There was a time that if I had guests visiting from out of town, I would promptly take them to happy hour at Osteria Marco to show outsiders that we were indeed a gastronomic city, but not one so pretentious that you had to break the bank to enjoy a little haute cuisine. It was restaurateur Frank Bonanno's first downtown space, offering his culinary prowess well known from Mizuna and Luca in an environment that had that ideal blend of classy date night and hip downtown vibe while still being a place you could take your parents. Plus, and perhaps most important, Osteria Marco had an insanely good happy hour for the quality of fare coming out of the kitchen. This, of course, was more than a decade ago, before Denver was booming with more casual-yet-chic chef-driven restaurants. Which left me wondering: What does this Larimer Square staple feel like now?
What really brought me to Osteria Marco after all these years was twofold. First, Larimer Square is as quaint as can be right now. The street is blocked off from traffic between 14th and 15th streets, allowing pedestrians to wander beneath the festive string lights and among the hay bales while surveying myriad dining options. I wanted to have that special seasonal experience. Second, my brother could not stop talking about his memories of Osteria Marco’s meatball sliders. My initial attempt in person was met with a two-hour wait for a table, so this week, two friends and I forked up the $15 per person reservation fee on Tock to guarantee our spots just before the close of happy hour.
Currently, even with reservations, Osteria Marco does not guarantee patio seating. Luckily, we scored some outdoor seats at our appointed time, just as the weather began to really cool down. Time for red wine. During happy hour, the restaurant offers $2 off all glasses of wine, which range from an $8 (now $6) house red to a $25 ($23) Brunello di Montalcino. I settled on an inky-peppery Nero d'Avola ($10 during happy hour), perfect for the brisk weather.
With the wine warming us, it was time to order up some happy hour noshery, which basically encompasses the pasta and pizza menus, only with all items discounted by $3. While I was eternally bummed that the meatball sliders are no longer on the menu — happy hour or otherwise — I could see how Osteria Marco's approach allows us to actually dine rather than settle for the usual discounted charcuterie and pub-style grub.
My friend staked her claim on the wild-mushroom pizza with Taleggio and truffle oil, which left me pondering the Autumn's Harvest pie, topped with sweet-potato purée, carrots, pancetta, kale, candied walnuts, goat cheese and mozzarella. It's such a mouthful to read, I felt like I had to try it despite being skeptical of sweet potato on pizza. For whatever reason, I did not expect the ball of salad greens in the middle comprising the kale, candied walnuts and goat cheese. Even with the mound of greenery, the flavor of the crispy, salty nuggets of pancetta beneath the thin pizza’s skin stood out, and I fully appreciated that the crust didn’t turn tough and inedible, even with the last bites.
I also snuck a slice of my friend's mushroom pie, which exuded a rich, mellow flavor of Taleggio along with the the not-too-strong essence of truffle oil, making me nostalgic. Sure, you can get burrata or Taleggio on many menus these days, but Bonanno was still one of the first to make them part of my (and many Denverites') culinary repertoire.
After the pizza, my bucatini carbonara arrived nested and hot, its creaminess in danger of seizing up as the cold night air blew across it. My companion found his noodles too soft and lacking salt; I disagreed, finding the long hollow strands perfectly al dente bits of chewiness. While the dish didn’t quite rival my favorite bucatini-based pasta dish (that would be Roscioli’s amatriciana in Rome) the thick chunks of guanciale made happy hour feel like truly indulgent fare.
The check, too, reminded me that these days, Osteria Marco's isn’t your usual happy hour. The bill deducted our $45 Tock table reservation and added a 22 percent CHP (Creating Happy People) service charge. The restaurant’s website has a clear explanation of this fine “skip the tip” policy (in which every restaurant employee — including the oft-underpaid dishwashers and line cooks — is ensured a fair wage), but our server’s description didn't make it clear whether we were expected to tip on top of this charge. That said, I just paid a fair price for an upscale meal that was perfectly, nostalgically Denver. Just bring back those meatballs, okay?
Osteria Marco is located at 1453 Larimer Street and offers happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 303-534-5855 or visit the restaurant's website for details.
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