Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

This is just to say: Panzano’s a real plum

Call ’em refrigerator poems like the William Carlos Williams classic, call ’em lunch poems per Frank O’Hara, call ’em throwaways. Whichever, counter to Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” they pretty much tell it straight. It’s not the telling but the it itself that’s slanted, the subject matter, our world. As Williams also said, “No ideas but in things.”

All of which is just to say: go to Panzano. There’s my review. If you haven’t been, or haven’t been in a while, go; it tends to get lost in the shuffle of chefs & next big blurs precisely because it’s so solid, such a sure thing, so easy to take for granted, helmed by a chef whose passion doesn’t reach its logical extreme in restless ambition but rather rests in the daily determination to keep on keeping on, doing what she does best. In an era in which franchising is the rule of success rather than the exception of selling out at even the highest culinary echelons, it’s so heartening to come across people like Elise Wiggins—or, in Boston, Gordon Hamersley, or anyone else who puts all of his/her heart & soul in one place.

Actually, it had been a while since I myself had made it back there until recently, only to be undeservedly rewarded for my absence with a meal that was as smooth from smart to finish as it could be. No service kinks to work out; no chefly flourishes that weren’t totally assured. Wiggins knows her ingredients & honors her own sensibilities through & through, & the result, be it a signature dish or a seasonal one, is always an exact balance of creamy & bright, silken & meaty, refined & rustic. Has anyone coined the term sophisticrustic yet? So-FIS-ti-KRUS-tik. Someone should. Done.

And it all starts with that bread basket accompanied by one of the best spreads in town, a way tangy blend of olive oil, balsamic, sundried tomatoes, kalamatas, garlic & anchovies.

Panzanobread Panzanodip

And it all should start, every time, with the

Panzanocrepe crespelle ai funghi,

tender, brown-bubbled crepes wrapped around sauteed Hazel Dell mushrooms & set in a pool of truffle-scented fonduta. Here’s what true Piedmontese fonduta isn’t: mere fondue, mere melted cheese with maybe a little wine & starch. Here’s what it generally is: fontina melted with butter, egg yolks & milk/cream—yielding just the sort of luxuriousness you might expect from the land of Nebbiolo & tartufi bianchi.

The dish is rich enough, indeed, that just a simple salad suffices, even for me, before the main course. In fact the Director & I split the grilled Caesar that night, or rather they split it for us. (It occurs to me croutons don’t assume a way, shape, or form I don’t like. Flat, fat, soft, crunchy, lightly golden, deeply golden, plain, herbed—so long as they’re not stale [stale croutons & croutons made from stale bread being 2 different things], they’re all to be admired, aren’t they?)

Panzanosalad

Not that we needed, as it turned out, all that much of a breather. What followed were 3 (my ma was in tow) of the most refreshing entrees I’ve had all year, maximally flavored without being overly caloric.

Topping a list so top-heavy it threatened to topple was the black-pepper fettuccini d’estate with green beans, microgreens, toasted almonds & dried blueberries in a lemon-basil sauce. The name alone (d’estate means “of summer”) is a warning it won’t be around much longer, so step on it if you want to partake of such snappy stuff. While the blueberries & almonds take you to some kind of fascinating parallel moment in space where granola & pasta can coexist, it’s the lemon-basil sauce, so ordinary-sounding, that actually gives the whole thing its zing.

Panzanopasta

As is the case for most serious eaters, it’s the rare chicken dish that catches my eye, since it’s typically the most compromised item, meant to flatter pedestrian tastes. To my own tastes, outside of Asian cuisines, that sad truism extends to shrimp as well; I almost never order it in Euro/American restaurants, because the offerings thereof so often err on the bland side.

Not so at Panzano. These jumbo-babes are stuffed with Medjools, the most sugar-smacked of all dates; swathed in house-cured pancetta; sprinkled with gorgonzola; & set over properly puddingy polenta. Amid all the increasingly annoying injections of bacon into sticky buns & bubble gum & petit fours & whatnot occurring these days, it’s nice that someone remembers that the light sweetness of shellfish complements the heavy salt of pork better than just about anything.

Panzanoshrimp

The Director’s pesce fresco del giorno was swordfish,

Panzanoswordfishrisotto

& while it was perfectly well prepared—almost overdone, but not, still just moist enough—the accompaniments were where the dish was at, from the velvety pea broth to the even earthier mushroom risotto to the crispy-juicy fried shallots on top.

