Whether the chain taught them things about control and restraint and making a buck or simply slipped something into the employee meals, Denver now has two Il Fornaio veterans — that I know of — who've gone on to create great, small, almost jewel-box-style Italian restaurants in strip malls where, previously, the best a diner could hope for was a lukewarm cheeseburger or a stale bagel.
I stopped by Chianti for lunch last week to see how things were going, and while much has changed since it was the first and only jewel in Carollo's crown (the menu, the signage, the interior, even the color has been altered, all of it dialed back from the austere whiteness and elegance of the original Venice), it has sacrificed none of the magic it had in the early days. Stepping inside is still like turning your back on Colorado and slipping into some warm Tuscan idyll. The soft music, expert staff, murals of Italian hillsides painted on all the walls, and menu inspired by one of Carollo's other jobs (as chef at the Grand Hotel in Florence — rather a step up from an Italian chain restaurant in downtown Denver) are all of a piece here, working together to create a sense of pleasant dislocation in even the most jaded diner. My ravioli di gamberi in a rich, pinky-orange lobster sauce was excellent — sweet and smooth and decadent. And my salad of field greens, grilled chicken and walnuts topped with a few stalks of asparagus, one slice of tomato and one slab of meltingly fresh mozzarella wrapped in an envelope of prosciutto was, by turns, overpoweringly dressed, oddly sweet, wilted, crisp, salty and — every now and then — absolutely perfect when all the elements came together for one ideal bite.
It would be enough to say that Carollo and his crew have kept admirable track of their original house. Considering everything else that's on his plate, it would be enough to say that after five years, nothing about the place feels stale or repetitive or overdone. But apparently, Carollo doesn't know when enough is enough. Because come July 2, he's planning on opening a fourth restaurant, his first out-of-state Venice — in La Jolla, California. Given how good his Colorado restaurants are, that Venice should do just fine.