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.