My relationship with traditional Italian restaurants over the years has been constantly conflicted by my Italian upbringing, one in which my grandmother and mother would have simultaneous heart attacks if they found out I went to a restaurant for spaghetti, ravioli, or gnocchi.
Fact: A man from an Italian family is never going to have anything better than a mediocre experience at a family-style Italian-ish restaurant, plain and simple. I know I’m not alone in bearing this cross – millions of people endure the suffering that stems from a culinary-endowed family tree. I’m being a smartass, but it’s true: Sometimes our mamas just spoil us, and for years I passed on opportunities to dine out at Italian restaurants. Why spend the money when it’s better at home?
Contemporary Italian food has really allowed me to start venturing back out to the tables, however, as going out for Italian no longer means putting a stranger’s version of gravy up against the family brand. Restaurants now seek to build off and transform the traditional recipes, creating new flavors and well-presented, colorful dishes. A quick side-by-side look at the traditional bowl of spaghetti and today’s pasta plates clearly shows the great differences between “now” and “then,” see some examples below.
Interestingly enough (although completely coincidental), my two most recent contemporary Italian meals were both in downtown Denver. Back in April, I enjoyed the award-winning egg ravioli at Prima Ristorante in the Hotel Teatro, and last Thursday I decided to give its competition a chance – Panzano in the Hotel Monaco.
Executive Chef Elise Wiggins was also spoiled by her mother, growing up in Louisiana eating gumbo and later attending the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver. After stints in Central America and Puerto Rico (where the restaurant received a AAA Four Diamond award during her tenure), she returned to Denver in 2004 and started at Panzano. Wiggins was unfortunately out of the restaurant when I visited last Thursday, but from the chef’s table I was able to take in all of her beautiful dishes.
While some chef’s tables can be private or secluded, sitting at the one in Panzano is as if you were sitting at the bar of a nice restaurant, except instead of seeing liquor bottles, you see the chefs preparing every meal. They’re approachable and willing to answer questions about what they’re making – an awesome perk – and the visual experience kept my attention the entire night. I could see all phases of the process – pasta put into the water, a fried egg placed on the Carbonara Piadina – and the sight, smell, and sound of the preparation was an appetizer in itself.
Assistant General Manager and Wine Director Jason Gordon helped us to pair each course with a glass of wine (a 3-glass flight will run you $16), and the list features many “Tre Bicchieri” award winners from Italy. It was somewhat of an education for me, sampling glasses of Lambrusco, Chianti, and Brachetto.
For $55 a person, you can enjoy a 5-course tasting menu that changes each night. Whatever you decide to order, I would recommend requesting a seat at the chef’s table (it is open to everyone and is no extra charge) and settling in for a slow-paced meal. It is in this sense that the old-school Italian traditions are revealed amongst the contemporary cuisine: Many courses, good wine, and long conversation with great food at the heart of the evening.
I’ll have more on Panzano in an upcoming Famtripper.com feature – for now, enjoy these photos from the restaurant in downtown Denver: