Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Noshes for the New Year: Tomato-fennel bisque (& more) at Arugula Bar e Ristorante

Still with me, weight watchers? Let me tell you what a pleasure it was to leave Boulder’s Arugula last night feeling chipper rather than sluggish—feeling, for once, quite unlike Louis CK (you know, “The meal is not over when I’m full! The meal is over when I hate myself.”)

For starters, I actually heeded the advice of all those experts who recommend soup for its volumizing benefits. That is, it takes up stomach space you might otherwise devote to something more fattening—assuming, of course, that it’s not cream-based or something; bisque, for one, should be off-limits, defined by The Oxford Companion to Food as “a rich soup of creamy consistency, especially of crayfish or lobster.”

Being vegan, however, this tomato-&-fennel-based number fills that bill not a whit; it’s not really a bisque at all except in the very broadest terms—i.e., it’s pureed. Sticklers for etymological accuracy may thus grumble. Calorie counters will not. Because it’s very good! Small amounts of balsamic vinegar, olive oil & grated grana padano (for the non-vegans) give it some depth, smoothing out the sprightly vegetal edges.

Arugula also deserves credit for offering half-portions of pasta. Granted, what’s pictured below are full portions, namely of hand-rolled garganelli 2 ways: with Italian sausage, goat cheese, tomatoes & caramelized onions (top) & with roasted squash, apples, fontina, honey, rosemary & more sausage (bottom). And granted, neither is diet-friendly per se. But the al dente pasta’s just lovely—perhaps tossed in the sauté pan briefly for a touch of toast—& the earthy, tangy flavors fully melded, & the range of textures such that your mouth’s interest is held bite for bite, so you can slow down & savor. And if you can do that, you might even do what I did—only eat half. (Then again, if you can do that, you might as well go with the half-order & save yourself a few clams. Hindsight!)

When I’m not in dieting mode, though, I could come back to the below dish again & again.

Last I had it, it was called squid scampi, & boy, did it pack a punch (& undoubtedly a pound)—buttery indeed, but garlicky & acid-edged too, with lots of chopped herbs. The current menu lists it as “big squid” & mentions cherry tomatoes as well. Either way, it’s a nifty twist on a classic.

By the by, if it’s your wallet that has lost weight post-holiday, chef-owner Alec Schuler cuts some weekly deals: 3-course prix fixe menus ($26) on Mondays & Wine Wednesdays, when the entire selection by the bottle is 40% off. And a smart bottle list it is: neither boringly small nor bogglingly big, adamantly narrow or indiscriminately wide, it’s focused on charming picks from some of my own favorite regional Italian producers like Paolo Bea, Foradori & Alois Lageder.

All in all, a suavely low-key, serenity-inducing performance by Arugula.

Arugula Bar & Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Denveater’s “Year in Eater” Standbys

In Eater’s roundup of local writers’ top picks for 2012, I named Beatrice & Woodsley & Panzano my standbys. I’d have said the same last year & the year before that too, pretty much by definition. Granted, there are plenty of places I love equally, for all kinds of reasons. But a place becomes a standby for rather personal ones. It’s not just that everything on the menu appeals but also that you feel so good there: inspired & transported, as in the case of B&W, or utterly relaxed, as at Panzano. And whaddaya know—I’ve been to both in recent weeks, & done as right as ever by both.

If you’ve visited neither in some time, here are a few current items worth trying. At B&W, the wilted-greens cobbler with sausage & cheddar spoonbread (behind the cheese plate, below) boasts that bygone sensibility, that deeply homey savor that is chef Pete List’s hallmark, as though he’d found his recipes written in cursive in a yellowed old notebook, invoking potbellied stoves & well water. (Actually, he does do lots of research on historical American cookery, so there you go.) I once had escargots here that were way too salty, but this batch (pictured right) was spot on, bathed in butter spiked with Pernod & piquillo pepper alongside warm, soft olive bread—enough to sop up all the drippings.

The cod on the left came with bright pea brandade & smoked onions; how the delicately flaky fish stood up to both I can’t fathom, but it did. On the right, earthy, crunchy-velvety feta-&-oat croquettes made a splash amid spaghetti squash in tomato vinaigrette—much like a dish I dug recently at Euclid Hall.

As for Panzano—I usually avoid chefs’ counters, because putting my nose in their business while ignoring the business of the one that brung me strikes me as doubly awkward. But this place is an exception, because it’s too much fun to watch chef Elise Wiggins switch from English to Spanish while balletically navigating the closet-sized open kitchen with her crew.

Like everyone else, I’ve had brussels sprouts in every way, shape & form over the past few years; it seems they, of all things, have finally succeeding in nudging beets out of the top veggie spot. (What’s next? I hope it’s celery. I mean, celery’s key to mirepoix & so forth, but it rarely plays the central role its awesomeness warrants.) But here at year’s end, I’ve had 2 of the best takes on sprouts in quick succession: Ace Eat Serve’s & this one.

