Just a few short years ago, Denver was basically an Italian-food desert, offering little more than old-fashioned red-sauce parlors. Suddenly, though, said desert has burst into bloom. In fact, it’s so vibrant with new and noteworthy choices that for this list we’ve omitted pizzerias, a category unto itself (though we sure are smitten with Cart-Driver, Blue Pan and White Pie), as well as any place outside the city proper (looking at you, Frasca and Dolce Sicilia). There’s more than enough to explore right here, right now.
All the warmth of a mom-and-pop trattoria, all the savvy of a fine-dining venue — that’s what this little LoHi gem brings to the local table. Chef Cindhura Reddy, a 30 Under 30 alumna, cooks with such distinctive flair we’re convinced we could pick her dishes out of a lineup — from polenta-stuffed agnolotti dal plin with ’nduja and shrimp to lamb porchetta in amaro demiglace. And speaking of amaro, her husband-partner Elliott Strathmann’s passion for collecting as well as making it is truly inspirational, as is his upkeep and knowledge of one of the coolest, most exploration-worthy wine lists in town.
Must-order: Octopus carpaccio, elk tartare in season, any pasta with goat
2639 W. 32nd Ave.; 303-433-0949
Since it was but a gleam in her eye, we knew former Panzano chef Elise Wiggins’s first, long-overdue solo venture in Stapleton would be worth the wait. Now the proof is in the polenta (and the pizza, and the pappardelle) — her cooking’s as exuberant as ever. It’s also in the performance, as Wiggins, exec sous-chef Zurisadai Resendiz and their team work the grill, tend the wood-fired beehive oven, crank out pasta dough, slice salumi and more right out in the open of the exhibition kitchen, so the whole place crackles with electricity. The bar furthers the momentum with peachy cocktails, local beers and an easy-breezy wine selection.
Must-order: Focaccia di Recco, tagliata di manzo, fagioli al fiasco, torta Caprese
10237 E. 29th Dr. #110; 303-645-3779
Don’t let the modest name fool you. Combining effortless chic with high energy and a boldly progressive approach to Italian cuisine, this LoHi hot spot is nothing less than a standard-bearer of Denver’s freewheeling dining scene today. Acclaimed chef-partner Max MacKissock has a knack for putting ingredients where you think they don’t belong and then proving you wrong: take Brussels sprouts with anchovy sauce, pistachios and dried cantaloupe or pizza toppings like creamed leeks, fennel pollen and lemon zest. The crew behind the bar is equally playful with respect to not only cocktails but also geeky wine and beer selections and housemade cream sodas — and when you're seated there with La Dolce Vita screening on the wall, you just know you're in the right place at the right time.
Must-order: Short-rib gnocchetti, Mountain Man pizza, eggs Benedicto (brunch only), garlic bread
2227 W. 32nd Ave.; 720-668-8506
In terms of ambiance, siblings Paul and Aileen Reilly’s Uptown go-to is as cozy as its name — Italian for “blanket” — would suggest. But we wouldn’t exactly call what they serve comfort food. Even the most traditional dishes on the Southern Italian menu — bucatini all'Amatriciana, pollo alla diavola, tartufo — excite rather than coddle the palate with the precision of their execution, while the specialties of the house are downright sexy. Same goes for JP Taylor’s uncompromisingly regional wine list and Jon Feuersanger’s jaunty cocktails.
Must-order: Spuzzulia, house mozzarella with pesto garganico, grilled lacinato salad, spaghetti cacio e pepe, whole fish of the day
400 E. 20th Ave.; 720-749-4666
Dio Mio Handmade Pasta
Alex Figura honed his skills in such world-famous kitchens as Blue Hill at Stone Barns and El Celler de Can Roca before making his mark on Denver at the short-lived but sensational Lower48, supported by sous-chef Spencer White. Now he and White, a national 30 Under 30 semifinalist this year, have activated their wonder-twin powers to become the self-styled "artisanal spaghetti monsters" behind this next-level fast-casual pasta joint. From warm porchetta salad with pickled quince–mustard sauce and hazelnuts to cavatelli in smoked chicken ragù with chickpeas and green strawberries, their seasonal menu — and the one-sheet of beers, wines and cocktails accompanying it — is as exciting as any you'd find in a chichi setting. The difference is that Dio Mio is cheaper, with quicker service and yet a more relaxed vibe. Unless fine dining is a goal in itself, we don't see the downside.