No ideas but in things; in Panzano’s things is the idea that I should partake of them far more often.

Panzano on Urbanspoon

Hot Damn! Doc’s & Dom

Recently the Director & I had huge & I mean HUGE cause for celebration, so we joined some of our dearest pals for a pizza party at the rockin’ abode of Joey Porcelli (the great Denver dining guide penner you may have met here before) & Randy, who knows then some & then some about wine & has the shelving to prove it.

more here Randywine4 more here

We got 3 pies from Basil Doc’s

BDchickenpizza

the Moab with chicken, red onion pineapple, jalapenos & chili powder;

BDgreekpizza

the Athenian with feta, kalamatas, spinach & red onion;

BDclampizza

& the New Haven, white with clams & fresh garlic.

And they were all right, especially the latter. The slightly tough, bready crust lacked soul, but no point in pining for the real thing (which doesn’t mean you can’t check out that char) 1867 miles away; in fact & in all fairness, these pies had traveled enough as it was, & if they were a little worse for the wear, a little staler for the sitting, that wasn’t the Doc’s fault. After all, they weren’t really the point.

This was.

Dom

Per Stephen Tanzer, the 1993 vintage is “understated, with pure aromas of musky stone, orange, smoke and truffle. Full, ripe and harmonious; not a huge or superconcentrated wine but quite subtle and fine, with brisk, juicy flavors of orange and minerals. Lingering, ripe finish.” What the hell’s a musky stone? Think Tanzer was trying to get pheromone from a rock, heh.

Or maybe he confused it with a musk turtle? Wildlife_herps_musk-turtle

Certainly as pets go, turtles & rocks belong to the same family. But again I digress. The point was also

Randywines

this, this, this & this,

in that order—ending on that brawny yet supple Barolo. On that “oh” note….

the point was to eat, drink & be merry, in reverse order. That, I think, is my new motto.

Mark & Isabella: “kind of a big deal around here…okay…over there”

***UPDATE: Mark & Isabella’s is now CLOSED.***

So I hear this guy Mark Tarbell’s a real swell out in Phoenix; more power to him. I also hear The Oven‘s worth sticking your head in, heh, & I will at some point, say for the BLT pizza with smoked provolone & “white sauce” (garlic-based, I’m guessing?). To a longtime Italophile like yours gruelly, that sounds like one great greasy grimy guilty pleasure.

Or not so guilty, really; as a longtime Italophile like yours foolly, I’ve already passed that awkward phase in my relationship with Italian-American cuisine, that rough patch of abiding scorn for all its deviation from “the real thing”—underlaid, deep down, by a slight twinge of recognition that red sauce is a real thing, its own thing, the evolution of cucina povera siciliana into the cuisine of hard-working, hearty-living immigrants who suddenly found themselves in the land of super-plenty, surrounded by more meat per minute than they’d seen in their lives, meat piled in store windows & spilling out the doors & growing on trees & falling to the sidewalk with a plop. In other words, while all else being equal I’d rather be in Italy, period, after my years in Boston’s North End, I’ve come to appreciate the occasional big ol’ overflowing bowl of anypasta with lotsaragù; I won’t even sneer if someone—say, someone behind the scenes at Mark & Isabella in Lakewood’s Belmar shopping complex—thinks it’s a hoot to pull an adjectival switcheroo & call it American-Italian.

I will sneer, however, if the menu itself is misleading, if the dishes themselves are mostly mediocre, if the whole meal amounts to a bit of a shitshow. Now that’s American-Italian.

Though I’d had a glowing feeling while looking the menu online, foreboding set in promptly upon our setting foot inside—something about all those giant photos of giggling little girls lining the walls. Namely the fact that they were giant photos of giggling little girls lining the walls. Ew. Then there were the goofy slogans on the all-female floor staff’s tees—”Got lasagna?”; “Buonjourno”—why? Why the appropriation ad nauseum of an ad campaign that has long since become an empty cliché? Why the irrelevant play on French? I crossed my fingers that the senseless smarm would stop there, & the Director & I grabbed the last two seats at the bar; the joint was swarming.