Both are fried, because fried! But while Ace’s skews Asian with shishito peppers, sesame seeds, & lime, Panzano’s version has an Italian agrodolce (sweet-sour) thing going on, tossed with toasted pistachios, reduced cider vinegar & rosemary salt & topped with green apple. Unexpectedly refreshing.

We also took delight in a special of baby octopus braised with tomatoes & capers over soft polenta. Set in a pool of spiced oil, this was, conversely, unexpectedly rich. Nothing wrong with that, of course, & Wiggins’ touch with every Italian starch—pasta, polenta, etc.—is so light & smooth.

That goes double for her gnocchi, which we had 2 ways that night: once made with pumpkin & served with the smoked pork chop I named one of my top 10 dishes of 2012, the other sauteed with rabbit confit, tomatoes, mushrooms, & leeks, then sprinkled with gorgonzola. Quite the cool combo, though I was so enamored with the chop I only had room for a few bites.

On that note, may 2013 be full of equally filling moments!



(Surprise) Dish of the Week: Zucca Chips at NoRTH

Everything about the Cherry Creek branch of this upmarket regional Italian franchise seems custom designed to rub me the wrong way—it just reeks of corporate blandness. But I had a little time to kill in the area recently & have to admit I was happily surprised by NoRTH’s happy hour. For the price of a bag of factory potato chips ($3), I got this heaping bowl of really beautiful zucchini chips.

Sliced razor thin, fried to a blistering golden-brown, & sprinkled with basil chiffonade, they were plenty salty & just a touch greasy (yet still recognizable as squash), super crunchy & totally downable.

There are way too many independent restaurants to support to justify returning for a full meal, but it’s nice to know if I got stuck here for some reason I wouldn’t necessarily be miserable.

Superfluous Thumbs Up for Pizzeria Locale

Here’s what’s wrong with Frasca’s year-old, Neapolitan-style sibling: it’s in Boulder, not Napoli. That’s it & that’s pretty much all (well, I’m still not feeling the year-long trend toward drab-gray walls in restaurants either, but I seem to be alone in that).

And since there’s not much any of us can do about the fact that we exist outside of Italy, I’ve got to give boring, obvious, me-too props to the crew at Pizzeria Locale for giving it their all to transport us in spirit.

For starters, far be it from me to steer you away from the exquisite wines—both Locale’s own pizza-friendly selection & Frasca’s supplemental offerings, justly famous far-&-wide. (After a recent working lunch, I can vouch for the fact that some major players on the national sommelier circuit were all about the underappreciated Locale list.) But truth be told, I’m a sucker for the spritzes, be it the pictured late-summer version made with fresh cantaloupe juice or my recent fave (unpictured), called, IIRC, the Thistle; made with Cardamaro, it’s like a lighter, bitter-er cola.

As for antipasti: I’ve been lucky enough in this life to become jaded about insalata ai frutti di mare. From Venice & Camogli to Atrani & Palermo, I’ve had seafood salads as tear-jerkingly exquisite as arias—this one in particular—& others as shoddy as you’d expect from Olive Garden (one learns to translate congelato the hard way). Locale’s (pictured below right) is, it almost pains me to admit, every bit as good as the best I’ve ever savored in Italy, even seaside, where the calamari is so fresh & tender & buttery it melts your heart. Here, it’s not the likewise excellent, deeply flavor combination of squid, octopus, mussels, clams & shrimp that wows so much as the whole vibrant package, which also boasts crispy thin-sliced potatoes, artichoke hearts, capers & lots of lemony tang. On the left, disks of roasted pepper stuffed with excellent imported tuna pack an awesome wallop as well.

My torrid love affair with Sicilian arancini, documented here, is such that I can’t fairly comment on any stateside version. Suffice it to say these are perfectly good.

Keeping in mind, then, that intensely personal history tends to color all my Italian-food experiences forevermore—that, in short, my standards are extremely high, perhaps even unfairly high—you can rest assured that I believe in Locale, above all where it matters most: in its approach to pizza.

I understand it’s had its share of complaints about the fact that the pies arrive uncut. Folks, Locale is, as we’ve noted, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, & in Napoli (& Perugia & Lucca & anywhere else I’ve ever had pizza in Italy), this is the way pizza is served. If you can’t deal, then by all means skip it in favor of a good old corner parlor slinging head-sized slices you can fold & cram down your craw in seconds flat. (I don’t say that critically; I may be an Italophile, but I’m Kansas-born & Oklahoma-bred, hence fond of shoveling as well as nibbling.) But if you’re on the fence, look at it this way: the knife-&-fork ritual forces you to slow down a little, enjoy the company you’re keeping, maybe even recognize the sensation of fullness before it’s too late.

