Regional Italian cuisine is seeing its day in Denver restaurants, with more choices represented from the northern Italian Alps to the southern tip of the boot than ever before. Chefs are showing us new pasta shapes, house-cured meats, intriguing seafood dishes and seasonal ingredients on menus in new eateries as well as established veterans. We'll address old-school Italian joints — with their red sauces, garlic bread and chicken parm sandwiches — in another list; here are the best modern Italian restaurants in metro Denver, in alphabetical order:
Barolo Grill and Chow Morso Osteria
3030 East Sixth Avenue, 303-393-1040
1500 Wynkoop Street, 720-639-4089
At just over 25 years old, Barolo Grill presents upscale northern Italian fare in Cherry Creek with charm and sophistication — and a generous amount of vintage wine. Ryan Fletter took over as owner four years ago, and quickly installed executive chef Darrel Truett in the kitchen, where cutting-edge presentations and techniques have kept the restaurant relevant and rewarding to guests. Last year, Fletter and Truett turned to Italian street fare and approachable plates with Chow Morso, giving downtown the same level of hospitality and warmth as Barolo, only in a more casual setting. Both restaurants show that attention to a guest's every need is as important as the food itself.
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
Chef Kelly Whitaker has built a menu based on house-milled heritage grains, Colorado meats and produce, and a dedication to Old World methods — even if some of his ingredients stray from the typical Italian palate. Whole fish and half chickens, wood-fired vegetables, exemplary small bites and heavenly lasagna are all draws, not to mention the wood-fired pizzas that were the core of the menu when Basta launched in its inconspicuous Boulder spot in 2010. Those pizzas aren't the only thing cooked in the wood-burning oven: Everything is tinged with a hint of campfire, even the housemade vanilla ice cream.
10253 East Iliff Avenue, Aurora
At Bettola, Chef Samir Mohammad and his partner, Rachel Firestone, accomplish in a tiny space in an Aurora strip mall what bigger, more lavishly appointed eateries can only dream of, making each guest feel like welcome family members enjoying a special meal just for them. With a minimal staff and a tiny kitchen, the couple turns out tempting Italian cooking that straddles the line between traditional and innovative. The menu changes with the seasons, and you may even find ingredients from Mohammad and Firestone's home garden. Food is priced for the neighborhood, making it an easy choice for Aurora residents dreading downtown Denver crowds and traffic. Fill up on handmade pasta or perfectly cooked risotto, then stay for sips of Mohammad's house limoncello.
400 East 20th Avenue
Brother-and-sister team Paul and Aileen Reilly traveled around Italy searching for regional flavors and dishes before opening Coperta, their followup to Beast + Bottle. Much of the menu is inspired by the cuisine of Rome and points south, including knockout dishes like cavatelli with lamb and beef ragù, bucatini all'amatriciana with salty nubs of guanciale, and deceptively simple cacio e pepe. Chicken isn’t always the most exciting dish on a menu, but Coperta’s pollo alla diavola makes you reconsider that assumption: Diavola means “devil,” and this wood-charred half a chicken lives up to its name, fiery from its chile marinade, Calabrian chiles and the red-tinged chile oil ringing the plate. Other delicious touches are the spuzzulia, a chef’s-choice selection of off-menu nibbles, and a mozzarella bar, which allows you to build your own cheese plate with add-ons from anchovies to pesto garganico.
10195 East 29th Avenue
In 2016, chef Elise Wiggins opened her first restaurant, Cattivella (which means "naughty girl" in Italian), a place that reflects her many experiences traveling, working and eating in Italy. The wood-fired oven is used for far more than pizzas, and an adjustable wood grill gives meats (many of them brought in whole and butchered on site) and vegetables a rustic, old-world depth of flavor (during the warm months, large-format grilling takes place on the patio). And then there are the housemade breads and pastas, which separate Cattivella from standard joints. You're sure to feel spoiled — even a little naughty — delving into this unabashedly Italian eatery.
955 Lincoln Street
When it comes to Italian cuisine, simplicity, craftsmanship and unassailable ingredients are what count — and DiFranco's, an unassuming, low-key joint in the Golden Triangle, embraces all of those attributes. It serves a lovely selection of housemade pastas, including a terrific penne specked with fresh parsley and dusted with sharp Pecorino, as well as a textbook-perfect spaghetti and meatballs. The subs, stacked on fresh-baked bread, are equally transcendent, and even the salads deserve your attention. And don't even think about waltzing out the door without trying the meatballs, cannoli or ricotta cookies. The place is tiny, with only a few tables, but that just adds to the charm.
