Panzano reveals its delicious new digs

The woman whooshed through the doors and out into the snow, the words tumbling out of her mouth faster than a Ferrari flying down a stretch of straight asphalt. She was from San Francisco, a tourist, the perfect display of a catwalk model — faultless makeup, Pilates calves and a Barbie-doll waistline — and she had just spent the last few hours lunching with a friend at Panzano, the restaurant attached to the Hotel Monaco. "Don't you think the transformation is stunning?" she coaxed her companion, who nodded appreciatively. "No, really, don't you think it's gorgeous? I want one of those chandeliers — the red one — and the carpet? That's genius!"

Panzano's makeover had been unveiled just a week before, and already people were rhapsodizing about the new look.

Despite a flat economy, the National Restaurant Association predicts that Colorado will post the strongest sales growth in the country this year: 2.9 percent, with 2010 industry sales of $8.7 billion. New restaurants are opening monthly, if not weekly, in and around Denver, and older restaurants, recognizing that they need to keep up with the competition, are doing high-speed facelifts. Restaurants like Panzano, for example, which closed on January 14 for a remodel that took all of fourteen days.



909 17th Street



Hours: Open for breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Open for dinner daily.

"I was worried," admits executive chef Elise Wiggins, "worried about the whole out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing, but on the first night that we reopened, we did more than 200 covers, and I was tickled pink." She leans back and grins. "The community really owns this restaurant," she says, sweeping her arms across the dining room, "and when a bunch of our regulars come in and give it their okay — their thumbs up — that right there is all the testament I need to know that we got it right."

Wiggins was working in Memphis in April 2004, when she got the courting call from the Kimpton Group to head the kitchen of Panzano, the Italian restaurant that had soared to prominence under Jennifer Jasinski, now the chef/co-owner of Rioja and Bistro Vendôme. "Coming into Panzano right behind Jen and her thigh-high boots wasn't easy," confesses Wiggins. "It was tough, because for months, even years, there was always this hard-core, relentless comparison between me and Jen that came from the staff and the customers, and it was frustrating, because for the most part, people don't like change — and I was change."

But over the past six years, Wiggins — like the now-eleven-year-old restaurant she oversees — has come into her own. Customers no longer ask if she's "doing Jen's food"; her early menu, which began "cautiously," Wiggins admits, has evolved into "a mix of rustic Italian and fun, contemporary spins"; and the staff, most of whom have been with her since day one, seamlessly follow her vision.

Part of her success, Wiggins suggests, is the fact that she rejects the status quo, questions conventionality and embraces the cynics. "I'm incredibly competitive," she notes. "I ask a lot of questions, and I love it when people tell me I can't do something, because you know what? I can, and, more to the point, I will." Like raising her own steers, for instance. "From the moment I started working here, I wanted to have my own cattle — my mantra is 'Waste nothing' — and four years later, I finally found some ranchers I could work with." Through her butcher, Snooky Acierno, Wiggins met Debbie and John Medved, who now raise Black Angus steer and Scottish Highlands cattle for her kitchen at their Bear Mountain Ranch in Genesee.

It took two years before Wiggins got her first steer, but the wait was worth it. "I remember getting my first test cow and thinking of all the opportunities I'd have to get creative on my menu — all the different ways I could go through 800 pounds of ground beef, 70 pounds of bones and 50 pounds of offal every two weeks," she says, then laughs.

And Wiggins, who maintains that she'd own her own ranch if she could, didn't stop there. When a call came from the Colorado Lamb Board asking which cuts of lamb she was using at Panzano, she asked her own question: Where could she procure a whole lamb? The board connected her with David and Mary Miller, owners of Triple M Bar Ranch in Manzanola, who just happen to raise — and sell — whole lambs. "I'm so impressed with the flavor of the meat, and just like with the steers, I'm using everything — everything — including the offal and bones and even the neck muscle, which I'm grilling like a skirt steak," Wiggins says.

From the start, a commitment to the local and sustainable movement was part of her plan. "It's all about the evolution," she insists.

As so it goes for Panzano, whose ambitious redo was also several years in the making. "When I started working here, the dining room was just on the edge of losing its modern edge," recalls Wiggins. "About three years ago, we sent out surveys to guests, and while the food and service scores stayed high, the atmosphere scores were always a tick lower, so we all knew it was time to make some changes. We knew we needed to remain competitive." But the process went slower than expected, mostly due to management-company changes.

