Until fairly recently, Denver's culinary universe had a gaping black hole at the center that consistently swallowed the vain attempts of well-meaning chefs and barfed out scads of pretenders offering "Colorado-accented" Italian cuisine that rarely rose above the level of a tomato-and-mozzarella tamale with an Italian flag stuck in it. In those dark days (which only started brightening five or so years ago, still putting us dangerously close to the event horizon), there was every reason for transplants to tempt each other by saying that this place or that place was like a brief trip home again, because all of us (myself included) were dying for a simple bowl of spaghetti or a linguine with white clam sauce and, on occasion, actually flying home just to get a fix. To be able to do the same thing without the plane tickets, the cab rides, the body-cavity search by the TSA was like a fantasy come true: "If you close your eyes," we'd say, "and take a small bite, you can almost imagine being in the dining room at Lupa again."
But today, Denver has drifted clear of the black hole of Suck. No longer are we the dry sticks for those looking for highly specific red gravy kicks. Though far from overburdened with dependably good ziti, agnolotti or hand-crimped ravioli, lovely golden-brown veal scallopine or gnocchi that don't taste like clotted wallpaper paste, this town's Italian scene has improved considerably. The opening of one truly good room led to two more, those two to an additional four. A tradition of right flavors and right preparations is taking hold, as is an understanding among diners that the Olive Garden Alfredo sauce does not represent any baseline of taste.
This week's review of Locanda del Borgo -- a wonderful Italian restaurant from a veteran Colorado (by way of Palermo) chef -- is proof of that. It's a place where you don't t have to be embarrassed about their spaghetti when eating in geographically mixed company. It's a godsend, really. Because with the cost of plane tickets these days? Those flights home for gnocchi and canolli were getting prohibitively expensive...
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Second Helping this week takes us to another neighborhood Italian spot, Parisi, for a spaghetti carbonara showdown. And in Bite Me, I offer a lament for the Palace Arms, most recent victim of the new economy. No, no, the elegant restaurant in the Brown Palace is still there -- but it's a little less high-minded (and high cost) these days.