Food & Drink

Denver's Best Italian Restaurants

Published On 08/04/2015 Published On 08/04/2015
Denver's best italian restaurants
Courtesy of Dave Purcell

Green chili may be Denver's most talked about food, but it's not all Mexican in the Mile High. You can also find plenty of cheese-coated pasta (and pizza, and slow-roasted porchetta on antipasti menus). There's absolutely no shortage of spots to get your Italian fix in Denver.

The Wooden Table

Greenwood Village

If you've ever wanted to assert your dominance at the top of the food chain (and be honest, who hasn’t?) then check out the menu at this joint. The dinner entree menu alone features duck w/ herb risotto & duck leg confit; lamb w/ bread gnocchi, spinach & goat cheese; plus pork, beef, and fish dishes, which together turn the vessel you call your stomach into some kind of gastrointestinal Noah’s Ark. Oh, it also offers next-level pasta, and its lunch menu offers sandwiches, including a grinder, a meatball sub, and an Italian sausage.

Osteria Marco

Osteria Marco

Downtown

Simple Italian could be best used to describe the food served at Osteria Marco, and that’s exactly what restaurant-maker Frank Bonanno had in mind when he opened up a less-complicated rendition of Luca D’Italia. Think a focused, cured meat selection with Parm prosciutto and mortadella, panini that either boast moist rotisserie chicken or apple fennel sausage, and a lobster pizza that will make you stop and ask, “Did this food really come from a basement?” Oh yeah, did we mention it’s in a basement? But don’t let that stop you from hopping down the stairs and trying some of the best Italian in Mile High.

Courtesy of Paul Kellerhals

Il Fornaio

Greenwood Village

Give Il Fornaio a chance by sinking your teeth into a tender cappellacci di zucca, a butternut squash- and walnut-filled ravioli with Grana Padano (Grana Padano is to Italy as Kraft is to American) and crispy sage. And because you know no limits, try any one of its desserts or go for the Dolce Trio, a sampler of tiramisu, cannoli, and zabaione alla gritti with Bellini sorbet.

Spuntino

Highlands

This restaurant has seen its fair share of owners in the last five years. At most places that would be a cause for concern, but at Spuntino, it's more of a passing of the torch. The current owners, husband and wife team Elliot Strathmann and Cindhura Reddy, both worked at Spuntino before taking the reigns in late 2014, and it's remained a neighborhood favorite ever since. Start with antipasti (of course), in particular, the porchetta. From there, you'll find a choose-your-own-adventure of seasonally changing dishes loaded with locally sourced ingredients. From assorted handmade pasta like cavatelli with Tender Belly pork belly, zucchini, blossom relish, and corn broth, to more substantial entrees like smoked Colorado beef cheek.

Courtesy of Rachel Nobrega

Luca D’Italia

Cap Hill

Another Frank Bonanno concept (he just doesn’t stop!), this is one special occasion spot that you'll find excuses to visit on the regular. Luca is fancy enough for an impressive first-date pick, but casual enough for a night out with friends. Beyond the indulgent ingredients like black truffle and lobster, the food maintains a comforting undercurrent. The Sicilian calamari over house-made marinara with briny capers and a bite from crushed Calabrian peppers is simple yet flavor-packed. The capellini carbonara keeps things traditional with guanciale, egg yolk, Parmigiano, and black pepper. And once you try it, you'll have daily cravings for the braised beef ribs with gorgonzola dolce, rapini, and Roman gnocchi... as soon as the temperature drops below 65.

Courtesy of Laurie Smith

Panzano

Downtown

2016 brought a big shake-up for Panzano when Elise Wiggins left in May to open her own restaurant after 12 years as the executive chef (look for Wiggins' Cattivella to open later this year in Stapleton). But so far, Panzano has continued to serve up an unparalleled Italian dining experience that may make you feel like you need to call a meeting of the Five Families just to brag about all the good food you ate. You’ll be able to catch traditional starters like bruschetta and calamari, but you’ll want to finish with the pastiche, a spicy meatball and cheese tortellini baked dish with ragú and spiced custard finished with a savory thyme crust. And even if you are the mid-morning, mimosa-drinking type, Panzano’s brunch features Italian takes on eggs Benedict and French toast.

Shells & Sauce

Congress Park

You might think Shells & Sauce is something that involves Velveeta (which wouldn’t be a completely bad thing), but thankfully it’s so much more. This small space can get loud when packed with hungry masses at dinnertime -- especially during their popular weekend brunch -- but you won't mind once you're eating their creative Italian-American dishes. From their stuffed shells duo (of course) to a chicken and jalapeño sausage Alfredo, you'll find a mix of traditional red-sauce joint fare and inventive spins on the classics. Oh, and that busy brunch? It's popular for good reason: their chicken & waffles is one of the best in town.

Barolo Grill

Barolo Grill

Cherry Creek

Whenever it seems like Denver's restaurant scene is changing at lightning speed, it's nice to be able to enjoy a meal at a place that's consistently elevated the cuisine -- and continues to despite the cravings of the city. Barolo's been around since 1992 serving northern Italian cuisine with a staff that takes an annual trip to Italy to learn about the food and culture firsthand. The five-course tasting menu is ideal for getting to know the food here, but you can also order a la carte, and don't skip the shaved black truffles that can be added to any dish for $10.

