Beyond Olive Garden: The Best Italian Food in Denver


Marla R. Keown

The dining room at Parisi. Photo courtesy of Parisi Pizzeria.

My mother is an Italian, bona fide. Pasta is served nigh on every night and all her disciples (Children, in the royal sense) are all well-trained in the ancient arts of Italian cooking. My family was raised with the hatred of Olive Garden ingrained in our hearts. All of this is to say, family standards are high, and any restaurant that receives the Neumeier seal of approval is great. Oft is my ear assailed with unconscionable defenses of Carrabba’s or Cinzetti’s. Such entreaties usually initiate a diatribe that has become a personal staple, “Why would you want to eat at a restaurant where the head chef is the microwave?” But alas I suppose it’s not up to me what people enjoy. Take my word with a grain of salt, I know just about as much as you.

The problem with excellent Italian cuisine is often the cost. The places on this list are expensive, with the exception of Parisi. I wouldn’t go to numbers 2-5 under any circumstances but a special occasion. Each of my recommendations has a price range for a dinner for two and the number of dollar signs google has attached to it. In no particular order, here are my favorite Italian restaurants in Denver.


  1. Parisi ($30-$40, $$)
    1. The most casual restaurant on the list, Parisi, is counter service. You walk in, stand in line (usually for a while), and sit down to have the food brought out to you. Saying it’s casual doesn’t mean it’s bad, though, Parisi is excellent. The house-made Italian fare and and exciting atmosphere make for a delicious dinner spot. (By the way, you’ll be paying the same here as any commercial Italian restaurant and it’s miles better.)
  2. Spuntino ($50-$100, $$)
    1. This list’s oddball. As opposed to the classic dishes served at most of these restaurants, Spuntino includes modern and varying takes on old-world recipes. This season’s menu features things like goat ragu, ricotta gnocchi, and wild elk tartare. Spuntino provides a truly one-of-a-kind experience. High-rollers might also be interested in the New Year’s Eve Dinner, $125/person for a 6-course meal, reservations are required.
  3. Luca ($50-$100, $$$)
    1. A true classic experience, the brainchild of chef Frank Bonanno, and the peak of Italian cuisine before the price point becomes truly insane. Luca is one of a few high-end Bonanno restaurants, a shortlist featuring some of Denver’s best. The food at Luca is of extraordinary quality, and it comes with a special level of artistry rarely found in the culinary space. Anyone interested in food or art, or really anything at all might also like Frank’s newsletter.

      The outside of Barolo Grill on a typically busy evening. Photo courtesy of Cherry Creek Magazine.
  4. Tavernetta ($75-$150, $$$)
    1. Tavernetta is traditional, but calling the menu “standard” would be a disrespect of monolithic proportions. To quote Bill Hyman (a random google reviewer that I found), the restaurant is “About as close to a Michelin star without having one.” The food is fascinatingly complex while using astonishingly simple principles. Tavernetta is the essence of superiority, they do the same thing that everyone else does; they just do it better.
  5. Barolo ($200+, $$$)
    1. Recommending Barolo almost feels disingenuous considering the price point. This is your fair warning, it isn’t for the faint of heart, and even less for the faint of wallet. That being said, it is truly special. A four-course tasting menu designed and executed by the James Beard recognized Darrel Truett (for those uninitiated, the James Beard recognition is a little like winning a state championship of food). A large number of “high-end” establishments hang their hat on buzzwords and fanciful language, but at Barolo, they mean every word. I could wax poetically for another 300 words about the virtues of Barolo, but I will end my soliloquy simply: If I won the lottery, this would be my first stop.