The time for pasta is now — never has Denver seen such an extravaganza of Italian noodles. Going beyond the classic red sauce joints and Japanese ramen shops, restaurants across the city have been pushing homemade pappardelle, seasonal sauces and winning meat-and-cheese combinations that will cause any pasta-lover to swoon. The only trick is to get in and get these quick. So many of the dishes showcase the local flavors of what's blooming and booming right now that the majority come off menus before diners know it. The good news is that these top pasta producers just keep rolling out the hits. Here are the ten best pasta dishes in town, listed alphabetically by restaurant.
Bar Dough's Tagliarini
2227 West 32nd Avenue
Although black isn't the first color to spring to mind when coveting comfort carbs, the squid ink-infused tagliarini at Bar Dough will have you craving the darker side of dinner. The dish starts with mussel power, about ten pounds to be exact. The shellfish simmer in a white wine and shallot broth until they pop open; the juices are then blended with butter, garlic, anchovies and Calabrian chiles into a rich, thick base that's made into a sauce that coats each tender noodle. The lush creaminess works well with an additional pile of mussels, calamari and spicy greens tossed together. "It hits all the notes," says executive chef Carrie Baird. "You can eat a lot of it, but it's very complex and filling at the same time." The tagliarini dish is part of the team's larger pasta program, something that changes up here and there. Order the item a la carte, or go for variety with a Bar Dough pasta sampler.
The Bindery's Heirloom Carrot Ravioli
1817 Central Street
Since opening late last year, chef and owner Linda Hampsten Fox's all-day eatery has cranked out quite a few elegant pasta creations. Right now you can sample her excellent heirloom carrot ravioli, a light and bright plate of toothsome pasta pockets. Inside each delicate square hides carrot puree mixed with lemon zest and pecorino Romano cheese. "Carrots were on my wish list for spring," says Fox, adding that the carrots harvested in the spring taste different from the same vegetable grown later in the year. "They are also a beautiful and colorful vegetable to use." The ravioli are sauced with a rich butter infused with carrot tops and tinged with fresh parsley, making it not only a perfect pasta, but one that uses as much of the product as possible.
10195 East 29th Drive
Chef and owner Elise Wiggins is no stranger to expertly crafted pastas; she pulled them off for years at Panzano before opening her own Stapleton restaurant. Each dish on the menu comes from years of research in Italy, including the pasticcio, a recipe that hales from the 15th century and was made for Catherine di Medici for her birthday. Made up of meatballs, three-cheese tortellini, a slow-braised Bolognese sauce and topped with bechamel and even more cheese, it's a rich tribute to long-gone nobility. Each order gets cooked in Cattivella's wood oven and comes in a neat little cast iron pot. It's a pasta fit for royalty — but you can enjoy it even if it's not your birthday and you don't have designs on the throne.
Chow Morso's Mushroom Ragu
3200 Pecos Street
Even on a warm spring day we sometimes crave comfort — like the warmth of a bowl of mushroom ragu from Chow Morso. The rich, creamy, earthy sauce is a deceptively simple mix of cremini mushrooms, Parmigiano cheese and sage. The ragu coats fresh-made "shoestring" pasta, wide and flat like tagliatelle. Whatever the name, it's an excellent choice at the Italian fast-casual counter inside Avanti Food & Beverage. And soon you'll be able to dive into more mushroom ragu in a full-service setting, as Ryan Fletter and chef Darrel Truett, who also run Barolo Grill, will launch a bigger version of Chow Morso in the former home of the Squeaky Bean this summer.
Coperta's Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
400 East 20th Avenue
There's an art to making a simple sauce that's creamy without feeling heavy, and flavorful without being overpowering. Coperta has nailed it with chef/owner Paul Reilly's cacio e pepe, a classic Roman dish made with hard cheese and black pepper. "We always knew we had to have the Roman triumvirate of pastas for a Roman-inspired restaurant, and cacio was a no-brainer," says Reilly. "It took a lot of attempts to get it down, and that was a delicious ordeal." Coperta's version takes a small turn by using pecorino Romano cheese and cacio di Roma (a semi-soft sheep's milk cheese) and subbing the usual tonnarelli pasta for dried spaghetti. Hunker down on a cool night or sunny afternoon and order a small plate, or indulge in a heaping bowl of pure Italian comfort.
