Getting saucy for brunch at Shells and Sauce

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A cozy bistro in Congress Park, Shells and Sauce is primarily known for its dinners of Tuscan pasta and seafood plates, but it also offers a weekend brunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with a variety of fresh Italian takes on beloved brunch favorites. Oddly enough, though, it's the Mexican dishes that people rave about, with the burritos and the chicken and waffles (neither Italian nor Mexican) topping the reviews.

See also: Zengo: Big flavors on small plates at a bottomless brunch

The 411 Parking was tough as the lot in the back was already full by 10:15 a.m. last weekend and street parking was mostly reserved for residents with permits, but we managed to score a spot on 12th Avenue a few blocks down the street. It was good that we got there right at opening; wait times were already 30 to 45 minutes and growing as we were leaving. Service was friendly and attentive -- what you'd expect from a neighborhood spot.

The Scene If My Big Fat Greek Wedding were remade with Italians, it would be filmed here. Noisy, chaotic and jammed with tables almost on top of each other, the interior is warm and reminiscent of every outrageous family meal you've ever had. With a chalkboard of specials and doodles (bonus points for the minions), the orange walls and wood tables do nothing to create a peaceful catch-up brunch, but you'll definitely be awake after a meal here, especially with all the kiddos. We sat on the small, six-table patio (they also have a rooftop deck), which was a nice reprieve from the craziness inside, except for that bee circling my head that was attracted to the colorful flowerpots. You could still sense the quaint "neighborhoodiness," and the place was especially dog-friendly (one was even sitting on the table next to us), so points for that.

Drinks Although the drinks were served in mason jars (a personal favorite), we started out 0-for-3 on our order -- was a little worrisome, considering two of them were just juice. My tomato juice tasted weirdly fizzy, like it had carbonated soda water added, while my roomie's OJ was clearly just Minute Maid concentrate. Unfortunately, the Bloody Mary was no better -- quite watered down -- but with a $3 price tag, "you get what you pay for" came to mind. The restaurant does offer an option to upgrade to spicy habanero vodka for $1 more, which may have done the trick. If you're on a budget, other $3 cocktails include mimosa glasses ($10 for a carafe) and screwdrivers, with a few more expensive concoctions also available. We sent all three back, which I almost never do. The server apologized profusely and brought replacements -- better, but still nothing to write home about.

The Food With so many things that sounded good, we had a hard time deciding what to order. A solid and extensive list of menu standouts include skillets, with a pork belly and sweet potato version as well as the Vesuvio (a kind of build-your-own, with Italian and Mexican topping options); a Southwest buffalo sausage burrito (nearly as big as my head); blackened shrimp and grits served with eggs and a salad (one of my staples and tough to skip); and either Italian or short-rib Benedicts, the first with capicola and roma tomatoes served on brioche and the second with cheddar cheese and béarnaise over toasted buttermilk biscuits.

We started out with the recommended half-order of funnel fries, served like a funnel cake -- doused in powdered sugar with chocolate and raspberry dipping sauces and whipped cream. It was on the appetizer menu, but seemed more appropriate for a dessert. Still, aside from the fries being a bit over-fried, it's hard to go wrong with those flavors.

I wanted to test the kitchen's Italian chops so I opted for pasta for breakfast: eggs carbonara with two eggs over a bowl of penne tossed in bacon, asparagus and peas in white-wine cream sauce, which was more buttery than creamy. My eggs were perfectly over-medium and the runny yolk made for a much richer version of one of my standard dinner favorites. The bacon was how I like it, not super-crispy, and the asparagus added a nice crunch. All in all a solid dish, albeit quite heavy for brunch.

My brunch companion got the Rocky Mountain frittata, a thin egg pancake topped with goat cheese, jalapeno elk sausage, house potatoes, and Breckenridge whiskey cream. Aside from a sauce that tasted more like sour cream, this dish was a major win if you took the time to make the perfect bite by layering everything on your fork, as the toppings were just strewn about on the plate. I'm a sucker for game meat (the menu is full of it), so this would be my go-to next time. Our third friend got the breakfast tacos, which came three to an order. It looked like they had more than one egg in each taco, along with other hearty toppings like roasted potatoes, cheese, Italian sausage, avocado pico and roasted jalapenos. Drizzled with chipotle cream, which just looked like spicy mayo, the tacos tasted great even if the ingredients made for a messy mouthful.

In true Italian fashion, Shells and Sauce left us all with more than enough to take home for a second meal. Aside from the odd menu layout and a few snafus on the drinks, I would definitely come back because there were so many other things I wanted to try -- minus the salads. No one needs salad for breakfast.

Brunch: it's a time-honored tradition, a mingling of friends over bottomless mimosas for chatting and gluttonous gorging on pancake stacks and egg creations. If your typical Sunday morning debate goes back and forth between heading to the reliable greasy spoon or someplace new and trendy, indecision could have you growing roots in the couch. Meanwhile, wait times at Denver favorites won't get any shorter. So that's where Out to Brunch comes in: In this weekly feature, Lauren Monitz will explore new places and revisit the old faithfuls to help you decide where to go on your next brunch adventure.

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