I've passed by LoDo's Venice Ristorante and Wine Bar many, many times over the years, writing it off as a generic expense account Italian restaurant -- or hardly noticing it at all. It took the retro-chic revival of Union Station across the street and the promise of a great happy hour for me to stop by and find Venice doing what it does best -- serving classic pan-Italian food and wine.
"As far as Italian food goes in Denver, it doesn't get any better than Venice," Westword wrote when it named Venice the Best High-End Italian Restaurant in 2008, three years after Owner Alessandro Carollo opened the restaurant in LoDo, his third. Since then, there's been no lack of competition for that particular crown.
But unlike the tourist restaurants you'll find in the actual city of Venice, this place is not cheesy, overpriced or gondolier-themed. Other than the delightful Venetian mural and the giant glass-encased wine room, the place isn't showy -- or showing its age. The happy hour menu prices, however, are a blast from 2006. All plates -- medium-sized servings that are just about perfect in their volume and construction -- are only $4.50 each. The menu itself is filled with 'safe' choices from the Italian cookbook to compliment the Sinatra and opera on the speakers: a spaghetti here, a Bolognese there, but with a number of interesting selections shine through.
Take the melanzane alla Parmigiana -- stacked slices of silky eggplant in a mild tomato sauce, with Parmesan cheese and a dollop of fresh mozzarella on top. With a sprig of basil, it was light and refreshing, a great appetizer done with unexpected care and grace. Even more impressive was the cappelacci de zucca, squash-stuffed ravioli. The house-made hat-shaped pasta is packed with rich butternut, ricotta and raisins, and doused in the same red sauce as the eggplant. The advertised brown butter sauce was little seen or tasted, but the pasta was so toothsome, the freshly grated Parmesan so sharp, I didn't mind a bit. There's not a lot on these plates, but their presentation and execution fooled me into happily believing that I had a feast on my hands.
Venice's strongly Italian-focused cocktail list is also a relic of the recent past, but it's square enough to be hip in this age of mixology. Yet I ended up with a fine and generous glass of Barbera ($6 at happy hour -- no steal, but not bad). Almost any grape variety you could ask for is on the happy menu. That's Venice Ristorante for you, a bevy of solid choices that come wrapped in delight like so many little hat ravioli.
Perfect for: For all its glitz, Union Station is lacking a middle ground between high-end and low-brow restaurants. Give visiting friends a tour and then stop here to eat instead.
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Don't miss: Though it wasn't a happy hour special, I had to sample one of Venice's dessert options. The budino di pane bread pudding ($7), heavy with sweet banana and glazed in caramel, was exceptional. The dolci here should make up for pounds of terrible tiramisu and gloppy gelato typical of many Italian joints.