Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Frasca: È Davvero Tutto Quello

Pazzissimo Italophile though I am, I don’t get up to Colorado’s single most celebrated Italian restaurant if not restaurant period—the Fruilian-inspired Frasca—very often. In fact, until last week, I hadn’t been in 2 years. And while both the expense & the drive to Boulder are prohibitive factors, they’re not the primary reasons for my long absence. The truth is, my tastes tend toward the exuberant & quirky, whereas chef Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson’s style is elegantly subdued. That it extends from the dishes to the descriptions thereof means the ever-changing menu rarely speaks to me personally; at any given time, perusing it doesn’t make my heart go pitter-pat the way a glance at, say, this menu always does.

But to admit that Frasca doesn’t have me at hello is not to deny that it’s got me by goodbye. From the sparklingly clean design to the ultraprofessional yet warm service to master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s extraordinary wine program to, yes, the stellar cooking, it earns its national rep every night. Being made to feel special is a luxury we humans experience so rarely, but lavish attention is Frasca’s stock in trade. To translate the post title, this place really is all that.

It all starts with a complimentary tajut of the proprietary white, Scarpetta, which Mo & I paired with the house mix of marinated olives & nuts—

Frascanuts Frascaolives

cashews, almonds & peanuts tossed with vaguely Indian or Moroccan spices: cumin for sure, maybe some turmeric. From there, whatever wine you request—in this case the slow-building 2001 Grattamacco Bolgheri Rosso Superiore—will be preceded by the arrival of artfully appropriate stemware, like this tulip-shaped glass I feared would shatter if I so much looked at it askance.

Frascawine Frascaglass

By the time you place your food order, the leisurely mood set by the luxe appointments, the hum & clink of others quietly celebrating special occasions, & the solicitous comings & goings of the staff leads you in a 3-or-4 course direction whether you intended to go there or not.

You might not, for instance, have planned on starting with salumi, but suddenly there it is:


a slice each of prosciutto di San Daniele (the most famous along with that of Parma), speck (a smoked variant on prosciutto),  & finocchiono (aka finocchiona, a fennel-spiked salame), plus grissini (breadsticks), a smear of crema di rafano (horseradish sauce), a couple of marinated mushrooms, a single Castelvetrano olive (my favorite for being unusually fruity & mild), &, best of all, a single wedge of frico caldo—a sort of cheese-laced hashbrown as compared to the crackerlike frico croccante Frasca also makes (of which more in a moment). The latter doesn’t, I believe, usually come on the platter; it appeared to be a gift, perhaps in advance thanks for the hefty tab my 3 companions & I had just committed to. Because how better to repay a shitload of food than with more food?

In fact, that wasn’t the only thing we received gratis: having heard me hem & haw about the coleslaw & finally opt against it, Rose brought us a surprise bowl anyway.


Sweet & sour with the clear savor of caraway, it may seem out of  place here, but didn’t taste it. Again, MacKinnon-Patterson’s light touch ensures an easy rapport among his dishes, whatever the combination.

With all this came an offer of bread which everyone but me reasonably turned down. I just couldn’t, not after catching a glimpse of the butter—

as sigh-inducing as it looks, soft & sweet with just a sprinkling of salt.  I’d had 2 pieces by the time we got our 1st “real” course—the 1st of 4.

And what a “start” to the meal it was: the frico croccante with chestnut polenta, speck & ricotta became my most recent Dish of the Week. Having anticipated how rich it would be, I followed my antipasto up not with a primo piatto (traditionally the pasta course) but another antipasto: the steelhead trout crudo.


Spread with horseradish, drizzled with olive oil, dotted with quarters of marinated golden beet & fortuitously adorned with a heart-shaped sliver of scallion, how could I not heart the trout in turn? Yet again, pungency was eschewed in favor of a rainbow of delicately juicy checks & balances, the flavor of the fish almost as peachy as its color.

Of course, I simultaneously ogled with deadly envy Mo’s raviolo della casa—crispy-edged & filled as it was with ricotta & a whole farm egg just waiting to burst through—

& the others’ gnocchi with braised oxtail. But only because I’m shameless & insatiable, not because the trout didn’t wholly satisfy.

