Osteria Marco

I think Osteria Marco is the best Italian restaurant in Denver. Imagine walking down a wide stairwell into what is presumably a basement dining area, only to find yourself in the middle of a true, Italian osteria. It looks like a polished wine cellar, intentional but humble.

The wine list is spectacular, especially if you know Italian wines. If not, hopefully the server can point you in the right direction (this has been, honestly, a bit hit or miss). Immediately, without hesitation, order the house made burrata. Even if this is the only item you eat all night, it will be well worth it. I have yet to find a burrata that can compare and I have tried many. The burrata is accompanied by ciabatta from the grill. If you’re with a group, a good addition is a separate order of the grilled ciabatta, which comes with a mix of pesto, tomatoes, balsamic, and parmesan.

Really, any one dish on the menu is worth trying, but I prefer the pizzas. And not just because I love pizza. The real stars of OM are the ingredients, and on the pizzas you can taste them all. The meatballs, the salami, the prosciutto, cheeses, and oils… they all stand out. Here’s a pro tip: soak up some of the hot olive oil that will be on your table with your pizza crust.

Osteria Marco is unique. You feel comfortable, casual, sitting with friends or family and enjoying good food and good wine. But you also walk away sure that you just had one of the best meals available downtown.

I suggest: Burrata, Grilled Ciabatta Bread, Pizza Carne. For wine, go rogue: an Aglianaco del sud.

Osteria Marco1453 Larimer Street, Denver, CO 80202

Acqua al 2

The thing about Italian food is that when it’s good, it is so good. I’ve been hearing about Acqua al 2 for months and I’ve walked by it twice a day, every day since July. Finally, I found an occasion (and the funds – thanks, Dad) to make a reservation.

Walking in, I was surprised. The seating area is large and that is something that normally goes against all of my principles when it comes to eating Italian. All of the back-end alley restaurants and family-owned trattorias that I frequented in Italy had limited seating. Never mind. First impressions aren’t always to be trusted.

The second I saw the unsalted bread placed on the table I knew we were in for a treat. Only a proper Florentine restaurant would serve unsalted bread to Americans.

We were seated with a clear view of the kitchen, which I love. We could see the meat searing on the grill and the pasta coming straight out of the pan. We started with the salad sampler. Arugula lightly dressed in olive oil (the good stuff) and balsamic, tossed with cherry tomatoes and walnuts. Melt in your mouth mozzarella bufala accompanied by tomatoes. Finally, a shaved fennel salad. I have never been a fan of fennel, but this, tossed with pine nuts and radish, was by far my favorite.

The pasta sampler arrived next. Five small plates were more than enough and were an excellent representation of the menu. First, we shared fusilli in a creamy spinach sauce. Next, a penne in a creamy red sauce with roasted red pepper. My favorite was the farfalle with porcini mushrooms in a delicious, buttery sauce. It was rich, it was exquisite and the tasting portion was just right. The gnocchi were like pillows; smothered in a mascarpone sauce with radish, which, at first odd, was a perfect juxtaposition. Finally, a longer fusilli in a spicy tomato sauce. The pasta was cooked truly al dente; done the right way, it had a bite and did not disappear on contact.

How could we possibly also have the steak? Oh, right, because there is always room for steak. We opted for the tasting platter again. A New York strip, so simple with hints of peppercorn and dijon mustard. A filet mignon, which I heard is the house favorite, in a blueberry reduction sauce. I loved the filet heavily drizzled in a balsamic reduction. It was crispy and sweet and melted in your mouth.

I didn’t mention the wines. Go red. Always, go red. Super Tuscans pair perfectly.

I suggest: Insalata Finocchio, Topini al Radicchio Rosso, Filetto al Balsamico

Acqua al 2, 212 7th Street SE, Washington, DC, 20003

Menomalé: simply a must

Of all the food in the world, pizza is one of the most simple. We see it presented by the face of Peyton Manning and bubbling with cheese-stuffed crust laden with fruit, but in reality, it is best when made with a handful of quality ingredients. In Italy, pizza is an art form. Pizzaioli know that to make a perfect pizza is a serious study. In Italy, this is common, but to find a true Neapolitan pizza here in the US isn’t easy. I think that Menomalé of DC is the best I’ve had this side of the Atlantic.

Everything about Menomalé is true Italian: the tiny water glasses (no room for ice), the limited seating, and, of course, the wood-fired oven. Go to Menomalé and take some time to enjoy the experience. Their select beers are all great pairings with pizza and they also boast a decent wine selection. Their antipasti platters are standard – meats, cheeses, breads – and you can tell that everything is hand-picked to resemble Italy’s finest. Share the antipasti, enjoy a beer, order a pizza, and then imagine. I’ve spent time in Italy and I’ve made memories around the table. The pizza served by Pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano makes me nostalgic. Served in whole on specially made plates, the perfect Neapolitan pizza, the one that can be found so effortlessly in Italy, is bursting with the flavors of tomato and mozzarella di bufala. The dough has a bit of charring, but is soft and slightly chewy. The traditional toppings, often representing more than initially considered, are the perfect after note. This is Menomalé. Maybe I’ve been away from Italy for too long, but if I close my eyes, there is no distinction.

Menomalé upholds my love affair with pizza. The whole experience is genuine: the staff is knowledgable, the atmosphere is comfortable and the ingredients embody the best of Italy.

Located in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast DC, it should not be overlooked. If you’ve been to Italy, it will take you back. If you haven’t, just don’t ask for it sliced.

