Culinary inspirations: My mama, who I've always called, "ma-MAH," did all of the cooking for our family -- that's what she lives for -- and I've learned pretty much everything I know from her. And I'm very inspired by the country where I was born, Italy. I'll never forget the trip I took back there in 1972 when I was just nine to revisit Ruviano, the place where I was born. We stayed on my mother's farm for most of the trip, and up until then, I guess I never realized how important food was to Italians. Everything is so fresh.... We caught pigeons in the square holes that were designed exactly for that purpose; we caught rabbits in their pen and slaughtered a pig, which was always a big family event. All of the vegetables and fruits were homegrown, and the butter and milk were made from their cows. The one thing that still really stands out for me was the size of the meals we ate. Every meal was bigger than the next; you just ate and ate and ate. I was ninety pounds when I left to go to Italy, and when I returned to America, all that inspiration made me 45 pounds fatter. In other words, I was an Italian meatball at nine years old.
Favorite music to cook by: Andrea Bocelli. Some of his songs send chills through my body -- really love Sogno. I also like to listen to Quiet Riot's "Cum On Feel the Noize." It's fun to crank up the volume and dance in the kitchen.
Most overrated ingredient: Oregano. I know a lot of Italians use it in their cooking, but it doesn't belong in a true marinara sauce, which should be subtle. It's an overpowering spice that only belongs in certain things, like pizza sauce, which requires a little zing.
Most undervalued ingredient: Really, no ingredient is undervalued, so long as it's an essential part of a dish. Foods are about subtleties in taste, smell, appearance and aroma, and every ingredient contributes to that. Personally, I love cilantro in everything.
Favorite local ingredient: Freshly made sausage from Carmine Lonardo's Italian Meat Deli. If you want a special sausage, like what he makes for us at the restaurant, just ask Tony. He's been making the best sausage in Denver since 1948.
Best recent food find: The hot pot with spinach, squid and noodles at JJ Chinese Seafood on Alameda.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: No excuses, no baggy pants or underwear showing; you gotta wear shirts with collars and hats and be clean-cut and well-groomed.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More neighborhood ethnic restaurants, specifically Thai and Vietnamese -- and not just on Federal. And I'd love to see more late-night dining spots. Restaurant people work long, late hours; we like to eat too. JJ's Chinese, Steuben's and Lala's Wine Bar all have some excellent late-night menus, but we could certainly benefit from having a lot more.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Franchises and chains. I mean, seriously, do "pieces of flair" on your server's suspenders really distract anyone from the cookie-cutter, blah foods at those places?
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Microbrews and breweries. I love going down to the Breckenridge Brewery, drinking an Avalanche Ale and knowing that it was brewed right there. Every time I go to a Rockies game, that's the first place I stop before the game.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Pizza. That's why I opened Virgilio's. Pizza is so much better now than in the '90s, but finding good pizza in Denver is still a challenge. I really don't get the places that sell themselves on serving New York-style pizza and then cook on a conveyor belt.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? How to make a calzone in a toaster oven. When I was a mechanic at United Airlines, I used to make calzones in a toaster oven, and ten years later, my old co-workers come into the restaurant and still talk about them. Seriously, they were awesome.
Current Denver culinary genius: I'm not sure about "genius," but I think the head of the pack is Jersey boy Frank Bonanno. His dishes are so creative and beautiful, and even if they didn't taste as amazing as they do, you always eat first with your eyes, and everything he does is so aesthetically astounding.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I'm a purist, so cheese only, or an authentic pizza margherita with fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato and fresh basil. Simple is best to me. Whenever you try a new pizza for the first time, you should just have cheese. I laugh when customers come in and say how well they know pizza because they're from New York, and then they order a six-topping combo. A combo pizza is a great pizza, but how can you really taste the crust, cheese and pizza sauce with all those toppings?
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Extra-virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, onions, bacon, roasted red peppers and spicy Jack cheese. I actually made a pizza like this that was quite spectacular.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? A great bottle of wine, or the best-looking filet mignons that are on sale.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My mama, who lives in Connecticut. Pizza is the only thing in the world that I make better than her.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Steuben's. The staff is so friendly, and they just serve great American food. I love the skirt steak and mashed potatoes, and the burger-and-pony-beer deal after 10 p.m. is the best late-night deal in Denver. I want to try the chicken-fried steak, but whenever I get there, they're always sold out.
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