In fact, I preferred it to the actual fish course. It’s not that my secondo piatto, the braised golden tilefish with chanterelles, fennel, broccolini & onions wasn’t just as accomplished as everything else,


but as examples of where my tastes diverge with the chef’s go, this is a prime one, being all about subtle complements, mild earthtones, rather than striking contrasts. Still, no legitimate complaints—the fish was flawlessly moist & flaky, the fumet like lemon velvet, & the slices of chanterelle enchantingly meaty.

A swipe at Mo’s incredibly tender grilled veal breast with morels, spinach & “root vegetables”—primarily carrots—was, however, a revelation. Veal is generally prized for its delicacy, but this was especially dark & rich.


I didn’t try Susan’s pan-roasted diver scallops with housemade sausage, chickpeas & chard, but I think we can safely assume it didn’t suck.


Which leaves dessert: going clockwise from 1 o’clock is a trio of coconut gelato, dark chocolate gelato & raspberry sorbet; a chocolate torta with feuilletine, vanilla bean buttercream & banana as well as chocolate pearls & almond-toffee gelato; & bombolini, Italian doughnuts with mascarpone cream & Meyer lemon curd.


Mine was the latter, which I found to be a little on the dry side compared, say, to Panzano’s zeppole (savory or sweet). But the blend of mascarpone & curd was so luscious I wished it came as a bowl of soup. Topped off with the smoothest cappuccino I’ve ever had outside of Italy,

it was the perfect end to an exceptional meal. Well, almost: we were brought complimentary glasses of amaro with the check, to help us digest the shock a little easier.

I kid. Frasca’s truly worth every last dime.

Frasca Food & Wine on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Frasca’s Frico Croccante with Chestnut Polenta

To say that there’s no such thing as an unmemorable meal at Frasca is not to say that every last bite will burn its way into your brain forevermore. On the contrary—chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s understated style makes for cuisine so refined, so well-paired with the wine list & so suavely handled by the waitstaff that it all gently blends into one exquisite, capital-E Experience. You don’t come here to eat, you come here to dine, & the menu is designed accordingly to capture not your rapt attention so much as an overall mood of serenity & well-being.

Still, there’s always at least one creation to lose yourself in utterly. Right now it’s the creamy chestnut polenta in a cestino (little basket) of frico with La Quercia speck & housemade ricotta.

Smooth & glossy as pudding—& all the creamier as the ricotta melted to a swirl—the polenta strongly smacked of the earthy sweetness of corn & chestnuts & served as a dip for broken-off shards of the cheesy cracker, itself possessing a bit of a nutty tang, wrapped in scraps of the lightly smoked ham.

In an ideal world, everyone around me would have suddenly frozen in time long enough for me to tie the ends of each slice together around my head to strap the whole thing on like my own private slopbucket & gnaw my way through to fresh air. Alas, not even the Frasca crew can provide that level of customer service. More on the magic they do make happen throughout your meal to come.

Ernie’s Bar & Pizza: A Definite Maybe

I’m told this place used to resemble a faux-Grecian banquet facility. In that case, the owners pulled off a hell of a remodel, not least for its simultaneously shiny & well-worn feel; Ernie’s redux is a genuinely warm & woody bar & grill, glinting with stained glass panels & awash in the merry din of what seems at any given time to be half the neighborhood—the other half of which is likely to be a few miles away at its equally easygoing (albeit slicker) sibling, LoHi SteakBar. The spirited vibe alone, upped by booze—including dozens of beers bottled & on tap as well as a short but fairly smart selection of wines—suggests Ernie’s has got it made. If I lived nearby, it’d be on heavy happy hour rotation. Whether I’d always stick around for dinner is harder to say.

What I can say is that on paper, exec chef Sean Kelly’s menu is super-appealing; besides pizza is a sizeable array of what Ernie’s calls antipasti but I think of more as cicchetti, the Venetian word for, essentially, tapas, or spuntini, i.e. snacks—especially since it also lists larger-portioned appetizers, which is technically how antipasti translates. On the plate & on the palate, some of them fulfill their promise; others have yet to.

In the latter category: oversalted giardiniera & bland marinated mushrooms, neither any better than their jarred supermarket counterparts.


In the former category, the sweet & sour pickled poppers that are balsamic-marinated cipollini.


