Cafe Society

When not in Rome, you can still eat great Italian food at Locanda del Borgo

See more photos of Locanda del Borgo here.

Here's something that annoys me: people who, when talking about a restaurant, use some version of the phrase "transports you straight to blank" or "is like a little piece of blank right here in Denver." I have resorted to this verbal tic now and then, and it annoys me a lot. Other people use it often, and the words almost always make me wince, like the sound of nails on a chalkboard.

There are times when the phrase is accurate (when describing the dining room at Domo, for example, or the food at Oshima Ramen, or those rarest of moments when the light, the smell, the crowds and a few glasses of wine all conspire to make the transition between street and dining room at Z Cuisine truly like crossing a veil — a wormhole trip between the Platte and the Seine), and there are times when it is apt (very occasionally, the only way to describe an affecting meal is in the way it transported you). But the phrase has become hackneyed and cliched through overuse, a crutch for the lazy, almost a substitution code for a dirty little comment on Denver itself: This place is so good that, for a moment, it can make you forget you're stuck in Denver.

The phrase was used frequently in describing a handful of good Italian restaurants operating in our red-sauce wasteland of a few years back — fans of certain rooms who said their fave was like stepping back to the East Coast, to Philly or Little Italy or (in my case) the street corners of the neighborhoods in which we were raised. It was almost defensive praise — an admission that Denver had nothing on home, couched in an admission that this place (Luca d'Italia or Patsy's or Il Posto or wherever) was almost an exception. But there was truth to it, too.

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 a half-dozen 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, were 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, things have 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's Alfredo sauce does not represent any baseline of taste.

Not when we can now have raviolini with braised pork in a cremini mushroom sauce. Homemade lasagna with béchamel. Bucatini Amatriciana. Cioppino in a garlic-heavy broth and grilled pork chops in a port/Dijon mustard sauce with roasted Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes, and pizzas out of a wood-fired oven with the crib, half-stocked and flaking down wood chips and sawdust like dandruff, set at the far end of the long bar. Pastas presented like nests of starch in plain white bowls pulled from stacks of plain white bowls balanced along the rails in the kitchen. Windows that look out, not on some dream-vision Venice or Roman piazza, not on a sun-washed cobbled street in the weaver's quarter or the rowhouses of Boston or the skyscraper pickets of the Lower East Side, but on Denver — on a frozen, frost-rimed January sidewalk, on a high-tone strip mall stuck in a bend of the road, on brand-new brownstones in an old residential neighborhood, on the 303 in all its arguable glory.

Eating at Locanda del Borgo takes me nowhere. It does not transport me or move me or remind me of somewhere else I'd rather be. It is rooted firmly in the dirt and blacktop of Denver, Colorado, a place where the kitchens sometimes behave as if they've just discovered the sweet, awesome power of the tomato, the onion, the garlic clove, and must use them quickly and powerfully before they are taken away.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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