Italy in America – Risotto at Denver’s Il Posto

Editor’s note: I enjoyed one of the best meals I have had in Denver (where I now live) and indeed one of the best plates of risotto I have had in my life — in Italy or elsewhere — at Il Posto. To be specific, my memorable dish of rice-y perfection was made with the unusual yet succulent combination of pumpkin and pomegrante. A second course of an unusual preparation of duck was divine and the wine was exquisite. Our waiter was attentive and discerning. Updated 2018.

Thrilled with my experience, I suggested that my friend Liz Moskow, Boulder Daily Camera Dining Critic, and personal chef extraordinaire head to Il Posto and test the risotto against her more refined palate. Having eaten risotto almost exclusively in Italy, I was surprised that butter even entered into the equation. Liz is a tough but fair critic as you will read below. You decide whether Il Posto’s risotto will make your to-taste list for your next trip to Denver.

I’d travel far and wide in search of a precisely prepared plate of risotto. When hearing about potential perfection lurking in Denver from a friend who runs an award- winning travel newsletter about all things Italy, I stood at attention and followed her orders, heading to Il Posto to judge for myself if said specimen was indeed the holy grail of ravable riz.

During her diatribe about Il Posto’s risotto, Kathy explained that Chef Andrea Frizzi’s incarnation doesn’t use butter in its preparation. Il Posto’s embodiment relies only on fine EVOO and full-flavored cheese to add richness to the offering. As a person with a zealot’s veneration of butter, I found this to fly in the face of all risotto reason, but her endorsement generated enough curiosity for me to find out just how magnificent butter-less risotto could be.

Risotto, if you’ve been living under a rock since the early ’80s and don’t know, is an Italian dish made from high-starch rice such as arborio. Because creating great risotto is all about proper technique and unwavering dedication to stirring at the stove, it’s elusive to find a well executed plate of it at a restaurant. Risotto takes the preparers complete attention and must be served immediately, rather than sit and wait for a busy chef’s divided and multitasked attention.

On the night of my visit, Il Posto was offering two different types of “risotti.” I chose the Risotto Cavoletti di bruxelles alla griglia, broccoli spigarello, loosely translated: risotto with brussel sprouts, an heirloom variety of broccoli rabe and a semisoft cow’s milk cheese from the Veneto region of Italy. I also ordered an assaggini (tastes) of funghi: hedgehog and hen of the woods mushrooms, kuri squash, crispy salsify, ugli fruit, almond oil and quince. I shared the mozzarella di bufala served with finocchione, basil and black Hawaiian sea salt.

To my delight, the fungi dish arrived as an enlivened canvas painted with creamsicle orange, earthly brown, and spring green, framed by its stark white rectangular platter. So artful, I wanted to hang it on my wall rather than eat it. At first, I was skeptical about the components of this — mushrooms, ugli fruit and quince? I though for sure this would be a cacophony of flavors and an assault on my senses. My tongue’s verdict however was in opposition; a crunch of fried salsify, the acquiescence of quince gelatin, the buttery bite of seared mushrooms all combined into a textural and flavor symphony that played over and over in my head.

House-made buffalo mozzerella and finocchione piles were precisely placed in stacks along the oblong platter. Having overdosed on caprese salads long ago, this version sans tomato with the addition of savory salumi could be the trigger that hooks me into abusing mozzarella again. Fresh basil flavor perfumed without overpowering. Granules of black salt peppered the platter for an appealing presentation.

My companion sampled an Il Posto signature dish; handmade pappardelle with marjoram sausage ragu, oyster mushrooms and Grana Padano cheese. The neighbors at the next table agreed that there was nothing spectacular to report about this dish, as they’d ordered the same. The pasta dough was rolled a touch too thin to retain a to-the-tooth temperament. Slathered with mediocre bolognese, this was served in a massive round bowl, belittling the ribbons of semolina.

A wonderfully crisp Prosecco may have been the perfect choice from the impressive Italian wine list to enliven and prepare my taste buds for my main dish. The risotto arrived unadorned aside from the islands of melting cheese and buoys of bright brussel sprouts and boutique broccoli rapini. While the portion size was small for the $21 price tag, the chef proved to be a veritable arborio vigilante. I imagined him standing on guard watching, waiting for the precise second that the grains absorbed the exact amount of stock needed to make each firm grain collapse into velvety oblivion upon chew.

While clearly prepared with surgical precision, the omission of butter was something I still missed. This risotto was delicate, dainty and demure, I didn’t leave full. Risotto prepared this way would be well suited as a lunch, an appetizer or a side dish rather than a main course. My preference is still a richer preparation with the succulence that only butter can add.

As skilled as this chef was with most of the items we sampled, I will note that service and portion sizing did not seem to warrant prices as high as they were. When paying a king’s ransom for rice, I’d expect doting and professional service, and/or notable ambiance. Waiting 10 minutes before being greeted, over 25 minutes to place an order or ask questions of our harried server, and not receiving any follow up was inexcusable. By the time she checked in, we were no longer interested in dessert.

Environs are simple: open kitchen, chalk board menus, cherry wood tables, wooden board flooring, and plain white walls. Wine storage lockers line the back wall of the space and a garage door entryway anchors the decor.

If you’re a seeker of risotto experiences I’d suggest checking in at Il Posto for lunch. Saunter over in the spring when the garage door is open. That way you can experience all of the culinary positives, prices will be lower, the ambiance will be in the people watching outside and you can be the judge of your very own plate of “risotti” without rolling out too much dough. — Liz Moskow

The Details

Il Posto
2011 East 17th Avenue
(303) 394-0100
Open Monday through Friday 1 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Open Saturday and Sunday for dinner only.