Hill Farm, near Boulder, that they taste-tested and bred purely to enhance the flavor of bacon. That tomato makes the best BLT ever.
Rules of conduct in your kitchens: Be creative, express yourself on a plate rather than with words, and don't be the hack that uses tongs.
What's never in your kitchens? Shorts or jeans. It's just not professional.
One food you detest: I just don't see the value in fetal duck eggs. They're essentially hard-boiled eggs (and I love a hard-boiled egg), but crunchy and full of bones and skin. Texturally and mentally, I think they're awful.
One food you can't live without: Pasta. There's something just so comforting about it. For me, it represents the childhood association of food and love.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: Sending out a raw chicken while I was the chef at Mel's -- and getting caught.
Most humbling experience in the kitchen: A few years back, I pulled a twelve-hour shift at Restaurant Daniel with the sole task of perfectly dicing quince -- only to see it dumped into the food processor.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I wish there was more real cooking -- kitchens that smoke their own salmon and bake their own bread, for example. I'd also like to see more kitchens cooking without cans or packages. Cooking is so much more than just a culinary degree. It's an act of love that requires time and attention. It's your gift to a client.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see fewer plates littered with a million ingredients on them -- fewer stupid things on the menu. I don't want to see things like a mango salsa on a tuna tartare with an avocado purée and cilantro oil -- and doing anything with mango in the dead of winter, when mangos aren't even in season, is crazy. I'd like to see more chefs focus on technique rather than the bottom line. You can't cook for the bottom line, because it'll screw your food up every time. That's not honest cooking. And I'd also like to see fewer chains with cheap, shitty food. They just don't jive with the kind of active, educated city Denver is.
You're at the grocery store. What do you always buy two of? Any kind of cheese. I can't have enough cheese. I don't care if the only cheese available is Kraft Singles; I'll still buy two.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? San Marzano tomatoes, Calabrian chiles and fried calamari. I've been craving this pizza lately, and now you've got me thinking about it again. I'll go make one when we're finished with these questions.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Butter, salt and pepper and good Fontina. And a little more butter.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I think of my restaurants as my family, and it's always unsettling when I find that they don't see me the same way. I've found that I make mistakes in getting my restaurants to perform at a consistently high level when I become too trusting and loving of my staff. There comes a point when you have to have ground rules. Everyone has a job to do, and while I want to make sure that my restaurants are great places to work, there has to be a fine line between running a business and being friends with my staff. And I've learned I can't see the clarity from a business standpoint when I'm looking at things from a family standpoint.
What's next for you? I will open another restaurant in Denver soon, because that's where the fun is. I've been really close a few times over the last few months, but this time, I want to be the landlord and the restaurant owner, so I'm taking my time. But I have three concepts in mind: a trattoria that serves calzones and dried pastas; some kind of gastropub with a great bar focus, like the Spotted Pig in New York; or sushi. I know, sushi sounds crazy, but I've always wanted to do sushi. Of course, my sushi might have suckling pig in it. But more immediately, I'm going to make that fried calamari pizza.