Denver is an interesting city for Italian food. On the one hand, we don’t really have a lot of very good options, which is odd for a city this size (and for a city with as strong an Italian heritage as we have). On the other hand, what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. So let me offer you a few good ideas if you find yourself in the mood for some pizza or pasta.
Carmine’s on Penn is the superstar in Denver’s Italian lineup. Tucked away in Denver’s West Washington Park area, its easy, relaxed neighborhood vibe doesn’t necessarily predict the excellence of the dining experience.
There’s nothing about the menu that’s going to strike you as terribly new, but the execution is unsurpassed. They serve family style (each dish serves 2-4 people and you’re encouraged to pass the plate around, just like at home) and an outstanding wine list runs the gamut of Italian vintages.
How good is Carmine’s? Well, I used to live in Boston and we loved to head up to the North End whenever we could. I can’t say I ate at every place on Hanover, but Carmine’s is as good as anything we had in the places we did try. That’s serious praise, folks.
So, fantastic food, casual neighborhood atmosphere – what’s not to love? Well, maybe this: Carmine’s is a hot ticket, so if you think it sounds like a place you want to try, I’d pick up the phone now to see about reservations. Tell them you’re in town with the DNC – that might help.
Pagliacci’s, located across I-25 from Pepsi Center in Denver’s old Italian neighborhood, is a completely different experience from Carmine’s. More traditional, more formal, more classically oriented in every way, a visit to Pagliacci’s is a step back in time – there’s not a lot about the inside of the place to let you know whether you’re in 2008,1946 (when it first opened its doors), or sometime in bwteen. The food is wonderful and the service impeccable – a perfect night out for those looking to sample a slice of the 5280’s rich Italian history.
Another of our absolutely favorite places is Parisi, which is located up in the very trendy Highlands neighborhood. Parisi is owned and operated by a native Florentine (something you could probably have figured out on your own just by looking around at the decorations and wallpaper), and it began a few years back as an Italian deli. It’s now grown into a full-fledged restaurant, although not one of the sit-down variety. You go through the line, place your order, and have a seat, so it’s not a terribly formal experience.
But sweet mother of Michaelangelo, the food is stunning. The pastas, the sauces, the specialties (I love the gnocchi) – all are fabulous, and the pizza is the best I have ever had. In my life. Anywhere. Period. They serve a very tasty and traditional Margherita and they have this one called the Maialona that I can barely write about without drooling on the keyboard: spicy soprasatta, prosciutto and Italian sausage baked across a perfectly wood-fired crust… It’s times like this I wish I were a food critic, because there are probably words somewhere to describe it. So far I haven’t found them, though.
Save room, too, because Parisi is one of the places that serves Gelato d’Italia‘s obscenely delicious gelatos and sorbettos.
Finally, let’s prop one of LoDo’s longstanding institutions, the Wazee Supper Club and Lounge. The pizza is great and the decor is classic Denver – relaxed, but with a distinct pulse. It’s located very close to the Big Tent and makes a perfect place to unwind after a hard day of politicking.
As my wife’s people back in Calabria say (she’s a second generation Italian, btw), panza ‘china fa cantÃ ri – “a full stomach makes you sing.” Sing loudly, friends. Sing loudly.