Denver Restaurant Week can change the heart of a kitchen: For ten days, eateries in the city steel themselves for big crowds and plate after plate of risotto, roasted chicken and flourless chocolate cake. You can tell a lot about a restaurant from how well it handles the event and what it does within its own restrictions. Panzano, for example, becomes a tad safer for diners and steamrolls over the happy-hour retooling that was just completed last month — but that's a temporary condition. The trusty Italian restaurant inside the Hotel Monaco has always been, and continues to be, a pace-setting restaurant, especially at happy hour.
Due to unforseen circumstances (read: my unforgivable ignorance), the happy hour I was served won't quite resemble the one you'll experience if you head to Panzano after March 6 (the end of this particular round of madness). Anticipating the Restaurant Week rush, the bar shortened its happy hour, normally served daily from 2:30 to 6 p.m., and replaced a selection of recently added menu items with shrunken selections from the DRW prix fixe menu. Since every happy hour still needs discounted drinks, $6 craft cocktails from the fancy new bar menu do remain, along with $4 local drafts and $5 wines. This is also where I should disclose my glaring bias: I know executive chef Elise Wiggins to be a delightful person, and she's responsible for one of the best meals of my life, a multi-course extravaganza showing off her uses of Triple M Bar lamb from Manzanola in southeastern Colorado. So it seems I'll always have a fondness for this space.
Since the brand-new bar was installed, Panzano does look a bit less like a '90s-era nightmare. The rail and backsplash have a touch of modern, but old-world brushed copper and white marble still poke out here and there. As befits a hotel restaurant, happy hour starts early and is served only in the expansive bar area, which flows from roomy and half-empty to absolutely packed. I jumped in with the Italian Silk ($6), which boasts vodka, a vanilla-fennel shrub, grapefruit and housemade fennel bitters. Tantalizing as it seemed, it came around a bit rushed, with a lack of fennel-y bite and an ugly plastic straw sticking out of the top. Barrel-aged cocktails ($9) are worth the upcharge, though: A strong, spiced-rye Manhattan slams right into your liver, balanced by the sublime syrupiness of imported Amarena cherries.
When the new bar menu was unveiled, Panzano reps promised such exciting tastes as rabbit porchetta and truffled gnocchi. They've disappeared this week, where $5, $6 and $7 choices are staffed up with more conventional Italian dishes that should be familiar to longtime Panzano fans. (These plates are on the normal happy-hour board as well.) Brussels sprouts and calamari ($6 each), two of the best-selling items on the menu, are back, both executed with competence and good taste, if not panache. Apple sticks tossed in apple-cider reduction on the sprouts and spicy chile aioli with the calamari do deserve special mention. Beyond these mainstays, Panzano does quite well with both Italian classics and unique plates.
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First, there's fried eggplant ($5), a universal primi that graces everything from checkered tablecloth to white linen. Two thick, breaded slices are served beautifully with tufts of silky goat cheese, immersed in a tangy red sauce with streaks of balsamic. The eggplant is well-cooked, a welcome surprise on top of the smears of garlic oil that complete the colors of the Italian flag. Wiggins's devotion to lamb is made explicit with a succinct plate of ragu di agnello ($7), lamb with pasta. Tender chunks of lamb provide their own demi-glace, with house-cut mafaldine pasta twisted around them. Bits of soft-ish Pecorino tartufo (truffle cheese) reveal the hand of a master.
I don't need to tell you that Panzano is good; you've certainly heard that already over its many years of service. Screw it — Panzano is good, and if Restaurant Week craziness can't throw it off, I don't think anything can.
Perfect For: Even some of the least-notable hotel restaurants need to offer a solid breakfast to stay afloat. Fortunately, as Lauren Monitz reported, brunch at Panzano is notable indeed. From room-service staples like berry pancakes ($12) to originals like gnocchi hash ($17), Hotel Monaco guests are damn lucky they can get this spread without removing their bathrobes.
Don't Miss: My kindly bartender offered me a taste of the regular barrel-aged Manhattan ($9) made with Woodford Reserve, three kinds of vermouth and a crazy amount of herbs and flavors, another memorable booze salvo. If you're interested in one of Panzano's house-aged blends, this is the one to try.