Dio Mio Handmade Pasta's Campanelle
3264 Larimer Street
It would be a crime against noodles to skip the carefully crafted pastas at Alex Figuera and Spencer White's casual eatery, and this spring's campanelle is no exception. Named for the "little bell" shape (although we think they resemble tiny ruffled ice cream cones), the campanelle come with a mushroom ragu, fried maitake mushrooms, pickled beech mushrooms and shavings of cured egg yolk — a potent combination that multiplies the umami many times over. In fact, it's like an ode to fungi, but the golden pasta still shines through. While the garage-like setting of Dio Mio doesn't come across as a pasta palace, the ever-changing options from the chefs' skillful hands will draw you back for many more dinner dates and pasta plates.
Il Posto's Pappardelle
2601 Larimer Street
"From day one, we have made the pappardelle," says Il Posto chef/owner Andrea Frizzi. "It has never changed and is a classic comfort pasta." With one bite, everything Frizzi says becomes clear. The chef adapted the recipe from his mother's own ragu, and what makes it so good is a mixture of melt-in-your-mouth Berkshire pork with marjoram and locally sourced oyster mushrooms from GrowHaus, all on top of a pile of extra-wide, hand-cut pasta. The noodles prove pliable yet snappy, and the dense ragu rich but not heavy. "I call it the '360 pasta,'" says the chef. "It really incorporates all things." And it's just one example of the excellent pasta program to be found at this RiNo hot spot. Every noodle is made by hand and either cooked fresh or dried, depending on the style of pasta and the dish for which it's destined.
1889 16th Street
Decisions are tough when it comes to picking something from the primi menu at this Union Station restaurant from the Frasca Food & Wine team. That said, the tagliatelle with Maine lobster, Calabrian chili, preserved tomato and celery is a must. For starters, it's a light dish bursting with warming flavors that bring to mind dining seaside on the coast of Bellaria, where chef de cuisine Ian Wortham got his inspiration for the fresh-made egg pasta. Get it as a main course along with a glass of co-owner Bobby Stuckey's signature Scarpetta Frico Rosso (from the team's own Italian winery) and call it a staycation in the heart of downtown.
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Rioja's Beet Scarpinocc
1431 Larimer Street
Chef Jennifer Jasinski long ago made a name for herself as a pasta maven, something you can get a taste of at her first restaurant, Rioja. With a stable of other eateries, Jasinksi now entrusts the Rioja kitchen to chef Tim Kuklinski, whose pasta expert Danielle Crangle turns out beautiful creations. Case in point is a beet scarpinocc, a type of pasta hailing from the Lombardi region of Italy that loosely translates to "rustic shoe." The lovely little pockets come magenta-striped from the addition of beet juice to the pasta dough. Lemony ricotta fills each beautiful "shoe," while on top a medley of roasted beets, beech mushrooms and beet greens are scattered over a pool of white-wine beurre fondu. "I wanted something with lots of colors that was visually stunning," says Crangle. Mission accomplished.
2639 West 32nd Avenue
Anything that comes in pasta form from chef Cindhura Reddy and Elliot Strathmann's Highland haven is sure to please — and the agnolotti is no exception. "Pasta is so much about marrying the right shape with the right accompaniment, whether that's the filling or the sauces," says Strathmann. One thing that goes great with the agnolotti is goat — in particular, confit goat. "We figured out over the past few years how to prepare it in different ways," says Strathmann, adding that in general the meat works incredibly well as a filling and in richer sauces. Spuntino sources goat from El Regalo Ranch in Salida, which Reddy and her small team of cooks first cure and then slow-cook until it becomes so tender as to defy standard notions of goat. Aside from that key ingredient, the pasta dish also features melted leeks, bright and spicy Calabrian pepper cream sauce and a scattering of fried leeks on top. Overall, the agnolotti proves surprisingly light, hitting all the best spring-forward notes.