In the latter category: smoked whitefish salad, also too salty as served—

although the leftovers were great: since chilling tends to inhibit flavor (& time allows for integration), what had been sharply fishy was now mellower, richer, more smoothly melded.

In the former category, the stromboli stuffed with mozz, sausage & “meatball”—which it ceases to be when it’s crumbled, reverting to spiced ground beef etc., but whatever.


Though the advertised garlic-parm-basil dipping sauce was nowhere to be seen, the light tomato sauce struck me as the more fitting of the 2 condiments in any case, its acidic zing balancing out the meatiness (in every sense) of the slices, whose chopped & mixed rather than layered contents had an intriguing compactness. Instead of “stromboli,” think “pizza terrine.”

In the latter category: fried pizza dough.

Part of the problem inheres in the menu description—”strips of pizza dough, lightly fried.” First of all, what comes out aren’t breadstick-shaped objects but essentially mini-sopaipillas—which is fine except insofar as it’s misleading. What’s less fine is that, be they strips or pockets, they’re a little too lightly fried, on the doughier rather than the bubbling golden side of the spectrum. And, be it marinara or honey, both shapes really call for some sort of moistening dip or drizzle; you can pile/spoon the prosciutto & taleggio on top of the puffs, but it’s hardly intuitive or coherent. Finally, the taleggio is…odd. Curdlike, with a very fresh, tangy, slightly carbonated quality, it’s interesting but not the cream-bomb the name signifies.

All that said, this app’s not only on the right track but in clear sight of its destination. It’s a lot of fun, & with some tweaking it could be a solid signature.

In the former category—in fact the winner therein: chicken wings & drumettes coated in the garlic-parmesan-basil sauce that was missing from the stromboli. This was a much better place for it anyway.


Served with sides of blue cheese & ranch dressing, these were the surprise hit: extra-juicy, crackling in spots, & lavishly zesty.

As for Ernie’s pizza—so far, so good.

The thickness of the crust at the edges belied its almost impossible thinness elsewhere; impressed as I was with the defiance of physics, I had to wonder whether it would fall apart under toppings any heavier than the classic margherita blend of mozz, basil & sauce—the latter being, it should be noted, all right with the world, fresh, light & red-peppery.

No question that Ernie’s is already a fine neighborhood joint. But the question does remain as to whether it’ll be one of those neighborhood joints that doubles as a downright dining destination, à la Deluxe, Black Pearl, Fuel, The Squeaky Bean (more on which soon) & maybe even LoHi SteakBar. I’m wishing it well.

Ernie's Bar and Pizza on Urbanspoon

Kaos Pizzeria Has It All Under Control

A few weeks back, I feared the name might fit all too well, my 1st pizza from Kaos being, however intriguing in concept, haphazard in execution.

But on 2nd try, the chaos theory didn’t apply in the least. Hooray scientific method! And hooray Kaos, which in fact puts the “order” in, well, “order.”

Besides the loaf of love that was the garlic bread (most recent Dish of the Week), the Director & I split 2 specialty pies: the wild mushroom with pesto, provolone & mozz, caramelized onions & shallots—a natural combo of rich & earthy—


& the pepperoncini with tomato sauce, provolone & mozz, pepperoni & red onion.

You can tell a thing or 2 just by looking, no? For instance, compare the large, lusty slices of pepperoni & mushroom—with good coverage across each wedge—to the pale shriveled pennies most parlors cough up. Or the balance of sauce & cheese: not grossly dripping, not stingy, just right. The crust, too—neither saltine nor doughball (though I still prefer a bit more char). And the relative cut of the onion: thicker in the case of the caramelized sprinkle of yellow onion; the red onion, presumably added raw before baking, thin & barely there as the smoke rings of a temptress in a noir. Downright artful.

Like the pesto, the tomato sauce had that classic savor: slightly spicy, its blend of red pepper & oregano tangible, but not too heavy like the ’70s-era spaghetti sauce lesser pizza slingers ladle on.

Can’t wait to try the Sopressata with pesto, potato & a cracked egg to which 5280’s Amanda Faison gave high praise, or the white pizza with white anchovies, or my own concoction—blue cheese, roasted garlic, baby spinach & oven-dried tomatoes, baby!—or, hell, just about anything else.