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 I suggest: Affettati Misti della Casa, the Quattro Stagioni, the Diavola, Nastro Azzurro (draft), Curieux (bottle)

 Menomalé, 2711 12th St, NE, Washington, DC 20018

“Tuscany untied the knots in a man’s intestines, wiped out the ills of his world.”

“Tuscany is a state of grace. The countryside is so lovingly designed that the eye sweeps the mountains and valleys without stumbling over a single stone. The lilt of the rolling green hills, the upsurging cypresses, the terraces sculptured by generations that have handled the rocks with skillful tenderness, the fields geometrically juxtaposed as though drawn by a draftsman for beauty as well as productivity; the battlements of castles on the hills, their towers standing gray-blue and golden tan among the forest of trees, the air of such clarity that every sod of earth stands out in dazzling detail. On both sides of the road the grape-heavy vines were espaliered between the horizontal branches of silver-green olive trees, composing orchards of webbed design, rich in intimation of wine, olive oil, and lacy-leaf poetry.”

-Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy

comfort foods

After deliberating for most of the night (thanks, Mom / Cooking Light for the pain and inspiration), I have finally compiled my top ten list of comfort foods. It was harder than expected, but brought back some awesome memories. As a self-proclaimed “foodie,” these may not be the most amazing dishes I have ever tried (next blog?), but they mean something. And I could probably live off of them.

1) Mom’s mashed potatoes. A staple at every family holiday and they are perfect in every way.

2) Panzerotti from Gina’s in Mola di Bari, Italy. They’re kind of like fried pizza pockets, but better. They can also be stuffed with ricotta and cinnamon. So they’re a win-win sweet & savory situation.

3) Fried Dumplings. There’s never really a time when a fried dumpling isn’t delicious.

4) Pizza Diavola. This is my all-time favorite pizza. It’s basically just a cheese pizza with Italian salami, which is essentially pepperoni, except it’s not. It’s really only available in Italy and that’s awesome.

5) Tortellini al Brodo. This is weird. Tortellini in broth? I know. But I love soup and this was one of my favorite comfort meals in Italy, whether I made it at home or ordered it at a restaurant.

6) Chicken Enchiladas. Just because.

7) Bacon-Cheddar-BBQ Cheeseburger. I could possibly eat one of these three times a week. Maybe four.

8) Bread. Because when you’re having a bad day, nothing is better than stuffing yourself full of carbs. Spread with butter, covered with cheese & garlic, dipped in parmesan & olive oil, whatever.

9) French Fries. Only the breaded, extra crispy, dipped-in-bbq-sauce kind like from Spanky’s in D-town.

10) Cool Mint soft serve ice cream from Soft Stuff. An explanation for this is impossible. If you would like to try and understand, drive to Route 40 in Ellicott City and ask around.

missing my beloved capp

all I want for Christmas is a cappuccino. America just can’t get it right and I am dying over here. something about it encompasses every bit of Italy that I love… the reminder to take a minute and enjoy something you love; the soul of a people in something tangible; and, of course, the rule that prohibits a capp being drunk post-11am is the very essence of the crazy Italian culture. it was my favorite morning tradition for so long and I just feel incomplete with out it (#firstworldproblems). maybe if I’m really good Santa will find a way to fit this in my stocking?

la ribollita

Being out of Italy, I love figuring out how I can bring its essence into D-Town. The “cappuccino” I had this morning out of the instant machine at the BMW dealer while I was waiting for my car didn’t quite cut it so I decided to try a more full-on approach: la ribollita.

Ribollita is a traditional soup from Tuscany that was recommended to me by the owner of an “American” bar and cafe one day while I was staying in Florence.  He noticed that I was tearing up my bread and putting it into a bowl of tomato soup and told me that I had to try this famous Tuscan stew that involves lots of day-old bread to thicken the consistency.

On his recommendation, I scouted out a nice-looking restaurant and sat down for a glass of vino and a bowl of this hearty soup. I had a a pretty nasty cold that night, but I can tell you that this was without question one of the best meals I have eaten in Italy. I don’t even know if it should be called a soup or even a stew for that matter; it’s so thick it could be eaten with a fork and every bite seems to encompass the Florentine culture and Tuscan countryside. One bowl of this stuff inspired me to go back to my hotel room and start a food diary, dating all the way back to 2009 (I have a great memory for food). I then scoured the internet for recipes and swore that I would make it as soon as I returned home to Denver.

One month later I am here and the days of 80 degree temperatures have finally disappeared and I am sitting in my kitchen while it is 40 degrees and raining out. So the day couldn’t be more perfect to try out my culinary skills. Embarrassingly enough, this is actually the first time in my life I am opening a cookbook and preparing dinner for multiple people. Usually I just throw whatever I have into a pan and and turn it into either a) a stir fry or b) a pasta, so this is a big day for me. After following the recipe of Mario Batali and making various adjustments with the help of a few Italian websites, I think I may have actually come close to bringing Italy home with me.

The ingredients are simple and cheap: potatoes, celery, carrots, leeks, cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, tomato paste, cannellini beans, Italian bread, olive oil, salt, pepper; but when it’s all thrown together it’s pretty delicious. Being back in the States, I am glad I can still capture the heart of Italy in an afternoon, because there really is no better way to celebrate it than through the food.

PS. I debated not inserting a picture because it probably could look more appetizing, but just trust me on this and next time you need a cold-weather meal go for it.