Bar Dough

Bar Dough

Highland

Denver's got a history of loving whatever chef Max MacKissock does (he previously helmed the kitchen at the Squeaky Bean and was a James Beard Award semifinalist), so the hype around his new venture wasn't a surprise. Bar Dough's cooking up handmade pasta galore and perfectly charred wood-fired pizzas, but even items that would be an afterthought at other eateries become standouts here. Take the wood oven roasted carrots that get a smoky boost from a carrot cumin vinaigrette. Or the scallops, which can be found everywhere else "pan-seared" with fill-in-the-blank, but here are served cured with cantaloupe, watermelon, and cucumber gazpacho for a fresh spin that works. And works wonderfully.

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Molly Martin is a freelance writer who cannot resist a good bolognese. Check out all of the delicious eats she finds in Denver on Twitter and Instagram.

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1. The Wooden Table 2500 E Orchard Rd Ste C, Greenwood Village, CO 80121 (University)

Almost every type of meat makes an appearance on the menu at this upscale trattoria. Dinner includes options like chicken liver mousse crostini, veal sweetbreads, prawns, halibut, lamb, and duck. They also serve pasta, because this is an italian restaurant. check out the Mezzaluna with house sausage & rainbow chard or the Pappardelle with venison bolognese.

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2. Osteria Marco 1453 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80202 (Lodo)

Here're 3 reasons to consider cruising by this approachable LoDo staple: a menu full of great Italian eats, a sick patio, and an appealing happy hour with cheap meatball sliders. Stop by and try one of their incredible handcrafted pizzas, cheese plates, and cured meats. Why aren't you there yet?

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3. Il Fornaio 8000 E Belleview Ave, Greenwood Village, CO 80111

This spot, located in the Denver Tech Center, may be a chain -- but don't let that stop you from visiting. The pasta is made on site or brought in dry from Italy, and the meats are cooked on rotisserie or grilled. Leave room for Italian desserts like tiramisu, cannoli, and panna cotta.

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4. Spuntino 2639 W 32nd Ave, Denver, CO 80211 (Highland)

The multiple changes in ownership haven't impacted the integrity of this Highlands spot. The food is quality italian -- the current owners spent months traveling and learning different tricks of cuisine. Try the house made porchetta, the Maiale, and look out for homemade gelato at the end.

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5. Luca 711 Grant St, Denver, CO 80203 (Capitol Hill)

Chef Frank Bonanno brings the community together at this Governor's Park restaurant named after his son. Simple, Italian classics that everyone knows make the heart of the menu, with main courses veering little from Italian favorites like cacio e pepe and capellini carbonara. An expansive 10-page wine list gives diners a chance to class up their meal -- as well as their bill -- though most will settle for something off the specialty cocktail list.

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6. Panzano 909 17th St, Denver, CO 80202 (Cbd)

Lauded as one of Denver's best Italian destinations, Panzano prepares artful plates of Northern Italian food inside Hotel Monaco. Its menu is a welcome break from the modern American fare that many hotel restaurants stray towards, featuring unique dishes like house-made pasta with lamb ragĂş and gluten-free options (a rarity at any carb-centric restaurant). The space, while eschewing the white tablecloth aesthetic, is polished and draws many a businessman, so brush up on your dressy casual dress before dining here.

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7. Shells and Sauce 2600 E 12th Ave, Denver, CO 80206 (Congress Park)

Tucked away in Congress Park, Shells and Sauce is the ideal remedy for a pasta craving. The neighborhood Italian-American joint has two indoor dining rooms, an open kitchen, ample rooftop seating (because who doesn't love their pasta with a panoramic view of the park?), and an impressive wine cellar. The space is filled with light wood and big windows, embodying something of a family dining room, while the chefs are on display as they grate parmesan onto fresh tortellini. The house-made pastas are drenched in everything from tabasco ragu and pesto cream sauce to jalapeño sausage alfredo, not to mention the vast assortment of added cheeses. While there are plenty of meat and fish entrees available, and a variety of hearty Italian salads as well, it seems only natural to order shells and sauce at Shells and Sauce.

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8. Barolo Grill 3030 E 6th Ave, Denver, CO 80206

Barolo Grill is a classic northern Italian joint that never goes out of style. Don't sleep on the extra shaved truffles, which perfectly compliment the house-made pasta. The menu is constantly updating with the changing times.

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9. Bar Dough 2227 W 32nd Ave, Denver, CO 80211

With a team that includes the owners of a local-burger favorite (Juan and Katie Padro of Highland Tap & Burger) and acclaimed former Squeaky Bean chef Max MacKissock, expectations were high and, well, they've definitely delivered. From elegant antipasti like the grilled octopus to house made pastas, hearty mains and flawless wood fired pizzas, every dish is impressive. Order one of their spritzes (try the grapefruit basil) with house made limoncellos and relax. You made the right decision coming here.

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