And since I can’t wait, it’s a good thing I don’t have to—so far the folks on the phone have nailed their delivery times. No rolling my eyes & tapping my foot—just sitting back & feeling well taken care of.

Kaos Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Kaos Pizzeria’s garlic bread

For the 2nd time in just over a month, I’ve got to give Kaos the kudos. But while the initial props were for the promise shown, now it’s for the goods delivered.

Juicy report on the pizza itself to come; for now, though, all glory goes to the garlic bread.

With Caesar salad, French onion soup & roast chicken, garlic bread is part of that battery of litmus tests by which to measure a kitchen’s integrity as much as its skills. Deceptively simple as such classics are, they’re easily botched—& garlic bread in particular, as a lowbrow token of your average red-sauce joint, seems to lend itself to corner-cutting: cheap storebought baguettes, preminced garlic, unnecessary pile of melted mozz. Pasquini’s stale-ass doughsticks are a case in point.

Jon Edwards, Patrick Mangold-White & crew, however, pass the garlic-bread audition with aplomb. Their version is essentially a puffed-up round of chewy focaccia—fresh-baked, brushed, & thoroughly infused with garlic butter & perfumed with a sprinkle of fresh rosemary.

In fact, it’s nothing short of an inspiration: I’m feeling motivated now to put it up in a taste test against Virgilio’s & Proto’s loaves—& I’ll be rooting for it.

Molto Carino Dolce Sicilia Italian Bakery

Molto carino means “super-cute.” Dolce Sicilia means “Sweet Sicily” (cf. dolci siciliani, which means “Sicilian sweets,” just FYI). Italian Bakery means panificio italiano (or panetteria italiana, or about 3 other synonymous terms. You know, like the Eskimo words for snow).

All together, it means yes oh yes, I’m home. Back in Boston, every other place within a 2-block radius of my North End apartment looked like this little stop-in at 32nd & Wadsworth—

the cases lined with cannoli & sfogliatelle, cantuccini, amaretti & pizzelle, loaves of ciabatta & pane di semola, pan pizza & calzones; behind the counter a cooing matriarch with a thick accent, her sons & grandkids popping in & out.

And the flavors took me right back too, starting with a delicate, none-too-sweet bite of one of the petit fours (top left) among the cookie assortment pal Rebecca of From Argentina with Love got to go,


& continuing with the spinach-ricotta calzone

& pizza with feta, roasted tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives & oregano.


Though I could’ve done without the grated parm & chips from  bag, the calzone itself was a delight—the crust thin yet firm, like a good hard roll hollowed out; stuffed more than an inch high with gobs of spinach & just enough ricotta to moisten & mellow it; & sauced with a simple, chunky marinara, all tomato & herb rather than salt & sugar: an exemplar of perfectly healthy Italian street food in contrast to the Americanized dirty bombs stateside suicide snackers are always detonating in their own guts.

Same went for the pizza, proof that “humble” & “elegant” aren’t necessarily antonyms, that there’s a happy—& arguably most authentically Italian—medium between a Domino’s MeatZZa Feast & the lobster-&-caviar-topped stuff of the rich & ridiculous. Though thin, the crust had chew enough to support its balanced layer of bubbling brown mozzarella spiked with the salty tang of crumbled feta & whole olives; tomato & artichoke added hits of sweet & sour.

I’ll need to return for a sausage calzone to be sure, but Dolce Sicilia may soon find a place right next to marzipan-crazed Maria’s & all-night shitshow Bova’s in my ragù-bleeding, pastry-wrapped heart.
Dolce Sicilia on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Pueblo: Goffo Giacomo’s

According to its homepage, “Giacomo’s is the place where you will find the food is exquisite, the service is of the highest standard, and the environment is relaxing.” The awkward wording says it all as to just how goffo (that’s Italian for “goofball”) this red-sauce joint sitting amid the fast-food chains off I-25 in Pueblo is. Since the food’s really pretty awful, I would have categorized it under Eateries That Give Me Hives if it weren’t for the soft spot I have for such casas di kitsch as this.

Giacomos2 Giacomos1
Giacomos4 Giacomos3

At lunchtime on a weekday, I was the youngest customer in the dining room by far; the garden club set was out in full leisurewear force, trading notes on hedgerows over iced tea & spumoni or whatever.

