Rustic Italian in Larimer Square.
(out of 4)
1453 Larimer St., 303-534-5855, www.osteriamarco.com
The Draw Rustic Italian specialties and boutique wines in a relaxed, tavernlike setting.
The Drawback The space can be incredibly noisy and service slow.
Don't Miss The Sunday-night slow-roasted suckling pig, Burrata and ricotta cheeses, imported and house-made charcuterie, limoncello.
Vegetarian Options Whole grilled artichoke, oven-baked fonduta, house-made cheeses, roasted beet salad, and margherita pizza.
If you visit an osteria in Italy you'll find a vibrant neighborhood spot where locals gather around wooden tables to relax, laugh, and share the day's news. In between toasting with tumblers of red wine, patrons pass plates of la cucina povera, "peasant cooking," in the vein of rustic bread, homemade cheeses, and salumi. On Denver's Larimer Square, thousands of miles from Italy, chef-owner Frank Bonanno's Osteria Marco offers a similar experience.
Bonanno, who also owns Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, is known for his exacting attention to detail, and it's something he carries over to Osteria Marco. He always focuses on ultra-fresh, artisanal ingredients—many of which, like cured meats and fresh cheeses, are made in-house—but here he streamlines the menu, offering a collection of simple dishes. There's no extra finessing of recipes, no fancy plating—just simple, rustic food at reasonable prices.
He does all of this at 1453 Larimer, a subterranean space that has the potential to be awkward. However, Bonanno, his wife, Jacqueline, and partners Jean-Philippe Failyau and Ryan Gaudin transformed the old Del Mar Crab House into a workable location by embracing its quirks. At street level, the restaurant entices passersby with a shiny, red salumi slicer set in the front window. The cook manning the machine slices cured meats like prosciutto and bresaola to order before handing off platters to servers who whisk them to tables below. The dining room feels tavernlike—osterialike—with soft lighting, dark wood furniture, a long bar, and walls of racked Italian wines. It's cozy and comfortable, and feels like a place you could return to again and again.
Once you're seated, service is often slow to arrive, though when servers turn up they're helpful and well-versed. To start your meal, order one of the specialty cocktails, particularly the ice-cold, homemade limoncello ($6) that's been aged for two months. Or, try the Adami Prosecco cocktail ($8) made with fresh seasonal fruit juices.
Ordering the formaggio, and specifically the house-made Burrata ($9), as a first course is a must. The ethereal and buttery mozzarella-style cheese arrives with slices of grilled ciabatta bread and a zesty grape relish. Almost as mesmerizing: the hand-crafted ricotta ($5-$6). In either case, spread a hunk of cheese on slices of grilled bread and enjoy the simplicity of high-quality, pure ingredients.
Meats from the salumi bar complement the cheese offerings perfectly. An order of prosciutto di San Daniele ($10) delivers folds of the precious ham, but it's the house-made bresaola ($5) that's outstanding. This wine-cured, air-dried beef is a specialty of Valtellina, Italy, and Bonanno's version is tangy, tender, and served thinly sliced with a hint of olive oil.
Stars from the antipasti list include savory meatball sliders ($7), which combine veal, pork, and beef with Parmigiano-Reggiano, milk, eggs, and Italian spices. Presented on yeasty homemade rolls, they disappear quickly from the plate. The whole grilled artichoke ($9), served halved with a balanced garlic aïoli, is made even better with the oven-baked fonduta ($6). Dip each leaf into the crock of melted fontina cheese accented with Parmigiano-Reggiano and heavy cream. Or, simply spoon the decadent mixture onto slices of grilled ciabatta.
Salads are well-balanced and generous. Standouts include the robust roasted beet and hazelnut ($5), as well as the chopped rotisserie chicken ($11) with salty bits of pancetta tossed with chicken, tomato, avocado, onion, and blue cheese.
As for entrées, the local, naturally raised roasted half chicken is worth ordering simply for its gorgeous golden brown skin and exceptional pan juices. Also noteworthy are Osteria's panini, which come on grilled ciabatta or house-made focaccia. The best of the bunch is the savory Italian dip with prime rib and provolone ($13).
Pizzas can be hit or miss, despite Bonanno's $15,000 investment in a new Blochet pizza oven. This is largely because of volume. With up to 220 pizzas pulled from the oven each day and night, the temperature can drop enough to turn the middle of the crusts soggy. At worst, you'll have to eat the pizza with a fork, but with Bonanno's artisan ingredients—fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and house-made charcuterie—the flavors on each pie are worth the effort. (And, by the way, the Italians do eat their pizza with a fork).
Make a point of dining on Sunday nights to enjoy one of the 40 to 50 servings of slow-roasted suckling pig. The Castle Rock pork marinates all day Saturday, before Bonanno cooks it low and slow from midnight until 2 p.m. on Sunday. This simple dish arrives at the table with rich natural juices, wilted spinach, roasted rosemary fingerling potatoes, and roasted garlic. A golden brown slice of skin caps the fork-tender pork, but on more than one occasion this was too tough to cut, even with a sharp knife.
If you don't have room for more, come again just for dessert to experience the kitchen's in-house finales. A molten chocolate cake ($7) entices with super-rich dark chocolate and homemade chocolate gelato. The butterscotch bread pudding ($7) boasts the perfect blend of flavors, and the vanilla panna cotta ($7) offers a lighter finale with strawberry coulis spooned on top.
At the end of the meal, it's clear that Bonanno's ode to the osteria is a success. Go and eat rustic cuisine, sip wine, and rejoice with friends—all while feeling a little bit Italian.