The go-ahead finally came early last year when Cornerstone, Panzano's asset manager, gave the staff the green light. "Even through the recession, we had a killer year at Panzano," Wiggins says. "Cornerstone believed in us. They knew they weren't pouring their money down a black hole." They enlisted the talents of the Puccini Group, a San Francisco-based restaurant and social spaces design firm, to direct the remodeling efforts of the 6,800-square-foot space — a decision based on the firm's eye for detail and state-of-the-art vision.

"They do amazing work, and we have a really good relationship with them," says Panzano general manager Josh Mayo. "We've worked with them before, and they just get it." The goal was to urbanize the restaurant's Old World, formal elegance: ditch the starchy white tablecloths; allow the servers to breathe by taking away their neck-strangling ties; make the barren area by the bakery — deemed the "trailer park" by the staff — brighter, more finished, noticeably airier; and paint the walls and former dark woods an intentionally neutral color — gun-metal gray with hints of taupe — that wouldn't distract from Wiggins's food but would highlight the accents of the exhibition kitchen, new art and light fixtures.

"The restaurant scene is growing so quickly, even as we speak, and people want to go to the newest places, the hip places, and as an older restaurant, you have to think about those challenges," says Mayo. The biggest internal challenge was making the space more flexible for large parties while increasing the number of seats. "We really wanted to get rid of any undesirable tables," he continues, "and we needed to make the space more convertible, especially since we'd be running around a week before a big holiday, like Valentine's Day, wondering where we were going to seat everyone — and big parties were always difficult for us to accommodate." To that end, there's now a chef's table directly in front of the kitchen; several of the booths have been swapped out for square tables that open to rounds; and the private dining room, with its lustrous lighting and candy-apple-red molding, has the kind of polished sensuality that you'd expect from a restaurant renowned for its culinary triumphs.

Nearly two feet of faux frosting was removed from the windows overlooking the unfolding streetscape and sidewalk scene on 17th Street (which you can now see); the tchotchkes that camouflaged every inch of wall space have been (thankfully) retired in favor of contemporary murals and wall cutouts with red-framed cityscapes of Florence; and the booths, tables and chairs have been admirably updated, too. "Everything was composed around comfort," says Mayo. The vinyl booths, their backs hued charcoal with red welting, have a satin-y texture, making it easy to slide in and out, and the gold-textured high-back chairs are easy on the butt. The light fixtures are dramatic, wholly unaffordable Murano-style chandeliers — gemstone ruby and coffin black — that stop you dead in your stilettos; drum shades with brass trimwork; brass library-lamp sconces; and copper pendant lights that hang over the kitchen, pizzeria and bakery, which is now a full display of the restaurant's house-baked breads. Even the antiquated plates and flimsy cutlery have been replaced by white china and heavy silverware, including curved dinner knives that double as steak knives.

But it's Panzano's new claret-and-chocolate-colored carpet — the obsession of the cosmopolitan girl from San Francisco — that's the most striking conversation piece: a cross-section of the street map of Florence. There's the Duomo! And right next to it, the Baptistery. Take a step this way or that, and you'll land on the Palazzo Strazzi or the Palazzo Vecchio. Then again, you might fall from the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno River. No matter which way you go, you land on a slice of Italy that nearly transports you there. "When the carpet roll got delivered, I was like a kid in a candy store," remembers Mayo. "I couldn't wait to roll it back, and once we did, all of us just loved it."

For all the fancy new decor, Wiggins is most attached to her new kitchen equipment: Vulcan ranges, grill, salamander, flat top and fryer, all top of the line. "It's the Mercedes-Benz of kitchen equipment," she says. "I can move my sauté pans all over the place and they won't slip; there's a half-inch-thick slab of steel on the bottom of the oven that's a perfect conductor of heat, and everything has been adapted to altitude." One of the nicest things about working with Kimpton, she adds, is "that if I want new toys, I get new toys."

Wiggins got another wish, too. "We've all been looking for that last component, that last remnant of change, and my wish for this restaurant has always been to help it grow and evolve — and for me to evolve with it," she concludes. "With the design completed, I feel like we've come full circle."

Contact the author at lori.midson@westword.com.

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