Review: Gozo is a real hot spot -- in more ways than one

Gozo 30 South Broadway 720-638-1462

Denver's restaurant scene is flourishing, which means two things: It's harder than ever to decide where to eat, and just as hard to know what your money will buy once you get there.

For a recent review meal at Chai & Chai, the no-frills Indian-Arabian restaurant in Aurora, I waded through dirty dishes to find a seat, quaffed lukewarm water from a plastic bottle, and filled up on rice because there wasn't much meat on my lamb mansaf. A month later, I walked into Gozo, an Italian/Spanish-inspired eatery that opened on South Broadway in March, without a reservation and was shown to the chef's counter by the wood-burning oven. For just a dollar more than I'd paid for that rice-mounded mansaf ($21 instead of $19.95), I received a plate of fish so spot-on in concept and execution, it could've been part of a cooking-school demo.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Gozo

This dish had no frills to speak of, no unfamiliar ingredients or fancy plating. It was just sea bass over a cohort of vegetables -- peas, asparagus, carrots, artichokes and pearl onions -- that got along so famously, they would have made even tofu out of the watery package look good. But this bass didn't need any help. Started in a pan and finished in the oven, it had the kind of seasoned, crackly skin that makes people who normally peel skin off and curse the cook who left it there silently thank the brain who crisped it instead.

That brain belongs to Gozo executive chef Nicholas Petrilli, who can usually be found knee-deep in the action at the center of the line. He knows there's more to delectable skin than patting the fish dry before it hits the pan or cutting hash marks to prevent it from buckling. "You have to be patient and respectful to the food," says Petrilli, who honed his technique under the wing of Michael Chiarello at the latter's nationally acclaimed Tra Vigne and Bottega in Napa Valley and during ten seasons as chef and food stylist on the Food Network's Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello. "Everybody tries to rush everything, cook it fast and get it out. I tell the cooks, 'Be patient. It's not a race.'"

That philosophy didn't just make this fish good. It made dish after dish, course after course as pleasurable as any I've had in a long while. First an assortment of briny olives, warmed and accented with charred orange peel, then roasted cauliflower florets over lentils with brown butter, followed by a bowl of clams hot out of that wood-fired oven with spicy chorizo and chickpeas, in the kind of simple but delicious broth that starts with pan drippings and ends with wine. Another night, I enjoyed a cold salad of shaved Brussels sprouts, almonds, eggs and pecorino adapted from Bottega, then beets and hazelnuts over Gorgonzola purée, and finally, deep-fried capsules of mozzarella-stuffed risotto, which struck me as being the Italian equivalent of chicharrones -- something that shouldn't fry up so well but does. After such an assortment of piccolo (small plates), I was tempted to order another glass of wine from the list -- well curated by partner and front-of-house manager Frank Jolley IV, who was director of operations at Bottega and whose résumé reads like a Who's Who of food icons, including Gray Kunz (Lespinasse) and Michel Richard (Citronelle) -- and call it a night. No doubt many people do, since Gozo is as full in the back, with its assortment of counter-height tables and folks nibbling and drinking at the bar, as it is in the front, with somewhat quieter banquettes and a long community table by the garage-door windows that let in plenty of light and, this being South Broadway, plenty of secondhand pot, too. Keep reading for the rest of our review of Gozo. Good thing I didn't stop at piccolo, though, because then I would have missed that sea bass and the spiraled strands of strozzapreti pasta with wilted spinach, lemon and toasted breadcrumbs, not to mention many other entrees that were just as tempting. A number of my favorites involved the wood-fired oven, which runs day and night and reaches 800 degrees. (It also makes the chef's counter uncomfortably hot, but Jolley says a crew came out recently to work on the air-conditioning.) Some, like the garlic-and-rosemary-scented porchetta, are tucked into that oven twice, once after the pork roll's overnight braise and again to be reheated along with a spoonful of cherry-poached figs. Others, like the array of pizzas, spend less time in the heat but wouldn't be the same without it.

Made with Caputo "00," the finely milled flour behind Neapolitan pizzas' airy, irregular holes, these pies make no claims to authenticity. Crusts come out well done -- some browner than others, depending on who's wielding the peel -- with a bottom that's cooked through rather than slightly damp. But I'm not about to complain, not when the toppings on those crusts range from the imaginative smoked Gouda with mushrooms to rosemary, mozzarella and potatoes that are blanched in the fryer so they crisp up in the oven like chips. Best of all was the unlikeliest contender: a pizza sprinkled with shallots, scallions with stems charred to black, and onions nudged to a dark degree of sweetness thanks to a jolt of balsamic.

Jolley is fond of describing Gozo as an "Italian wine bar married with Spanish tapas," but other than a few dishes such as the Spanish anchovy classic called boquerones, the emphasis currently resides on the Italian side -- which makes sense given the years that Jolley and Petrilli spent in prominent Italian kitchens. That influence runs all the way to dessert, with offerings such as Italian cookies, fresh-fruit crostata, a spectacular rosemary olive-oil cake and hazelnut mousse with burnt-cocoa crumbles. On my most recent visit, the mousse wasn't as light and the crumbles had been replaced with chopped hazelnuts; I later learned that the pastry consultant was MIA. Until she returns, there's always Sweet Action Ice Cream just up the street, as a server reminded us one night when the sun was coming in through the open garage doors and the front half of the restaurant must have been 90 degrees.

Yes, Gozo is a hot restaurant in more ways than one. And judging from the quality of the rustic and affordable fare coming out of the kitchen, it will continue to be so long after any climate-control issues are resolved.

Select menu items at Gozo: Warm olives $5 Wood-oven clams $12 Beets and Gorgonzola $9 Shaved Brussels sprouts $9 Cauliflower and lentil salad $8 Suppli alla Romana $8 Pizzas $11-$15 Strozzapreti $12 Roasted sea bass $21 Porchetta $21 Olive-oil cake $7

Gozo is open 4-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at gozodenver.com.

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