As for the repertoire, you know everything’s scampi this & parmigiana that. The lunch menu’s also heavy on the sandwiches—not panini but red-white-&-blue basics proffered in charmingly retro lingo (“ground sirloin char-broiled to a desired temperature & served on a golden egg bun”). The early bird menu (natch) has, get this, a section labeled Pasta & another labeled More Pasta. And the dinner menu boasts all manner of golden oldies, from escargot in garlic butter & fried cheese sticks to broiled orange roughy & trout almondine.

The cooking itself, though, isn’t so old-fashioned. Minestrone was supposedly homemade but had Campbell’s written all over its mushy cubes of beef & carrot in salt-tastic broth.

The chef’s salad was just so much sloppy storebought stuff.

And guaranteed you wouldn’t know the styrofoamy garlic bread from Stouffer’s.


But it wasn’t all bad. Spaghetti fritto may sound & look silly in that heap topped with a giant sprig of rosemary—presentation is not Giacomo’s forte—but it tasted okay all right, sauteéd in butter & garlic with peppers, onions & mushrooms.


Better still was the side that came with it—a small meal in itself, composed of a meatball & a chunk of sausage, both housemade, in marinara. Seemingly mostly pork, they were nice & rich if quite mild (no peperoncini or fennel seeds here).


Earlier objections notwithstanding, a plate of those in a low-lit, still-life-hung & faux-ivy-strewn dining room with Sinatra (you expected who else?) in the background has got to beat the heck out of a McAnything gulped down in the glare of a corporate pit stop.

Dish of the Week: Kaos Pizzeria’s Seasonal Pumpkin Pie

Pizza pie, natch, of which I partook while pondering the apparent penchant among southside pizzerias for names that point toward tumult: first The Rebellion, now Kaos. What do they know that we don’t? If the next new parlor’s called The Apocalpyse, I’m heading for the bomb shelter. That’d be one delivery guy I wouldn’t want to come face to face with. Especially if he shows up on a horse.

Anyway, if it didn’t quite amount to chaos, the seasonal pizza with pumpkin butter, figs, mascarpone, sage, toasted pumpkin seeds &, supposedly, walnuts—although mine yielded none, unless it was those 2 tan little tidbits at 6 o’clock—was certainly a conundrum. And not just thanks to the missing nuts. You can probably already begin to guess why.

Because if the pizza had arrived hot, those delightful mini–ice cream scoops of mascarpone would have melted in transit, & I’d have been left with a drippy mess. What I don’t know is whether it’s deliberately served at room temperature, even to customers eating in; if so, I wish I’d been notified when I ordered it, because it came as a less-than-pleasant surprise, especially insofar as it highlighted the dryness of the uncharred thin crust (which doesn’t, thankfully, appear to be the norm at Kaos; see Lori Midson of Cafe Society’s black-bubbled looker here). Besides, though the mascarpone—an ultrasoft cheese that tastes of all the fresh cream from which it’s made—looks lovely intact, the fact that you have to smear it in yourself so that it mingles & melds with the other ingredients means it’s a messy affair after all.

BUT. To suggest—& I guess I would—that this pie wasn’t quite a success isn’t to say that I didn’t really dig the gist of it, especially when I stopped thinking of it as pizza & pretended it was a giant hors d’oeuvre on a cracker. Then I could appreciate the earthy-sweet, spiced, autumnally indulgent combination; in & of themselves, the premium ingredients are a treat, not only the mascarpone but also the pumpkin butter sourced from Denver’s own, aptly named PRiMO.

There’s obviously no question that the owners of Kaos know what they’re doing & why they’re doing it, just as they do at Gaia Bistro down the street (Old South Pearl, that is). For all its problems—which, again, may or may not have been a function of the delivery process—this pizza only proves it, charmingly inventive & delicately handled. I’ll look forward to seeing what they come up with for spring—& to giving the ever-changing Chef’s Whim a whirl in the meantime, not to mention good old pizze alla margherita e bianco.

Dish of the Week: Panzano’s Duck Mousse Brulée with Savory Zeppole

It might even be the dish of the season.


Let’s examine it more closely,  shall we?

These are the zeppole, or doughnuts.

When made well, they’re as light as could be, having arguably less in common with American doughnuts than with proper sopaipillas.

