Cafe Society

Outstanding "Boss Italian" makes Crimson Canary sing

Hunched in a club-chair bar seat under the glow of multi-colored Christmas lights, I looked nervously at my boyfriend.

"Where's the rest of the noodle?" he asked, glaring. "You ate it, didn't you? You're supposed to be judicious with the noodle."

"But I liked the noodle," I responded.

"I liked the noodle, too," he said, shaking his head. It had been a pretty great noodle. Long, flat and wide, the house-cut pappardelle was the best part of the osso bucco at Crimson Canary. After forking up a few bites of the tender braised oxtail, I'd focused on the pasta — slurping it greedily from a broth made slightly bitter by escarole. As a consolation prize, I offered Rob the garlicky linguini with clams that I'd been hoarding. He took the plate and started twirling nests of noodles while I leaned against the padded rail of the bar at the center of the restaurant, sipping a housemade limoncello in hopes that it would help me digest what had been a giant dinner.

Around the edges of the room, groups huddled in dark booths under red chandeliers and photos of famous mobsters; a soundtrack of '80s hits was just loud enough to drown out their conversation. If this were several decades ago, it would be easy to imagine that those parties had met to discuss illicit activities over meatballs and Morettis. But in reality, the other diners were mostly hipsters who'd wandered in from nearby bars for another drink, a snack or a full, late-night meal. Still, Crimson Canary had the feel of a real old-school neighborhood Italian joint — or at least a reel old-school neighborhood Italian joint, as envisioned by Hollywood — albeit one with a few fresh twists.

But then, partners Joey Newman and brothers Andre and Aaron Lobato have already proved that they can put together a tight concept that plays off our country's collective nostalgia. Their first restaurant in Denver, Interstate Kitchen & Bar, is a tricked-out version of a highway roadhouse, complete with kitschy decor that alludes to Route 66, a menu that updates Americana classics, and a whiskey-focused bar. Interstate manages to serve up a colorful, romanticized slice of America's past without feeling pretentious or cloying.

See more photos from the Crimson Canary

And Crimson Canary does the same. The partners had considered several other concepts, Aaron Lobato says, but when they took over the former home of Mona's on South Broadway last summer, they decided it was time to bring what they call "Boss Italian" to life. "We're drawing from the Mafioso era of great Italian food, but done more at a superlative, hip level," Newman told me when the trio announced their plans. "This is not your usual red-sauce kind of place. It's kind of like what we do at Interstate applied to this type of food."

The partners drew inspiration from 1970s-era Italian steakhouses, revamping the space to echo movie portrayals of joints in that decade. And when the doors opened in November, they revealed exactly what Newman had promised: a dark den, incorporating imaginative elements of Italian-American restaurant history that both steer clear of kitsch and appeal to South Broadway's twenty- and thirty-something crowd, with a kitchen that turns out such Italian-American classics as fried calamari, osso bucco, Italian sandwiches and lasagna. But the partners also took some liberties with the menu, adding a fairly serious salumi program — meats and cheeses are sourced from excellent purveyors and rotate on a regular basis — and dishes, like shrimp-and-prosciutto risotto, and pumpkin-and-pear soup, that exhibit a preference for taste over strict adherence to theme. The food pairs with a bar that's heavy on Italian liqueurs, twists on such '70s-era cocktails as the Rusty Nail and Harvey Wallbanger, Italian wine and Italian and domestic beers. And everything's priced where you'd expect a neighborhood Italian joint to ring in, too, with generously portioned entrees at around $15 each and happy-hour snacks for under five bucks. But what makes Crimson Canary really sing is the quality of its food.

I sampled several good dishes during my first meal there — and several that rated as great. Before Rob and I squabbled over that osso bucco noodle, we'd fought for every last speck of fried calamari. The kitchen had mixed lemon slices and spicy housemade giardiniera — the blend of pickled peppers and vegetables most often found on deli sandwiches — with the springy bodies and tentacles of the squid before covering them with a delicate batter, frying the whole mess and then dusting the finished product with sweet basil, lemon and plenty of salt. Sided with a basic basil pesto that further enhanced the play of tart, spicy peppers against the supple fish and that feathery batter, the dish was stunning. It might have been the best fried calamari I've ever tasted.

The salumi contained several items worth fighting for: fresh, sweet mozzarella; a sharp Taleggio; piles of hot soppressa and smoky speck; a couple of caperberries and olives as accoutrements. The entire assortment paired perfectly with the contents of the bread basket, which included a couple of toasty baguettes and some ciabatta, all served warm.

In the feeding frenzy, we left the fried artichokes almost untouched — but only because, served as halves, they required too much effort to eat and became casualties of our distraction. But we didn't need that dish, anyway. Even if we hadn't ordered appetizers, our entrees would have been plenty of food...and good food, at that. I couldn't wait to return.

On my next visit, Rob and I shared a booth and a meal that started with pumpkin-and-pear soup and a baked burrata salad. Several spoonfuls into the soup, I couldn't decide whether I liked it. Pumpkin is a bland vegetable that requires a lot of seasoning to pep it up. The kitchen had sweetened the soup with pear purée and studded it with delightful textural elements — like crunchy pepitas and chewy poached pear — but it still needed something savory to bring the flavors into balance, and the dollop of mascarpone in the center didn't do the trick. The salad, however, was outstanding. Burrata, with its stretchy casing and creamy center, is a top-notch cheese, delicious even when served with just a little salt. The kitchen had gone much further, though, pitting the burrata against bitter greens and sweet figs, complements in both texture and flavor, and wintery enough that I didn't mind eating raw vegetables on a freezing night.

Rob had ordered the risotto as an entree, and I spent a few minutes seething with envy after it came to the table. Preparing risotto is time-consuming, and Crimson Canary had clearly taken a great deal of care with this dish, adding stock in layers to achieve a rich creaminess, cooking the rice until it was an ideal al dente, tossing the shrimp in at the last second so that they didn't overcook, then garnishing the risotto with a slice of crisped prosciutto — which added a one-two punch of porky goodness and texture — and fresh pea shoots, which pair so well with prawns. My Italian grinder — which piled salami, mortadella and provolone on two halves of a lightly toasted baguette — paled in comparison. It might have worked better at lunch, but Crimson Canary doesn't open until 3 p.m.

On my own in the neighborhood late one afternoon, I decided to reward myself after a long day with a glass of cheap, simple, juicy negroamaro red wine. The cold had me craving red sauce, so I asked for a couple of side orders, one of spaghetti and the other of meatballs, to make my own spaghetti and meatballs. The same house-cut pasta we'd enjoyed in the clam linguini came topped with a thick, chunky, herb-laden tomato sauce, tangy and pungent from oregano, with just a little kick from dried red peppers. The same sauce complemented a pair of dense, all-beef meatballs, redolent with more oregano and tons of garlic. Together the dishes packed the punch of a circa '70s Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando movie: classic Italian-American, as glorified by Hollywood.

After I'd licked the dishes clean, I paid my check, and the bartender handed over a coupon for a discounted bottle of wine with the purchase of an entree. "Come back soon," he said.

"I will," I promised. Even without the wine deal, a meal at Crimson Canary is an offer I can't refuse.

See more photos from the Crimson Canary

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk