Hundreds of Italian immigrant families made their way to Denver in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bringing with them their recipes, a love of good food and a belief that meals with friends and family should be made with fresh ingredients, such as homegrown herbs and tomatoes. Many Italians settled in northeast Denver and in the neighborhood known today as the Highlands. There are still amazing Italian restaurants in this area of Denver, some on this list, including Hops & Pie, which honors not just Denver’s Italian tradition but its love affair with craft beer. Frasca, in Boulder, is one of the metro area’s most renowned and awarded restaurants and one of its best restaurants period! Frasca offers dishes inspired by the Friuli region of northern Italy, to be accompanied by a stellar selection of excellent wines. Also focused on northern Italian cuisine is Panzano in the heart of downtown, where Chef Elise Wiggins has been serving delectable food since 2004. Osteria Marco is another fine eatery from Chef Frank Bonanno, this one serving hand-tossed pizzas and rustic fare with an emphasis on house-cured meats. From traditional pizzas to hand-folded pastas stuffed with gourmet ingredients, Denver’s Italian restaurants offer exceptional variety in terms of style, ambience, menus and drink selections. There’s no reason not to try them all. As celebrity Italian chef Lidia Bastianich says, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” Everyone to the table to eat!
Carmine's On Penn
Carmine's has been a neighborhood staple for years, a place where large families and large groups of friends can gather and enjoy a family-style Italian meal. There's nothing trendy or nouveau about it, and it's not the place for single diners or those with tiny appetites. But it is the perfect place to meet up with friends or to bring the gang--parents, kids, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The patio is open year-round and there's valet parking. "We start cooking early in the morning to open for dinner with fresh-baked bread and simmered sauces," says Brad Ritter, manager and co-owner, who describes the ambience as "comfortable, even noisy with a wide variety of guests." (3037776443)
This is part of the Bonnano family of restaurants and definitely upscale. Chef-cured salumi and burrata are among the highlights on this menu that takes its cues from diverse regions of Italy, Sicily in the south to Piedmont in the north. The four- and six-course prix fixe tasting menus can be paired with wine or not. In addition to the burrata and cured meats and cheeses, dishes include Sicilian calamari; tagliatelle fra diavola starring poached Maine lobster; cappellini with braised duck, baby artichokes, cherry tomatoes and preserved lemon; wild boar with lentils, black pepper crauti and mustard spuma; and grilled swordfish with roasted corn, baby Shiitakes, avocado crema, pancetta and pickled peppers. For a sublime ending to a special-occasion evening, there's house-made cello in a variety of flavors including lemon, a nice selection of digestifs and grappa and creative espresso cocktails. (303-832-6600)
"Yearly visits to Italy inspire the cuisine, wine list and the pace as well as the ambience," says the management here. The cuisine--contemporary northern Italian rooted in the regions of Piedmont, Tuscany and the Veneto--is complemented by a deep wine list that is heavily Italian but also includes bottles from France, Spain, South America, California and other highly regarded wine-producing regions of the world. While much of the menu is seasonal, there are likely to be examples of thoughtful pairings of U.S. and Italian preparation and ingredients, such as aged prosciutto di parma or slow-poached baby octopus served with Rocky Ford cantaloupe. Among the pasta dishes is hand-cut tajarin noodles tossed with braised rabbit, baby spinach and pecorino Toscana, while secondi dishes include grilled free-range hen with summer corn caponata and roasted eggplant puree. Barolo Grill has three private dining rooms accommodating groups of six to 30 guests. (303-393-1040)
"Progressive, sexy and friendly with an urban twist, but not too pushy or hipster scene," says Andrea Frizzi, chef and owner. "We've withstood the test of time and all the trends that have come and gone since we opened in 2007." There's no need to be trendy when the menu focuses on locally sourced, organic and sustainable foods prepared with love and attention to detail. Frizzi calls Il Posto a "remembrance for me of growing up in Italy with my parents who ran a salumeria." Although he grew up in Milan he says the menu is inspired by all of Italy. Daily dishes might include such highlights as risotto with pancetta, corn, stracchino and arugula or mussels with nasturtiums, heirloom tomatoes, corn, squash and Iberico lomo. The daily offerings are written on a chalkboard. Sit down and be surprised! (3033940100)
Hops & Pie
It's not just pizza. Consider the award-winning IPA mac & cheese made with smoked ham hocks, IPA, English peas and a cheddar-and-cream reduction that takes five hours to perfect. There's also a roasted pear salad with toasted pine nuts and Haystack Mountain goat cheese. The hard part is choosing a pie. There are several sizes to choose from, and if you're not too hungry pizza is available by the slice, too. There are traditional pies, pan pies and gluten-free pies, and each month there's a specialty artisan pie. The long list of toppings includes traditional fare and some not-so-traditional toppings such as banana peppers, mashed potato dollops, beer-braised brisket and vegan alternatives. The craft beer list is comprehensive. Very comprehensive. Make no mistake: Hops & Pie is uber popular and lines form every day. But arrive before 6 p.m. and you can probably snag a table. (303-477-7000)
Set in the Highlands, a neighborhood first populated by Italian immigrants in the 19th century, husband-and-wife-owned Spuntino straddles that fine line between neighborhood staple and special place for celebrations. It's warm, welcoming and refined, with a menu inspired by Italy and the essential Italian philosophy that food should be fresh and local. Co-owner and pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom is a five-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist, making this a place where saving room for dessert is a must. Choices include warm apricot cream tart, Amadei chocolate sea salt caramel tart and a warm almond coconut macaroon, along with gelato, of course. But leaving room isn't easy. Chef John Broening's creations are rich and varied--housemade rabbit rillettes; sweet corn and goat cheese bruschetta; flank steak with cipollini, crispy mushrooms, potato torta and salsa di vino rosso; and quail with house-made chorizo, stone fruit vinaigrette and fragola, among others. (303-777-6443)
Marco's Coal Fired Pizzeria
Welcome to Napoli! Well, almost. This pizza carries the coveted Vera Pizza Napoletana Certification, meaning the hand-built brick ovens were imported from Naples, as are the Antico Caputo Molino 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes and many of the specialty meats and cheeses. The pizza makers also go through extensive training to attain certification from Naples' Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani. Bottom line: If you like Neopolitan pizza, this is your go-to spot. If you hail from New York City, this is for you, too. The menu includes pies named for the city's five boroughs plus Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan's edgy west-side neighborhood. House specials include coal-fired Lemoncello chicken wings served with Vidalia onions and focaccia, and sauce-laden meatball sliders. Don't skip the desserts, some of which fall into the "why haven't we been eating this for years" category: sweet pizza with ricotta, honey and toasted almonds, and pizza stuffed with Nutella. (303-296-7000)
A recent remodel brought a freshness to Panzano, which has always been a pleasant place to dine. With a design inspired by the Italian streetscapes and terracotta tile roofs of Renaissance Florence, the restaurant is light-filled and stylish, an Italian retreat in the center of the financial district. Yes, it's located in the Hotel Monaco, but delete visions of ho-hum hotel food from your mind. Panzano stands on its own with a menu best described as a contemporary take on northern Italian cuisine. The dinner menu includes crepes stuffed with Hazel Dell mushrooms, fonduta sauce and white truffle oil; a grilled Caesar salad; and gnocchi with rabbit confit, leeks, shallots, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes and Gorgonzola. The extensive list of wines includes several that have won the coveted "three glasses" award from Gambero Rosso, the legendary guide that annually rates Italian wines. Panzano is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (303-296-3525, 303-294-3057)
Frasca celebrates the cuisine of Friuli in the very northeast corner of Italy, bordering Austria and Slovenia. Since its inception, the owners have championed local farmers and put an emphasis on the finest, freshest ingredients--long before many chefs adopted that practice. Some of Frasca's menu items are sourced directly from Friuli, including Sirk Vinegar of La Subida, prosciutto from San Daniele, montasio cheese (a staple in Friuli) and all of the winter chicories, including radicchio, tardivo and castelfranco. Frasca is not an everyday restaurant; however, its Monday dinners happily make it more than a once-a-year, special-event outing. It's also a place where, if you arrive early enough (as in when it opens), you can snag a seat at the compact bar and enjoy a glass of wine and appetizers for a happy hour that's fabulously elevated. (303-442-6966)
Part of the Bonnano family of restaurants, which includes Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, among others, Osteria Marco stands out in part for its focus on house-cured meats and handmade cheeses. It's also a whole lot more affordable than either Mizuna or Luca, so there's no need to save it for a special occasion--although the restaurant's Sunday special of roast suckling pig is an occasion, indeed. The menu features all of the expected Italian goodies, including panini and pizza, but with surprises such as a short rib panini with caramelized onions and smoked provolone or a fig pizza with speck, goat cheese, fontina, black mission figs and arugala. Definitely not to be missed are Chef Frank Bonnano's house-made burrata and salumis--including wine-cured pork loin, red-wine-cured beef and braised pulled pork. (3035345855)
About Christine Loomis
Christine has written about every aspect of travel, from romance and adventure to family and wellness. She is also lucky to have had three major home states through the years: New York, Colorado and California. Today she divides time between the Denver and San Francisco areas.
Christine loves shoe shopping and fishing; walking anywhere; horseback riding (she was on the equestrian team at the University of Oregon); and discovering menus that include small-batch whiskeys, craft beer and lesser-known wines.
She would go anywhere in an RV and believes summer is best when it includes a rafting trip.
Read more about Christine Loomis here.