Denver has a strong Italian history -- but until the last decade or so, this town's Italian restaurants were mostly run-of-the-mill red-sauce joints that you went to more for the convenience than the food. That's changed, though, and today's dining scene is rich with inventive and stylish fare from Italy -- and many of the best Italian restaurants are also Denver's best restaurants, period.
Here, in no particular order, are the city's ten best Italian spots.
Mama Sanninos, 9312 West 58th Avenue, Arvada This kitschy old-school Italian joint is only six years old, but it feels like it could have been opened decades ago. That's because owner Jimmy Sannino comes from an Italian family that once owned Three Sons, before they finally sold the place and it moved out of north Denver. His own restaurant serves up all kinds of good red-sauce fare; our favorite dish is the spaghetti and meatballs, which landed our Best Spaghetti and Meatballs award in this year's Best of Denver. Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli, 1221 West 38th Avenue "Restaurant" is a relative term here: Carbone's is really part market, part sandwich shop, and the place is tiny, table-less and takeout only. But Carbone's, which has been around for decades, serves up the best Italian subs in the city: sandwiches stacked with cured pork products and provolone or stuffed with homemade meatballs or housemade sausage and doused with tangy red sauce. And you can pick up Italian imports -- or sausage to cook at home -- while you wait for your lunch. Spuntino, 2639 West 32nd Avenue Chef John Broening and pastry queen Yasmin Lozada-Hissom recently took over the kitchen at Spuntino, and the charming, Italian-inspired cafe is now a great neighborhood restaurant, serving Highland simple, quality fare made with fresh, seasonal ingredients: housemade pastas, bruschetta, meatballs, sandwiches packed with cured meat or fresh mozzarella, and salads that will make you want to eat your vegetables. Don't miss the gelato, long a staple at this spot; we're particularly enamored of the sea salt chocolate caramel flavor. The Wooden Table, 2500 East Orchard Road, Littleton Brett Shaheen trained in Frank Bonanno's kitchens, which gave him plenty of experience with Italian cooking. And when he opened the Wooden Table with Jane Knauf, the restaurant in the southern suburbs that's the focus of this week's review, he brought a masterful touch to the menu, which is filled with perfectly executed dishes -- including housemade pastas, playful twists on such classics as panzanella and sublimely cooked scallops -- that showcase Italian culinary tradition without being slavish to it. Paired with a savvy Italian-focused wine list, every meal here is worthy of a special occasion. Frasca Food and Wine, 1738 Pearl Street, Boulder When Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson opened Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, they didn't just raise the bar for restaurants here in Colorado; they also introduced diners in the area to an often-unfamiliar part of Italy. They focused on the cuisine of Friuli, building a menu inspired by the northern region's culinary traditions. The place has just gotten better with age, with an ever-changing menu of seasonal pastas and entrees bolstered by a couple of mainstays like frico caldo -- a griddled cheese-and-potato pancake -- and carefully sourced list of salumi that pairs to an exceptional Italian-focused (but very broad) wine list. Il Posto, 2011 East 17th Avenue It's been more than five years since Andrea Frizzi opened Il Posto, and since then, the restaurant, with its breezy dining room, open kitchen and chalkboard menus, has achieved venerable neighborhood-joint status. Frizzi imports his favorite Italian ingredients and combines them into dishes meant to showcase seasonality and inventive flavor. Kick off the night with a little cured meat and Italian cheese -- it goes great with the free pour of fizzy Lambrusco given to every diner -- and don't miss the risotto. Luca d'Italia, 711 Grant Street When Frank Bonanno opened Luca d'Italia in Denver nine years ago, he showed the city that southern Italian food could be more than just a run-of-the-mill red-sauce joint: His sexy Luca menu was special-occasion-worthy. Many good Italian restaurants have joined the lineup in the last decade, but Luca remains superlative, with dishes ranging from delightful pastas made with seasonal ingredients (and an excellent pappardelle Bolognese) to baby octopus matched with crispy trotters and a kick-ass suckling-pig porchetta. Barolo Grill, 3030 East Sixth Avenue Three-decade-old Barolo Grill has long been held up as the gold standard for fine dining in this town, and while the Piemontese restaurant has had its ups and downs, it's definitely flying high now, turning out inventive northern Italian fare under Darrel Truett, a seven-year veteran of the kitchen who stepped into the exec role a little more than a year ago. The menu changes frequently to keep up with the seasons, but no matter when you stop by, you can be assured you'll experience near-perfect dishes with clever twists, which means the best way to go may be the tasting menu. Don't miss owner Blair Taylor's wine list, either: It features great bottles at all price points. Sketch, 11 West First Avenue Brian Laird was instrumental in building Barolo Grill's glory, presiding over that kitchen for more than a decade. He moved on last year, though, and eventually settled at Sketch, a wine bar in the old First Avenue Hotel, where he created a tightly edited list of snacks, panini and expertly executed housemade pasta, including pasta puttanesca -- made with anchovies, chile flakes and capers -- and veal-stuffed plin. Sketch isn't a typical neighborhood Italian joint...it's better. And with Laird in the kitchen, it rated our Best Neighborhood Italian Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2012. 1. Panzano, 909 17th Street Elise Wiggins presides over the kitchen at Panzano, an elegant space on the bottom floor of the Hotel Monaco that's anything but a run-of-the-mill hotel restaurant. Her menu is inspired by northern Italy, but the chef also has a commitment to local suppliers, and she uses some of Colorado's finest sources to build her dishes. The combination of those good ingredients and her exacting technique means she makes absolutely stunning food, from duck-liver mousse and fried Brussels sprouts to excellent gnocchi, pappardelle Bolognese and tagliatelle carbonara with house-cured pancetta. And that's why Panzano once again took our Best Italian Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2012.
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