2018 was a big year for Frank Bonnano. His already well-established empire was joined by the massive downtown food-court Milk Market, nearly doubling his already significant restaurant footprint with an additional 16 in-house concepts. It should come as no surprise that the chef has not been spending quite as much time in the kitchen.
They say the best way to run a good business is to find people you trust and delegate. Luca and Mizuna — two of Bonnano’s oldest and most esteemed concepts — recently welcomed new executive chefs, both of whom are updating the menus while still preserving the classics that have made the two locations institutions in the city’s fickle dining scene.
Blake Carini moved to Denver in 2016, subsequently working at Bistro Barbès for nearly two years before accepting the position at Luca, while Shawn Waters — the executive chef at Mizuna — rose from within. Both chefs have been enjoying some creative wiggle-room, but nothing has changed so drastically as to be beyond recognition.
Carini is the sixth executive chef to take the reigns in the 15 years Luca has occupied its Grant Street home. “He has a solid philosophy. He understands me but also knows what he wants to do,” said Bonnano, illustrating the trust shared between the two. Carini took the role in part because of his excitement regarding the location’s robust house-made cheese and charcuterie program. The fresh-stretched mozzarella ($10) is one of four cheeses made on-site daily and is one of the most essential items on the menu.
The Luca meatball ($10) is one of the restaurant’s most well-loved items. The dish comes with caramelized onion sugo, pecorino and house-marinara and apparently will always have a place on the list in part due to a very legitimate fear of immediate mutiny if it were to be removed. The squid ink spaghetti — one of Carini’s new dishes — is joined by ‘nduja sugo, shrimp and micro radish. The plate shines in its simplicity, each bold ingredient nicely reinforces the flavor of the other few.
Mizuna — the more upscale of the two — is also Bonanno’s oldest restaurant, having first opened its doors in April 2001. The fare relies heavily on French technique, but Mizuna is no bistro. The place leans more towards blended fine-dining. The menu is full of all the expected trappings often associated with white tablecloths — foie gras, sweetbreads, lobster and ostrich litter the menu.
Waters’ rise to the executive chef position came organically. After years working on the line at Mizuna, he did a brief stint at Luca before returning around the corner to claim the throne. His familiarity with the dishes and the inner workings of the kitchen has made for a smooth ascension — the menu still continues on its due course under his direction.
The foie gras pie ($25) is seared foie gras in savory pie crust, joined by foie gras ice cream, salted caramel and fennel apple jam. The appetizer could easily be a dessert — fortunately, the many sweet elements don’t swallow the foie’s flavor. The veal sweetbreads ($21) are served with king trumpet mushrooms, Semolina chevre and covered truffled Madeira demi-glace. The Beef Wellington ($45) is a great iteration of the English classic. It comes complete with foie gras duxelle, roasted hen of the woods mushroom, braised cipollini and a bright smear of sunchoke purée.
Bonanno is in the process of establishing one of the city’s most substantial and longlasting food legacies. Both menus prove that the restaurateur put his trust in the right hands.
Luca is located at 711 Grant St., Denver. It is open Wednesday – Saturday 4:30 – 10 p.m. and Sunday 4:30 – 9 p.m.
Mizuna is located at 225 East 7th Ave., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Saturday 5 – 10 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.