Since opening Mizuna in 2001 and Luca two years later, chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno has been a chef-producing machine; some of the region's top talents have spent time in his kitchens over the years. In fact, he's counted more than a baker's dozen of chefs who have cooked in his kitchens and then moved on to open their own restaurants, among them Alex Seidel, last year's James Beard Best Chef Southwest; Justin Brunson, cured-meat impresario and frequent food TV personality; Ty Leon, who recently opened Bistro Georgette with fellow Mizuna alumni Heather Morrison and Austin Carson; and Jon Robbins, founder of Bistro Barbès.
So when new executive chefs are named at either of the two Governor's Park eateries, it's best to pay attention. And Bonanno just tapped two cooks to head up Mizuna and Luca, so there's twice the amount of new bites to crave.
At Luca, chef Blake Carini joined the team after two years at Bistro Barbès, and he's now overseeing the wood-fired oven, pasta rollers and pizza makers at the cozy Italian eatery. Carini comes from Rhode Island and New York City with a background in Italian, German and French cuisine, but he's not content to plate old-school dishes. While maintaining Luca's candlelight-and-chianti ambience, the chef is putting his own touch on dishes like saltimbocca, which he reimagines as a rollatini rather than a breaded cutlet. Carini is also using some of Luca's house-cured meats in his recipes, including squid-ink spaghetti served with 'nduja sugo (a sauce flavored with Luca's soft fermented pork sausage).
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Just around the corner, Bonanno has promoted Shawn Waters to executive chef of Mizuna. Waters has worked at the restaurant for several years, starting as a line cook before working his way up to the top position. Before coming to Denver, he began his cooking career in Detroit and worked in some of the country's top hotels and restaurants. The menu Waters oversees continues to emphasize the classic French elements Bonanno reintroduced several years ago, including seasonally changing variations on Beef Wellington (currently being served with sunchoke purée and hen of the woods mushrooms), sweetbreads and foie gras. Waters serves his foie gras as miniature pie with salted caramel and fennel-apple jam; he notes that the crust is a variation on his wife's pie crust recipe, only with duck fat added to the already buttery mix.
Luca has evolved into a comfortable neighborhood eatery, especially since the pizza oven was added a year ago. Mizuna, meanwhile, continues to set the standard for elegance and wine service, now overseen by sommelier Tim Herschberger (since Carson departed). "There will always be room for white-tablecloth dining with impeccable service in Denver," Bonanno explains.
And there will always be room in Denver for the stream of chefs Bonanno continues to recruit.