3264 Larimer Street
Alex Figura and Spencer White are trying to elevate pasta’s status as an oft-abused filler to the star of the plate, one handmade noodle at a time, at Dio Mio. But rather than taking an overtly refined approach, as you’d expect given their backgrounds in kitchens where success was measured in awards and Michelin stars, they’ve set up shop in a minimalist fast-casual spot, with unadorned white walls, black chairs and a stark-white art installation that dangles from the ceiling like a squadron of half-folded paper airplanes. Freed from the burdens of high-end, high-overhead operations, they seem thrilled to let loose and use food as a springboard for play. Seasonal vegetables and herbs serve as the color palette on an ever-changing canvas of ravioli and spaghetti.
Frasca Food & Wine and Tavernetta
1738 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-442-6966
1889 16th Street, 720-605-1889
The word "hospitality" seems practically invented to describe the experience at Frasca, which just won the Outstanding Service award from the James Beard Foundation this year. Of course, the food and wine are also worthy of the restaurant's international reputation, making it not only a top Italian specialist, but one of the best restaurants in any category in Colorado. And in 2017, co-founders Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson extended their brand to Tavernetta behind Union Station, offering a more boisterous and lively foil to Frasca's more dignified demeanor. Book a table at Frasca for composed plates and perfectly paced tasting menus, or drop in at Tavernetta for a playful jaunt through Italy's tastiest regions.
2601 Larimer Street
When Andrea Frizzi moved Il Posto from its cubby on East 17th Avenue to a sleek bi-level cube in RiNo in 2017, we held our breath: Would the new address be a good home for this restaurant's semi-chaotic charm? We needn't have worried. Il Posto 2.0 presents some of the team's best cooking yet, from new meditations on its always-stellar risotti to a masterful pappardelle with pork ragu. And despite its more grown-up vibe, this space is infused with the old Il Posto magic: Frizzi bobs around frenetically kissing the cheeks of friends and strangers alike, wine from an expertly curated list pours freely and easily, and the energy of the kitchen spills out from an open window. As a bonus, Il Posto has one of the best tables in Denver, a second-level corner seat that looks out on the Denver skyline. Trying to impress someone? Request it.
Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers
2403 Champa Street
Liberati owner and brewer Alex Liberati coined the word "oenobeer" to describe the grape-based brews on tap at the restaurant he opened in October 2018; while the brand-new term may seem precious, it's appropriate in that the wholly unique beverages he's turning out merit a one-of-a-kind word to describe them. While everything on tap is technically (and legally) considered beer, Liberati uses anywhere from 7 to 49 percent grapes in his recipes, resulting in flavors that will flummox even the most sophisticated beer connoisseur. The menu is no less inventive, with dishes like savory cannoli stuffed with sea bass and monkfish and encrusted with couscous; a lasagna ravioli with slow-cooked meat and tomato sauce on the interior of the pasta and bechamel spooned over the top; and sampietrini sandwiches, akin to tiny calzones filled with everything from beef stew to eggplant parmesan. A spacious patio with a tiled fountain and bocce courts adds to the draw during spring and summer days.
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Luca and Osteria Marco
711 Grant Street, 303-832-6600
1453 Larimer Street, 303-534-5855
Restaurateur Frank Bonanno oversees two Italian spots: the elegant Luca in Governor's Park, and the younger, more boisterous Osteria Marco in Larimer Square. Both have been pioneers in introducing traditional, handmade Italian specialties — including burrata, housemade salumi and ciccioli — to Denver diners, often presaging menu trends by years. Luca sees a steady stream of neighborhood regulars coming in for handmade pastas and Old World dishes like saltimbocca and carbonara, while Osteria Marco is a lively destination for groups out on the town searching for more casual panini, pizzas and shared plates.
2639 West 32nd Avenue
Chef Cindhura Reddy and her husband, Elliot Strathmann, have been running their intimate Italian eatery, Spuntino, since 2014. Hand-rolled pastas and braised meats are the stars, and Colorado-raised goat and creamy arancini (sometimes with Hatch chiles) have become signature items. At the bar, Strathmann has amassed a collection of Italian amari, the bitter after-dinner spirits (including several versions he makes himself) that give diners one more reason to linger. Spuntino is the neighborhood hangout that every neighborhood wishes it had.