Anyway, I like just fine the slightly spicy Bianca with buffalo mozz & pecorino, lardon-cut sausage, rapini & garlic—

but I adore the Mais with corn, prosciutto cotto & crème fraîche (+ more buffalo mozz). It’s not often one can call a pizza delicate or subtle; this baby is.

In case you were wondering, corn is not an uncommon pizza topping in Italy, though it is, in my experience, typically combined with chunks of oil-packed tuna over red sauce, senza formaggio (mixing seafood & cheese is verboten there, though that’s one of the few rules of Italian cuisine I’m all for breaking. Come on, shrimp & feta?)

Budino, meanwhile, doesn’t require any life experience to appreciate. It’s butterscotch pudding. Done.

Pizzeria Locale on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Plin at Sketch

Okay, I had it 2 weeks ago, but I can’t get it out of my head. While doing an interview with the local chefly treasure that is Brian Laird—the longtime head toque at Barolo Grill, now kicking it at Sketch—he served me up a bowl of these tiny, veal-stuffed Piedmontese-style ravioli in sage brown butter. Far too often brown butter is allowed to run rampant over the main ingredient, & sage can be overpowering too—but not so here, where they simply highlighted the beautifully textured pasta.  This was, in 2 words, effortlessly perfetto.

Mood Indigo at Crimson Canary

Like Interstate Kitchen & Bar, Crimson Canary sports a retro, specifically mid-century, theme; unlike its sibling, said theme is urban rather than rural—CC’s doing the kind of blood-&-marinara-splattered, East Coast–mafioso song & dance that I got my fill of back in Boston’s most blatant tourist traps. So I’m happy to report that at least they don’t overdo it (unless you happen to be sitting in a booth beneath an unadvisedly grisly crime-scene snapshot); on the contrary, the vibe is quite twinkly & mellow. That’s especially true of the kitchen & bar menus, which borrow from Italian-Americana all of the commendable elements, none of the schlock. In fact, I think the food’s better than that at Interstate, perfectly likeable as the latter is.

Take this savvy twist on panzanella (but don’t call it that; when I asked about it by the Italian name, I was told, “I don’t think we have that.” My dining companion & dear friend Beth—whose photos these are, & who’s documenting her tenacious ride on the rollercoaster of life here at 12 Cities 1 Year—heard a few such hiccups from the bar staff; they’re an amiable bunch, but need a bit more training with respect to Italian food in general and their own menu in particular).

In my time I’ve had versions of the Tuscan bread salad that were so precious as to be unrecognizable as well as some that confused “peasant-style” with “cheap-ass.” Ultimately, the real deal comes down to good-quality bread that’s somewhere between the day-old & the crouton stages, plus careful dressing (traditionally local olive oil & red-wine vinegar). This one succeeds on both counts, & it replaces with equal consideration the standard parmesan & marinated tomatoes, peppers & red onions with gorgonzola, gently pickled onions, sliced pear & mixed greens. Though not cornbread, the cubes have an almost cornbready heft; dig.

And damn these smoked mushroom–ricotta ravioli were good.

Truth is I rarely order pasta in American restaurants anymore. Of the 100,000 options out there, 99,900 of them are a waste of your daily-allotted carbohydrates. But that remaining 100? Bacio, bacio. Any number of Italian restaurants in this town could take a page from Crimson Canary in its handling of pasta dough (never mind its presentation—the above’s gorgeous, right?): this was just silken & tender enough, with that telltale al dente resilience & flavor of its own; the mushrooms, meanwhile, were its firm, meaty equal, as the fresh cheese & herbs provided deceptively delicate balance.

Even better, however, was the fettuccine accompanying the terrific veal scaloppini.

When I ordered the dish a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t get so much as a name-check in the menu description, though I see that’s now changed, justifiably—it’s glossy, snappy, textured with a dusting of herbs & cheese, & the perfect contrast to the meat, which is really just expertly handled: the plump cutlet beautifully browned, adding crunch to its velvet, the mushroom sauce with Marsala & cream the exact opposite of the glop so common at the joints CC’s supposedly emulating. Ditto the throwback but not throwaway cocktails & a wine list that pays homage to emerging regions like Alto Adige & Calabria.

So, yeah, nuova cosa nostra in the Baker District.

Crimson Canary on Urbanspoon

Local Girl Does Good, As Always: Elise Wiggins Hosts Summer Local Week at Panzano

Okay, Panzano chef Elise Wiggins isn’t Colorado-born, but she’s a local girl through & through now. I love that laid-back yet saucy gal—& as for her cooking, she’s easily my pick for Denver’s most underappreciated talent (see here, here).

From July 25 through 31, in conjunction with Kimpton Hotels’ Summer Like a Local campaign, she’ll be preparing a prix-fixe 4-course tasting composed entirely of Colorado-grown & -raised ingredients & optionally paired with all-local pours ($25/$39 at lunch; $38/$52 at dinner); 5 percent of all proceeds will go to the Denver chapter of Dress for Success. Did I mention she’ll be roasting the Triple M Bar Ranch lamb right on the Panzano patio? Yes I just did!

1st Course
Pan-seared scallop with grilled local corn, prosciutto & basil
Infinite Monkey Theorem Semillon

2nd Course
Grilled Caesar salad
Avery White Rascal

3rd Course
Whole-roasted rosemary Colorado lamb with gnocchi, walnuts, mint pesto, dried pomegranate & goat cheese
Guy Drew Syrah

4th Course
Rocky Ford Melon Sorbetto
Infinite Monkey Theorem Black Muscat

Retrograde Red Sauce at Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano

When I wrote this post for the now-defunct Denver Magazine food blog back in January, I was sitting at a café in my old neighborhood in Boston, sipping a cappuccino & watching the world go by: black-clad grandfolks ambling toward St. Leonard’s, shopkeepers unleashing torrents of Sicilian dialect, tourists clutching bags of cannoli. They’re all part of daily life in the historic, ever-picturesque North End, as the city’s Little Italy is called. And when I get a yen for a mound of linguine alle vongole or a giant arancino oozing ragù—which is often here in Colorado—I miss it terribly.

It’s not that I can’t get red sauce in Denver; it’s the sheer concentration of Italian-American joints in the North End, and the ambiance they collectively exude, that I crave. Located on a nondescript stretch of South Broadway, Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano doesn’t boast much ambiance at all, let alone the steretopyical charm of red-checked tablecloths & rough frescoes. While the adjacent dive bar at least has garish red walls & a jukebox, the dining room is completely bare-bones. But something about the retro signage out front—not least that neon martini glass—assured me, when I first glimpsed it after moving here in 2007, that Gennaro’s was a place where I might find a taste of home (even if the vibe made me want to get it to go).

Then, it was still owned by the Gennaro family, as it had been since 1951. Now, it’s run by Tanya Tiscanni & Irene Herrera; though the menu is largely the same, except for the addition of a coffee bar, the recipes they use are their own. And they’re just what il medico ordered to cure this Beantown buff’s frequent homesickness.

The lasagna is a stand-out:

giant, pillowy squares from which mozzarella & ricotta, ground beef & sausage spill into a pool of rich, thick, herbed marinara sauce. Said sausage comes from the 85-year-old local institution that is Polidori—and it’s rightly showcased in a number of other preparations as well, including, of course, the aptly named sausage & peppers.

In this simple, Sicilian-style comfort dish, disks of Italian link sausage are sauteed with sweet sliced green bell pepper & red onion, then bathed in the aforementioned, oregano-redolent marinara.

Meanwhile, Polidori’s distinctly spicy, coarse-ground sausage features prominently atop the Tiscanni, a mozzarella-based white pizza scattered with dollops of sweet, fresh ricotta & chopped, roasted red pepper. Look closely, and you’ll also spot a sprinkling of dried oregano, minced garlic, and fennel seeds.

It all makes for what would be a model pie if the bubbly, chewy crust had just a bit more char; if you, like me, are big on the blackened bits, you’d do well to make a special request. Still, the solace I seek in red sauce—“when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn”—is easy to come by here.

Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano: 2598 S. Broadway, Denver; 303.722.1044; Lunch and dinner daily; $6–$19.

Gennaro's Cafe Italiano on Urbanspoon

Vaguely Interesting News About iFish, Joyce’s Famous Pizza

A, it appears Jake Rand has already bolted from brand-spanking-new Ballpark sushi joint iFish. That was quick.

B, it looks like Joyce’s Famous Pizza on S. Broadway is moving all of half a block further south; its former digs, according to a sign in the window, will now house another Original Famous Pizza. Just because it’s news doesn’t make it exciting.

I wish these 2 tidbits had something to do with one another, if only for the sake of narrative elegance, but they don’t. Still, it’s nice to know there is such a thing as sushi pizza, as well as fast-food sushi (close enough)—both signs of the apocalypse if ever there were any. And the end of days is certainly big news at present, right?

Win Tix to the GABF During American Craft Beer Week at Mellow Mushroom!

This is actually pretty cool: check in to either of Mellow Mushroom’s 2 Denver locations on Foursquare this week, or simply like its Facebook page, & you could win a pair of 1-time passes to the GABF.

No comment on the pies, I’ve never had them, although the version with red potatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar and mozzarella, sour cream & chives and spicy ranch dressing sounds ridiculous (in a good way).