Oh, did the smarm stop there. Far from being cutesy, the bartender positively oozed frustration as she darted around, pouring booze & punching buttons & moving to the next thing as she was still finishing the last thing. Waiting 10 min. just for her to acknowledge our presence, we watched her & the waitresses zooming to & from the bar mutter heated exchanges—clearly the dining room was understaffed for a Saturday night. Later, when she’d calmed down enough to summon a genuine smile, she apologized for the frenzy, adding, “It hasn’t been like this in months.”

Sucked to be them, in short, & I felt for her. But not as much as I felt for us; our happy place at the bar had turned all dark & stormy, & we had to drink extra to calm our nerves. Well, & to fill the time between the placement of our appetizer order & its arrival—nearly 30 minutes for a piece of cheese.

Pieces of cheese, to be precise.

MIhunk

I say precise, you say nitpicky. Fine. But the menu makes a promise: “Hunk of the wheel—grana padano with local honey & date compote,” it says. And—dreaming of a trattoria in Parma where I once sat before what must’ve been fully an eighth of a wheel of parmigiano-reggiano, a huge wedge accompanied by nothing but two types of mostarda di frutta & a knife, which I used to knock off chunks to my heart’s content on the honor system—I took it at its word. Granted, what we got was very good—the cheese firm & tangy, the crostini charred to a nice bitter crisp, & the compote downright superb, tasting of nothing but dates melted down to their rich, sweet essence. It just wasn’t technically what we ordered.

By comparison, the Tuscan bread salad was what I ordered, technically. In spirit, though, it didn’t come anywhere close to a true panzanella. The winter tomatoes were somehow both hard & watery, & the bread, not to mince words, was awful, just so much damp cotton—not at all the called-for crusty cubes of country loaf soaking up without sagging under a simple dressing of olive oil & red-wine vinegar.**

MIpanzanella

Moist & tender meatballs with a right-o ratio of beef (& veal/pork? probably not, but maybe, given their mildness) to breadcrumbs would’ve been just great with sufficient salt (was the sprinkling on top an afterthought?); the marinara was likewise underseasoned. What, no oregano?

MImeatballs

Accompanied by the same marinara, the Director’s side of garlic bread was plenty seasoned; what it wasn’t was warm. At all.

MIgarlicbread

Good thing his lasagna was the one unqualified instance of excellence.

MIlasagna

The noodles were slightly past al dente, which if you ask me is the ideal texture for lasagna; the tenderness meshes with, without mushing into, the softness of the rest. The housemade sausage was abundant & spicy; the mozzarella on top had a satisfying pull.

Still, speaking of pull, whatever was drawing me to Mark & Isabella has lost its force. If there’s another local spaghetti shack that really salts your sauce, spill it. **(Likewise, I’ve just about had it with ordering panzanella in this town; Root Down’s take is a tricked-out travesty, whereas Izakaya Den’s fusion version is terrific in its own twists & turns—but only further goes to show how hard simplicity is to handle. The traditional recipe calls for plain day-old bread, fresh ripe tomato & cucumber, some basil, some red onion, good olive oil & vinegar, & precious little else. If you know of a place that does it right, do tell.)

Mark & Isabella's on Urbanspoon

Locanda del Borgo: not your waddling, addled old granny’s Village Inn!

“Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want 2000 of something,” observed the dearly, all-too-prematurely departed Mitch Hedberg, which is kind of how I feel about Restaurant Week: It’s great if you’re cash-strapped & want 3 specific things, including dessert, among severely limited options. As for me—being, as has been especially obvious of late, a true bug-eyed creature of ressentiment, I’m constitutionally incapable of acquiescing to less when I know there’s more, no matter how cash-strapped (hell, cash-stripped) I am. Meaning I almost always end up ordering off the regular menu after all, just because it’s there—although, since I rarely eat dessert, there’s a slight chance I’ll actually save money by skipping the prix fixe in favor of à la carte anyway. Then again, since the odds of getting front-row seats to a whole shitshow of rote cooking & erratic service increase fivefold during RW, why not really save money by just staying home, where I can sulk over amateur cooking and worse service for free, until it’s all over?

In fact, considering I could still taste the bitterness Root Down had smeared all over my mouth 48 hours earlier, I’d have cancelled our reservations at Locanda del Borgo altogether if they hadn’t been for a foursome. But the Director & I had people to meet, promises to keep, & so off we slunk, setting our hopes for the meal only slightly higher than we might have for a club sandwich & a slice of pie at the Village Inn (which, as the Post’s Tucker Shaw noted in his much-nicer-than-not review a year ago, is basically what the name translates as).

For our lowered expectations we were rewarded with a meal surpassing anything the Skillet Experts might crap out. That’s not even a backhanded compliment; the ratio of hits to misses was surprisingly high. Granted, to get to the shining shores of the former we had to wade through the latter, namely

LDBbread

lukewarm, lukedense focaccia

LDBsalad

& a 50 cent Caesar, skimpy & anchoviless, with an 8 buck pricetag.

But the wading was only ankle-deep; the getting got good before we got soaked. In all their velvety cushiness, my ricotta gnocchi with arugula & speck in parmesan cream

LDBgnocchi

oddly but pleasantly enough took me back not to bowls of well-made gnocchi past so much as to my first experience with Korean ddeokbokki. That said, exhibiting the chef’s restraint with rich ingredients (in a phrase, ham & cheese) as it did, the dish nonetheless oozed the essence of Italian cookery, which has everything to do with simplicity & nothing to do with combining every fattening thing you can think of into 1 big Alfredo(grot)esque mess.

The Director’s pappardelle with short rib was also relatively light & elegant;

LDBribpasta

& although I think I ultimately preferred the simultaneously rawer & richer, fusiony version I recently had at South Broadway Grill, personal taste needn’t cloud objective opinion regarding a thoughtfully executed dish. Likewise, being all about bold contrast rather than subtle harmony & thus thinking I’d be bored by our pals’ ricotta & spinach ravioli in sage cream, I didn’t bother snapping a pic—but the bite I took was a lesson in tastebud bias; it was lovely, smooth yet soulful.

The same goes, too, for the slender wedge of chocolate-hazelnut tart we wound up with after said pals decided to split one of the two they’d ordered.

LDBtart

Thickset, smashed with filberts & darkly semisweet, it evoked a streamlined (as opposed to whipped cream-lined) French silk pie.

Though the dining room was busy enough, the staff’s pace was as steady as the low noise level; & though we were the last people to leave at 10:30, our server never rushed us. Sheesh, it may not be your waddling, addled old granny’s Village Inn, but it might be your waddling, addled old Denveater’s.

Locanda Del Borgo on Urbanspoon

The Coupon Clippings: Gee, I hate to be the one to quell The Rebellion, but…

When this new South Broadway pizzeria spread the word that it was leading a fast food revolution, I all but grabbed my musket & set out that instant to join the troops behind their barrier of extra-large pies made with organic ingredients from scratch & piled high. Now that I’ve tried a slice, though, it occurs to me that any eatery that claims it’s “revolting” really is asking for trouble.

Oh, far be it from me to crack down on the people’s uprising; on the contrary, as I’ve said, we out here in the Platt Park area could use a little upending of the status quo. And I’m not saying the pizza actually turned my stomach—just that it ain’t about to break any chains (corporate on the one hand or oppression-forged on the other) or even make Pasquini shake in his glossy black boots.

Take this 3-cheese (mozz, parm, feta) thick-cruster, which I ordered with buffalo, sundried tomato & garlic oil instead of marinara.

Rebellionpizza2

You can tell by looking that what I got instead was fresh tomato; what you can’t tell by looking is that I couldn’t tell by tasting if there was the least drop of garlic oil on there or not. (For a girl who didn’t live down the block from

Reginas_1

the original Pizzeria Regina

in Boston’s North End so long ago that she can’t still see the rivulets of garlic oil running through the crevices of mozz, that’s a bit of a heart-slash-deal breaker.) Meanwhile, even partially melted, the feta was dry; and as for the crust, “big” is not the same as “thick,” nor is “soft” the same as “chewy.” Lacking all finesse, it was pretty much a puff of stale white air.

The thin crust was a little better, but only because it was less noticeable. Then again, even what was noticeable wasn’t really noticeable—not only was the cheese virtually flavorless but the sauce was flat-out bland. Apparently, its blend of herbs & spices is so secret it doesn’t even know it’s there (shhh!).

Rebellionpizza3

OK, look—backing their antiestablishment, up-with-children-&-other-living-things manifesto 100% as I do, & unable to even fathom the sort of yeehaw gumption it must require to open any business, much less a restaurant, right now, I feel like a schmo giving these guys guff. Then again, precisely because they’re talking the galvanizing talk, they’ve got to walk the walk. I’ll give ’em another try in a couple of months, when perhaps they’ll have gotten the hang of putting the “coup” in “coupon.”

Panzano’s panache

I’ve been to my share of medieval hill towns in Tuscany, but Panzano isn’t one of them. I can easily picture myself there though.

Panzano_panorama

In fact, after my long-overdue recent visit to its namesake downtown, rest assured that distended gut’s no caricature. Hooray!

You see, I’ve also been to my share of press tastings, namely as a features writer/editor back in Boston. Since moving to Denver & launching the blog, however, I’ve had little cause to attend them. Working alone in what I believe to be as near a state of anonymity as is feasible, I don’t want to be a mouthpiece. Just a mouth. & a big, big belly.

But the world is full of exceptions to rules, & a dinner at Panzano was mine, a) because the fellow who invited me is a highly congenial font of Denver dining lore & b) because the word around town on chef Elise Wiggins is so enthusiastic. Oft-self-described Italoelitist that I am, I wondered if I’d be echoing it or pooh-poohing it.

Now I know: echo-cho-cho-choing it, a la Ralph Wiggum.

Granting that one can’t judge a restaurant solely on a meal that, after all, occurs under special circumstances which guarantee special treatment, I’d point out that it’s precisely those circumstances that do allow one to gauge with a fair amount of accuracy the skills (or lack thereof) of its chef: if you can’t deliver the goods when it (arguably) matters most to your reputation, how likely are you to deliver when it doesn’t?

Dish after dish (after dish after dish after dish), Panzano’s kitchen delivered. I delved into a few of them, specifically the ones featuring Hazel Dell mushrooms from Fort Collins, here, but there were many other highlights, including melanzane fritte—an elegant update of eggplant parmigiana, lightly breaded, meltingly soft, goat cheese–topped & basil oil–touched;

Peggplant

the fichi caramellati al mascarpone,

Pfigs

no mere meeting of sweet & salty, pungent & rich, but a summit among slices of caramelized fig, dollops of pure mascarpone & thorough sprinklings of honey, truffle oil & bits of fried prosciutto—which one might expect to have ended in a drag-down brawl but instead proved a lovefest of strong personalities;

the signature tagliatelle alla carbonara,

Pcarbonara

which, I learned, boasts a gently fried egg rather than a virtually raw one mixed in at preparation’s end (as is standard) “so that diners can have the fun of breaking the yolk themselves”—& so I did, but not as much fun as I had eating it all: the pasta was (much as I hate the rote phrase) perfectly al dente, & dripping with riches from chunklets of house-cured pancetta to plenty of grated grana padano & chopped garlic;

& the pine nut–almond cookies—think Italian sandies, softened by poached cherries & cranberries & scoops of vanilla gelato.

Pcookies

Oh, &, come to think of it, the rosemary gelato accompanying the chocolate pudding cake: it was superb, redolent but not reeking, creamy but not heavy, with I’d swear the slightest lingering quasi-yogurty tang.

Pcake

While both the above & the aforementioned mushroom-studded items impressed me most, the rest hardly displeased; on the contrary. Only the pasticche, inadvertently true to its name, struck me as a bit muddled. I’m fingering the besciamella (I prefer the Italians’ term, naturally, putting stock in their claim that the recipe was brought to France by Catherine de Medici’s chefs over the insistence of the French that béchamel was their idea) as the main culprit; for, whereas the fig dish capitalized on the attraction of opposites, this was a matter of competing rich interests—the effects of the handmade cheese tortellini & the ragú di cinghiale (wild boar sauce, traditionally a touch sweet & sour) that IMHO were the twinned soul of the dish being dulled somewhat by the meatballs & the white sauce (which likewise might have been better off alone together), not to mention by a dash of cinnamon, a bit distracting for my taste. Each element was otherwise well executed, mind you—all the more reason to want to experience each fully.

Pmeatballs

Still, all that’s a question of tweaking, not wholly revamping. No tweaks necessary, meanwhile, for the grilled scallops in a saffron-gilded broth—somehow holding their delicate own amid the artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, kalamatas & risotto, typically a vehicle for robuster stuff;

Pscallops

the fried bocconcini di mozzarella flecked with capers & fresh sage (3 to an order from the bar menu, not 2 & a hole as pictured, but that piece didn’t want its photo taken);

Pcheeseballs

the pepperoni pizza—while I personally favor a thinner, crispier crust, who’s to naysay a carefully made pie?;

Ppizza

the scaloppine di vitello with sundried tomatoes & capers over spinach & mashed potatoes (would you believe $4 during happy hour at the bar?***);

Pveal1

& the chocolate mousse–filled cannoli accompanied by almond-amaretto gelato & apricot-cherry compote—a thoughtful update of the classic Sicilian sweet, though as I’m still in mourning for my old North End go-to Maria’s, I couldn’t bring myself to do more than sneak 1 bite.

Pcannoli

Two last nods go to 1) a bread basket that wouldn’t quit—the springy, warm focaccia del giorno was potato–black pepper & came with a ramekin of irrepressible spread combining olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sundried tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic & anchovies—& 2) the Sicilian—like a Manhattan but, I dare say, more interesting, combining Jack Daniel’s, Averna (my favorite brand of amaro after Cynar) & 10-year tawny port with a lemon twist.

In short, between Bonanno (see here & here) & Wiggins, I may not be pining for the fjords that were my old neighborhood very much longer.

***See more on this in Lori Midson’s happy hour roundup in the 10/2 RMN.

Panzano on Urbanspoon

Freakin’ eureka: Vinny’s Bar, Morrison

Back in Boston—technically Somerville—there was (still is) a beloved little Sicilian joint in the back of a Superette called Vinny’s at Night. It was semi-insiderly, virtually splattered in red sauce & always a blast. Up in Morrison, there’s a beloved little dive bar at the top of some stairs around the corner of a building whose first floor houses your average chain-in-training, Tony Rigatoni’s. As Vinny’s at Night was to the convenience store fronting it, so Vinny’s Bar is to the pasta parlor beneath it: its better half by far.

The moment the Director, the Whistler, the Mad Russian & I entered the place to grab a bite before the Sigur Rós show at Red Rocks (magical, by the by), we knew we’d come home. Above all, like all of us, Vinny’s Bar is a deeply confused mishmash of influences. If you look here it could be a wiseguys’ HQ,

VinnysBar4

here a droopy cabana,

Vinny'sBar1

here a groovy patchouli-filled pad,

VinnysBar3

& here a grimy honkytonk:

VinnysBar2

However you read the top sign, you can rest assured the bottom sign’s only a joke, folks. They actually have 4 house reds, more than most holes-in-the-wall (or -first-floor-ceiling, as the case may be), according to the very nice & not at all wise guy who served us & who, on the beefy side, looked like he could’ve been Vinny. But then so did all the other guys who seemed to be tramping up & down the stairs between the 2 establishments, so don’t quote me on that.

By now you can see where this is going. We drank, we talked, some of us smoked, we ordered a meal that under any other circumstances I would not call awesome in any way, shape or form, even remotely or even for a second, but that right there, right then, couldn’t have been better.

Even this preternaturally springy garlic bread. (Hey, at least it appears to have seen the inside of a broiler.)

TRgarlicbread

Even this slop pail’s worth of fettuccine Alfredo, whose recipe I believe called for a 1:1 ratio of cups of sauce to noodles.

TRfettuccine

Even this sausage calzone,

TRcalzone2

which, for all its startling resemblance to a beached whale parmigiana, actually had some nice hunks of spicy sausage in there amid the blubber.

In short Vinny’s Bar is my hero.

Bonanno Bonanza: Luca d’Italia & Osteria Marco

I knew a Luca once, though unlike Frank Bonanno’s scion, the name was spelled with not 1 c to mean (per About.com) a citizen of ancient Lucania but 2, after the famed medieval Tuscan town Lucca—casa to Italy’s hence world’s best focaccia.

Lucca was the nephew of an old flame, the one I gobbled focaccia thereabouts with, & the yummiest little cherub ever. His response to forkfuls of cheesecake proffered repeatedly from across the room was Pavlovian clockwork—he’d toddle in his diapers faster & faster, over & over, his eyes hypnosis spirals—& his habit of dunking hot dogs into the birdbath before sucking them down made him the unwitting life of every family barbecue. As an infant, he would gum anything, just anything—wrists, book spines, table edges—calmly, eyes skyward.

It was in the pure preverbal solemnity of his gourmandise that I took such joy.

I thought of him—who must by now be nearly 10—for the 1st time in years the other night at Luca d’Italia, where I’d have wordlessly followed every last bite around the room in my underpants too.

As it happened, the first bite pretty much backed up into me; the very moment we were seated amid what seems to define hushed elegance here in the West—white linens against desert-in-sunset hues—our server descended with amuses bouches. The abruptness of the gesture—we’d yet to even open the wine list—grated on me a touch, though it has since occurred to me wonder a) when I became so jaded that I could criticize the timing of free snacks & b) whether it wasn’t a fair attempt to preempt the mini-nervous breakdowns many of us suffer in the interval between our arrival on unfamiliar dining turf & the acknowledgment of our presence by those whose grasp of the terrain & its resources is precisely what we’ve come to acquire. I’m sure Steve Dublanica or somebody has already sufficiently articulated the evolutionary psychology underpinning service-customer relations.*

At any rate, like Dudley Moore taking the money at the end of Arthur, I hardly waved away the pork liver pâté on a semolina crostino with cherry preserves, stone-ground mustard & pickled onions,

Lucaamuse

& though it didn’t fully come together for me—there seeming to be an awful lot of strong condiment & diversional toast crunch relative to the amount of really rather delicate pâté—I had to applaud the aplomb whereby it was not only produced but followed by a delectable bread basket (mmm, loved me those snappy herb-flecked breadsticks) complete with prosciutto bianco, a euphemism for lardo. The nonchalance with which Italians tend to treat the odds of there being any dietary prohibition other than their own never ceases to win me over. In the words of the aforementioned ex after I berated him for adding pancetta to a pasta sauce we were preparing to serve to vegetarian friends one evening: “This isn’t meat, it’s flavoring.”

Thus was a flavoring vinaigrette the salty-smoky counterpoint to—if not the whole point of—dulcet grilled octopus & melon, adding the shadowy contours to their light bright flesh.

Lucaoctopus

Meanwhile, true to the standard, my braised polpette housed a pulverized menagerie of calf & cow as well as pig. Soaking up a deeply caramelized onion & tomato gravy as heady as mead, they went down without a hitch, meat made velvet.

Lucameatballs

The benefit of the douse did not, however, go likewise to the panzanella, whose dressing should be like a good spa treatment: while the blend of herbed olive oil & red wine vinegar is no jacuzzi you can just leave the grilled bread cubes alone to get funky in, it most certainly is a massage lotion with which you must rub them down until it gently penetrates their pores. They shouldn’t be soggy, in short, but neither should they be dry—then they’re just croutons.

Lucapanzanella

Thus disappointed did I, like the littlest rascal jumping to peep over the fence where the big kids converge upon the treehouse, try to swipe bites of both my dad’s lamb—squirtingly tender down to the last bone-clinging shred—

Lucalamb

& the Director’s exquisite rabbit three ways.

Lucarabbit

Though I’ll be darned if I caught a whiff of the white truffle supposedly in the sauce (& I’m quite the fungus-rooting swine), I nonetheless loved its savor, winey & cacciatorelike, helping slow the bunny meat’s generally fleeting earthiness to a pace we could follow, swallow after swallow—that is, until it finally brought us to a shuddering, groaning standstill.

Until until 2 days hence, when we started all over again at Osteria Marco, whose quasi-speakeasy vibe makes you wish there was a government ban on deli products & you could only gain entry by hissing open sesame in a tough’s ear. Here, too, was pancetta worth its salt—rallying round roast chicken, avocado, blue cheese, crisp lettuce & creamy garlic dressing until they all made 1 big zesty team huddle of a chopped salad.

OMchoppedsalad

By contrast, if ever a meat product were a delicate flower, it’s braesola; just budding when served alone, it opens up to fullest bloom amid ripe fig slivers & a drizzle of saba (aka vin cotto, a shade more syrupy than high-grade balsamic). Wanting to focus on the subtle gradations of all that dusky, musky rosiness, I found the gorgonzola chunks less offsetting than distracting, just so many bees buzzing around the garden.

OMbraesolasaba

Speaking of distractions: when I was but a tot, my dad used to tease me by making me look—pointing wide-eyed out the window or up at the ceiling only to nick a peanut or grape from the bowl before me. I suspect the grilled ciabatta he ordered served the same purpose. Thinned with enough olive oil to reach dipping consistency, yet still plenty thick with parmesan, the sundried tomato–speckled pesto it came with mesmerized me no less than that cheesecake did Lucca,

OMbruschetta

& it wasn’t until I’d nearly licked the dish clean that I realized his salad with shaved lamb & goat cheese, roasted peppers & Kalamatas was all gone—that he’d not left me, his own flesh & blood, a crumb.

OMlambsalad

Now that’s what I call buonanno.

*In my defense, in a thread I started in hopes of resolving my ambivalence toward this very subject on Chowhound’s Not About Food board, 1 adamant poster equated ill-timed amuses bouches with “popups on the computer screen.”

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Osteria Marco mostly hits the marko

Osteria? Not even closteria. Not in my book, anyway, which is literal & filled with snapshots of snug, humble spots in Orvieto & Agrigento & Trieste; not to my mind, full of memories of the kind of place where you might catch glimpses of a lumpy old mamma in slippers at the stove through the kitchen door, stirring pots & plating your fettine di cavallo arrosto (a horse is a course, of course, of course) while her son il cameriere brings round shots of grappa every time his team scores in the soccer game on the little black-&-white set at the hostess stand. An osteria is not sprawling & sleek & buzzing with lovelies freshly descended from their 400-million square feet of Lodo loft.

Misnomer aside, though, Osteria Marco is a pleasure, sheer & simple. Aided by a bartender who was engaged, savvy & honest—a rare combo, though less rare, it strangely seems to me, among bar staff than among waitstaff—we grazed & grazed & grazed some more, basically laying waste to the fecund field of meat & cheese that is the menu while drinking deep from the red red springs of the Quartino.

Speaking of fields, I sowed the inaugural soil of Denveater with the seeds of a Top 5 list that has since lain fallow from not neglect so much as the lack of crop potential. Until now. OM’s much & rightly ballyhooed burrata’s officially up there with Black Pearl’s calamari, Rioja’s pork belly & Sushi Sasa’s black cod. In fact, it’s the literal cream of the crop, a sort of deliquescent mozzarella. Or the salty marshmallow of cheeses. I’d totally use it for fluffernutters, especially between chargrilled slices of country bread like these.

OMburrata

Gnocco fritto usually evoke nothing so much as mini-sopaipillas; here, they’re more like cheese crackers. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re more like, otherwise known as frico, only solid instead of lacy. See for yourself:

OMfrico

OM’s gnocco fritto

Foto000111

typical gnocco fritto

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typical frico

Be it another misnomer or not, the result is a fine mouthful—all peppery, cheesy crunch.

As for these utter rose petals of braesola—wine-cured beef—

OMbraesola

their thinness may actually have done their flavor a disservice; to say that braesola is salty by definition is not quite to say that it’s definitively salty. Like good pastrami, it should still register as beef. Still, they’re just so heartbreakingly pretty, no? In fact, forget rose petals, they’re enough like cross-sections of the still-beating heart of a redheaded beauty sacrificed to the gods only seconds before that maybe I wasn’t even supposed to eat it, just eye it in awe.

That said, the mozzarella in carozza was also sliced too thin; as it’s basically a grilled-cheese sandwich, the bread should, IMO, squish a bit, the cheese ooze a bit, beneath its toasted surface. This was nothing but toasted surface, hence rather on the dry side, juiced up mainly by those pickled onions.

OMcarrozza

Not so the exemplary grilled artichoke; tender even at its outermost & glistening with olive oil, it was almost as good as the best carciofi alla giudea I’ve ever had in Rome—which isn’t even a fair comparison, because the latter have the incontestable advantage of being fried.

OMartichokes

The above being a spot-on suggestion from our smart bartender—our smartender (whose name I wish I’d gotten, but keep your eye out for a lanky 20-something bearing a passing resemblance to the guy who played Randal in Clerks)—I asked for his thoughts on dessert, stipulating contradictorily that I didn’t actually want dessert, I wanted more cheese.

He recommended the ricotta, which was indeed as light as it could possibly be & still exist, paired, by his own accord, with a dish of strawberries in syrup—

OMricotta

a sweet touch in every sense of the adjective.

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