Must-order: Fried mushrooms with chicken-liver mousse, seafood-marrow toast, house sourdough, any seasonal pasta
3264 Larimer St.; 303-562-1965
Of course, if fine dining is the goal, this Country Club longtimer's the destination. Acquiring one hell of a cellar from former boss Blair Taylor, wine director–turned-owner Ryan Fletter maintains a world-class (and book-length) wine list that's especially strong in the three Bs — Barbaresco, Brunello and obviously Barolo — with the aid of a well-trained staff that travels to Italy once a year for inspiration. Meanwhile, exec chef Darrel Truett holds his own in the kitchen with a contemporary Northern Italian menu rich in delicacies: foie gras terrine with Prosecco gelée and aperol sauce, risotto with lobster and gold leaf, white-truffled egg custard. All that’s not to say you have to splurge here — just that you won’t regret a moment if you do.
Must-order: The tasting menu, obviously — but if you'd prefer to go à la carte, look for dishes with duck and rabbit, both specialties here
3030 E. 6th Ave.; 303-393-1040
We knew that, as a Manhattan export to Cherry Creek, this Italian chophouse would be a glitzy, trendy, spendy affair. We did not expect that it would at the same time prove so charming. The decor, while posh, has a sepia-toned, old-timey feel, and the staffers genuinely aim to please, leaving no request unanswered if they can help it. The gorgeous plates, meanwhile — often literally turning heads as they’re delivered — are surprisingly soulful for being so luxurious.
Must-order: Besides steak (pictured top), baked clams, sausage-pepper toast (pictured above), tuna crudo, chicken Parm for two, corn crème brûlée
241 Columbine St.; 303-532-8888
Lo Stella Ristorante
Remember that time we vowed to keep singing the praises of this low-key Golden Triangle retreat? We meant it. Eighth-generation restaurateur Alessandro Polo abides by the traditions of the original Lo Stella, his family's historic establishment in Liguria, to offer the clearest picture of the region's sunny, seafood-centric cuisine that you'll find around here. So bring on the frutti di mare in any form — and don't forego Liguria's most famous culinary export: pesto.
Must-order: In addition to the above, focaccia al formaggio di Recco, pansoti in walnut sauce
1135 Bannock St.; 303-825-1995
Few restaurants improve with expansion, but this contemporary Northern Italian transplant from City Park West to RiNo is beating the odds. Reflecting the vibe of a bi-level space that’s not only much bigger but far more glamorous than the original, Milanese-native Andrea Frizzi’s repertoire seems at once edgier and more elegant than before — at any given time you might be treated to uni cream with lobster-roe focaccia; tagliatelle with clams, pomegranate, kale, lilac and lemon-thyme oil; or game hen with foie gras, figs, fennel pollen and green tomatoes. Finesse is the name of the bar game too — start with a cocktail and ask the personable staff for wine-pairing recommendations.
Must-order: The menu changes too often to get specific, but risotto's a staple, calamari dishes are always a good bet and if the beef-fat candle (pictured) is offered, don't turn it down.
2011 E. 17th Ave.; 303-394-0100
Obviously Frank Bonanno’s Capitol Hill longtimer Luca is a must-try too, especially for pasta. But as it has evolved toward a more casual mode of dining, its menu has come to overlap somewhat with that of Bonanno’s Larimer Square osteria — so if we were to pick one, we’d go with the latter for its urban verve and unexpected value. Bonanno was a local pioneer in the art of charcuterie, and the extensive array of salumi and cheeses available here from the beginning remains one of the best in the city, with many selections enhancing his robust, rustic pizzas and panini. Entrees, meanwhile, skew fancy without being precious — think rabbit with spinach-ricotta gnudi in carrot-Parmesan brodo — and the wine list offers adventure at a shockingly affordable price point.
Must-order: Burrata, bresaola, lamb meatballs, wild mushroom–robiola pizza
1453 Larimer St.; 303-534-5855
It’s a counter joint, yet the service goes above and beyond taking and delivering your order, while the relatively simple food clearly comes from the heart (and hits you right there too), including housemade pastas and baked goods. So although 30 Under 30 alum Ryan DiFranco’s tiny Golden Triangle cafe doesn’t look like an old-school, family-run red-sauce joint, it almost feels like one — especially on Wednesdays, aka Cheap Italian Date Night, when you and your honey can get two salads, entrees and cannoli plus a bottle of wine for $54.
Must-order: Spaghetti and meatballs, seasonal pastas like duck-yolk ravioli, chicken-Parm sandwich, lemon-ricotta cookies
955 Lincoln St. Unit D; 720-253-1244