Walking up the sidewalk, looking in at the bustling tables, the writing on the windows, globe lighting and general golden aura, I felt like I wasn’t in Denver anymore. Despite my city’s skyline just across I-25, I kept feeling like I was heading into a well-established restaurant in New York City. Not a celebrity-chef one, nor one that would be serving “precious” food with sauce dots. This was going to be the kind of place that had been around a good 30 or so years; where people have their favorite table and long-time waiter who knows just how you like your martini and that Junior will be graduating soon; where people go for family celebrations, generation after generation. The food would be good. Maybe not outstanding but really good and homey and we’d feel good about having gone. Well, I almost had it right.
The good food, homey feeling, special occasion vibe, and friendly staff were all there, but this was a brand new restaurant in a brand new building, in the LoHi neighborhood across the bridge from the city of Denver! Owned by the Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group, which also owns Ocean Prime (and absolutely knows how to do things right – read our review), Marcella’s channels a wonderfully plump Italian mama (real or fictitious, we’re not sure) both for spirit and recipes. Sure enough, the food does taste like it’s from classic Italian family recipes, just being what they are, without trying to be art. Or a science experiment. Or a structural masterpiece.
We started with a complimentary basket of soft, slightly salty focaccia that we had just seen being sliced from a giant block of bread, right off the baking sheet. Good start. We then ordered Calamari ($14) and Burrata ($12). The Calamari was briny and crispy but a little too salty. The flash-fried lemon slices were a nice touch too. The Burrata was a happy surprise in that it came with thin slices of ciabatta, spread with smooshed, roasted tomato goodness to enhance the mild cheese-filled-cheese.
A Caesar salad ($8) had white anchovies that had been marinated in vinegar. While there was still that fishy taste you want, the brightness of the vinegar elevated the salad.
Gnocchi con Bolognese ($18), with shredded, tender braised lamb and a touch of red wine, tasted like every date night or celebration meal should taste – warm, hearty, lusty and rich!
Chicken Parmesan ($20) took two favorite pasta dishes, chicken parm with tomato sauce and pasta Alfredo, and combined them. While nothing outstanding, the flavors were familiar, homey and good.
A Pepperoni Pizza ($15), served in an oval on a cutting board was, as with the Parm, good but lacked ooomph. Normally, it comes with onion which our dining companion opted against. Seems like a pepperoni pizza shouldn’t need that addition.
Our waiter had told me Marcella’s meatballs are the “8th Wonder of the World.” If I thought he was just making up that mighty claim, seeing it written on the back of another server’s t-shirt told me otherwise. He described it as being like butter. Well, that was something I had to try. Besides, I’d always wanted to try one of those ginormous meatballs that sit in the middle of your plate, unapologetically saying, “Let’s do this!”
The Fettuccine & Meatball ($17) dish came and it was beautiful, an homage to every kid’s (and my) dream of what spaghetti and meatballs should be. But you know what? I found the meatball to be almost alarming soft and tender. I was not prepared for this monster of a meatball to relinquish itself so readily to my fork! Instead of egging me on to dig in, this meatball cooed at me, coyly, saying, “Be gentle with me, I’m very tender!” It wasn’t that this was a negative – just something I wasn’t expecting. I appreciated that the dish was layered with marinara underneath the pasta, Alfredo over it, and a dollop of marinara capping the meatball, enabling me to mix it all up, if I wanted, for a creamy Rosa sauce. This dish was even better as leftovers the next day.
For dessert, we ordered the Tiramisu, Cannoli and Chocolate Almond Cake. All desserts are $8. The Tiramisu was good. A strong contender for our favorite in Denver. The Cannoli went above and beyond with a shell that was lighter and flakier than most. Chocolate ganache and pistachios mingled below in a pool. The Chocolate Almond Cake wasn’t overly sweet, which was good considering its large size. Toasted almond and warm chocolate ganache made for a nice end to the meal and called out for an espresso to go with it.
Be sure to visit the restrooms. I can only speak for the ladies room but it was luscious – like your fancy aunt’s boudoir where she let you use her face powder and try on her big clip-on earrings when you were a child. Marcella’s was crazy-noisy which I normally would mind. But I was so transported to New York City in this place that it was merely an expected and accepted ingredient in the whole meal.
Marcella’s is also serving weekend brunch. They are open for dinner nightly. Marcella’s is located at 1801 Central Street in Denver.