Chef and Tell with Frank Bonanno of Luca, Mizuna, Osteria Marco and Bones
"Look, I see a lot of things in restaurants that I think are really unacceptable, and it pisses me off, because I think that Denver diners deserve a lot better than what a lot of places are doing, and if that view makes me seem too outspoken, that's okay with me."
That's Frank Bonanno laying down the gauntlet. The Denver chef who raises eyebrows and turns heads as much for his brash honesty as for his unassailable cooking is in the kitchen of Luca d'Italia (one of four restaurants he owns) making burrata, stuffing and shaping tortellini, grilling bread, bantering with his cooks and sharing his thoughts on his peers and the state of Denver's restaurant scene -- a scene that Bonanno has been instrumental in making a success.
"Even though I'm 43 years old, I'd like to think that I know what's going on -- that I'm still on top of things," says Bonanno, a Jersey native whose first kitchen job was rolling meatballs in an Italian joint in New York. He continued to work in restaurants in New York and New Jersey, then headed west to attend the University of Denver. He dropped that gig before graduating, but picked up another one making pizzas at Sfuzzi before spearheading the kitchen at Creekside Grill. He did a stint with Anthony's Pizza for a year -- "so I could learn how to play golf" -- then headed back to the Big Apple for culinary school at CIA at Hyde Park. A girl, Jacqueline (now his wife), lured him back to Denver, where he's been pushing the culinary envelope -- and ruffling the feathers of his colleagues -- ever since. "I work really, really hard, I love Denver, I strive to be the best at what I do, but because I voice my opinion, not all the chefs in town are going to love me," he says.
There's little chance, however, that they wouldn't love his burrata. After I ate mine (and Bonanno's, too), we sat down at the bar at Luca, where he confessed his love for lard, expressed his disdain for fetal duck eggs, admitted that if the grocery store had nothing left but Kraft Singles, he'd still buy two because he's a cheese addict, put forth his wish for Denver chefs to stop littering their plates with too many ingredients, and admitted that another Bonanno restaurant is imminent.
Six words to describe your food: Passionate, simple, clean, honest, modern and consistent.
Ten words to describe you: Lucky, hardworking, comedic, aggressive, opinionated, karmic, determined, provocative and thoughtful.
Favorite ingredient: It changes according to my mood, but right now it's Cure Organic Farm's cauliflower, because it provides countless possibilities to take center stage or assume the role of a supporting character. The last thing I did at Luca was a brown-butter cauliflower purée with mushroom ravioli.
Most overrated ingredient: Spinach. It doesn't have the crunch or spicy bite of, say, kale, Swiss chard or rapini. Spinach is overused, fairly flavorless and produced on a scale that's way too mass for me to respect.
Most undervalued ingredient: Lard is inexpensive, abundant, easily rendered from scratch, and it imparts that rich, nutty, sweet pork flavor to anything lucky enough to soak in it.
Favorite local ingredient: That always changes, but right now, it's a red tomato from Jay Hill Farm, near Boulder, that they taste-tested and bred purely to enhance the flavor of bacon. That tomato makes the best BLT ever.
Rules of conduct in your kitchens: Be creative, express yourself on a plate rather than with words, and don't be the hack that uses tongs.
What's never in your kitchens? Shorts or jeans. It's just not professional.