Since Elise Wiggins fa tutto molto bene, so far as I’ve experienced her cooking (e.g., here & here & here), they were indeed as light as could be; grabbing one was like picking up a soda can you think is full when it’s empty, that weird sense of whoa! The physical universe is not as it seems! The thick coating of crumbed parmesan & herbs & the barest sheen of the oil they were fried in were the heaviest things about them.

Even after they were schmeared with the mousse.

This is the ever so gently flame-glazed stuff,

& it, too, was incredibly light—as light, I think, as I’ve ever come across. And I’ve come across a lot of duck mousse in my time—so often you might suspect me of stalking. Be that as it may, you know when you spread peanut butter on just-made toast & it starts so joyfully to melt? If somehow you could scrape that peanut butter back into a small bowl & whip it, that’s what the texture was like. And the flavor? As though the duck consisted of 1 part butter & cream to every 2 parts itself.

Naturally the jam—whose flavor I didn’t catch but in my heart it was currant, though the Director says it wasn’t—served as thick, sweet-tart ballast.

It was a special when we moaned rather loudly & crassly over it last night, but we were told it’s about to make its debut on the new fall menu. Meet me in the bar the day it does?

A downhome pranzo con Panzano up at Bear Mountain Ranch

Sometimes I get lucky—or pitied—in my real life, & nice people invite me to nifty gatherings. Such was the case this past weekend, when I headed up amid new snowfall to a ranch near Idaho Springs—a ranch that raises cattle (Angus & Scottish Highlands) expressly, & sustainably, for Panzano’s Elise Wiggins, who has made it her mission to make the most of the meat, every inch, every week. This was an opportunity to get the full skinny on the Panzano steer program.

Here’s What I Learned on my Field Trip to Bear Mountain Ranch, by Denveater

1. Bear mountain owner Debbie Medved’s goal is to operate not only as organically as possible but in ways that cause the least stress on the animals. There are even outdoor speakers that pipe music over the pasture, so “my cows listen to music, everything from Motown to country.” (Personally, if my aim were to avoid Angus anguish, I’d go easy on the honky tonk ballads, but maybe cows have a higher threshold for cheatin’ hearts & blue eyes cryin’ in the rain than I do.)

2. The hay storage facility contains 2 different types for the cows & horses. That’s 1 more meal choice than you get on most airlines. It’s locked to keep rodents from burrowing into it & filthing it up; it’s humidified in winter so the hay doesn’t dry out (which lowers its nutritional value); & it’s pest-proofed with bee larvae, which apparently eat fly larvae & then conveniently up & die. It is, in short, better maintained than any place I’ve ever called home.

3. Scottish Highland cattle, bascially overgrown sheepdogs with horns, take twice as long to raise but yield sweeter, less cholesterolic meat than Angus. But Angus taste really good.

Well, there was a lot more, but I was getting hungry. And sure enough, besides hearing the winning spiel & taking a tour of the facilities, which were designed in part by none other than Temple Grandin—CSU’s famed professor of animal science—& which included a riding ring


& stables handsome & clean enough to host a luncheon in,

we also, naturally, had lunch in the stables that were handsome & clean enough to be hosted in. Mingling among such rootin’-tootin’ Western decorations as

this sconce with dancing bears & this pistol-armed barstool,

not to mention whole sheet pans of focaccia,

we partook of passed apps galore—

Panzanogrilledcheese Panzanosoup
fat, truffled grilled cheese wedges, neon-intense smoked mozzarella–tomato soup shooters, &

Panzanosliders meatball sliders like you wouldn’t believe—

just this side of rare, some slathered with pesto, others layered with crumbled gorgonzola & cubed pancetta—until you learned that

BMR5 Wiggins & crew

used 60/40 Angus beef to make them, & then you really couldn’t disbelieve. As a pal asked later, “60/40—isn’t that flammable?”

They were followed by enormous bowls of Panzano’s signature pappardelle Bolognese,


whose sauce is surprisingly light for being so meaty. Or maybe not surprisingly—I’ve suggested before Wiggins has a critical sense of balance.

We were sent home with a little pumpkin fudge—& oh, kids, such vivid dreams of the Motown-bred bistecche in our near future. I hope mine got an earful of Stevie.