The pinstriped powerbroker from Chicago sat perched on a bar stool, poking at his salad, scrutinizing the wine list and wistfully reminiscing about the fabulous Italian meals he gets back home.
“Take it from me, there are no good Italian restaurants in Denver,” he professed.
He shut his eyes tight and, for a moment, I worried there would be tears. But suddenly his lids flew open, and the faint flicker of a smile emerged. He tried to back peddle, but it was too late.
He rolled his eyes and fidgeted before confessing what he clearly believed to be an impeachable breach of security. “All right,” he finally mumbled. “There is one place downtown that reminds me of the great Italian food I get in Chicago.”
I waited patiently for the almighty endorsement, but it was slow in coming. The moment had to be right, the circumstances perfect. There had to be drama. The impending announcement called for champagne, which I hurriedly summoned from the bartender.
My ploy worked.
“Venice,” he finally whispered through gritted teeth. “Venice does Italian food right.”
My smug, new confidant looked to me for confirmation. “Well,” he said, “do you agree?”
Ah, yes… Venice. I remembered how much I’d enjoyed my dinner at the Venice restaurant two nights prior. I blushed while recounting general manager Mario Mazzei bowing to kiss my hand. I admitted to stuffing myself silly, easily gaining enough weight during one meal to make me a formidable wrestling competitor.
But it was during my poetic rhapsodizing about the gnocchi that I lost my barfly friend. He had hoped to surprise me with his knowledge. It was supposed to be his little secret. The fact that I’d already been to Venice — and loved it — reduced his pinstripes to pinpoints. We said our goodbyes, and I wished him safe travels back to Chi-town.
“Hi, and welcome to Venice,” said the valet as he met us at the car. “Enjoy your evening.” It was a chilly, windswept March night, and I was frigid as I staggered through the front door. The hostess was all smiles. “Buona sera,” she beamed. And then there was Mr. Mazzei, gliding from table to table, freely handing out hugs, offering suggestions from the menu, pouring wine, and ensuring the comfort of every customer.
These, I suspect, are just a few of the reasons why Venice will succeed in the elegant space that, over the years, has seen a flux of failed restaurants — most recently, Adega Restaurant + Wine Bar. The fact that the Italian food is some of the best in Denver can only improve its odds.
I’m certain of this while devouring the gnocchi, feather light potato pockets punctuated with basil leaves, tomatoes, Parmesan and silky, milky white mozzarella. The whimsically anointed carpaccio — raw beef, sliced razor thin — dotted with coins of baby zucchini, a mound of micro greens, pungent gorgonzola crumbles and a light lemon-splashed dressing, is made with pride and respect. Generous portions of excellent-quality prosciutto and salami span a plate bolstered by a trio of wonderful Italian cheeses, including my favorite, Taleggio. I wish, however, that the kitchen would allow them to rest at room temperature. Cheese should not be served at the same degrees as the refrigerator.
The chef, Alessandro Carollo, is ambitious. He owns two other restaurants: Chianti, and Venice Ristorante Italiano, both in Greenwood Village and both of which dish out the same carefully crafted amore to a loyal fan base of well-heeled, south suburban regulars. His menu is lengthy and varied, and he’s eager to satisfy both purists and those requiring something more experimental. There are seven salads alone, including a forest romp of baby arugula, sweet Tropea onions, flash-red, vine-ripened tomatoes, and out-of-this-universe buffalo mozzarella.
No matter how they are sauced, the pasta dishes prosper. One is scampi fradiavolo, plump, pan seared prawns tossed with an assertively spiced marinara chunky with tomatoes and then showered with shaved parmesan cheese. The spaghetti is cooked just right. It takes talent to render a revered risotto, and Carollo’s is the real thing — a soul-satisfying, thick, creamy puddle voluptuous with the earthy richness of porcini mushrooms, spicy sausage, fresh spinach, parmesan and just a whiff of truffle oil.
Entrees are just as sure-handed. A shank of lamb unveils an enormous portion, so superbly cooked that the meat slips from the bone with a simple flick of the fork, landing in a garden of fragrant vegetables glossed with a big, bold red wine sauce. Veal scaloppini pelted with capers, roasted artichokes and the mellow addition of roasted garlic is also lovely.
Service here excels, but I do have a few quibbles: Salt and pepper are absent from the tables, a pretentious practice that I so wish restaurants would abolish. The wine list is intelligently arranged and certainly impressive, and the staff can knowledgably steer you toward a fine pick, but more affordable wines by the glass would be appreciated.
Still, there’s so much to love about Venice — even for a cynical Chicagoan.
If You Go
Venice Ristorante & Wine Bar, 1700 Wynkoop St., Denver, (303) 534-2222 Enjoy complimentary valet parking.
Lori Midson, Colorado AvidGolfer’s restaurant critic (www.coloradoavidgolfer.com), makes a career out of wining and dining her away around Denver , where she lives, a city ripe with culinary surprises. She is a frequent contributor to Sunset and CITY, the local editor of numerous Zagat Surveys, and the Denver dining writer for AOL CityGuide. Midson, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, has also written for other publications including 5280 magazine, Executive Travel and EnCompass.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.