A Chef Entertains

The King of Impromptu keeps it simple with friends at home.

By Sharon Withers

Photography by Marc Piscotty

Frank Bonanno knows more than a few things about food, and people. Indisputedly, he knows how to cook, and he knows how to make guests feel welcome, whether in one of his restaurants or at home.

A chef extraordinaire who has opened 10 establishments in Denver over the last 13 years, Bonanno earns raves for his classic Italian cuisine as well as his other offerings, and for his cheerful service.

At home, he can relax when he serves his family and friends. With a big Sicilian heart, Bonanno welcomes guests to his Highlands home at least a couple of times a month. And at Thanksgiving and Easter, the family numbers can climb to 50.

Salt & Grinder, his new Highlands deli, is built on his Italian New Jersey roots. Growing up centered on food and family, Bonanno and his mother cooked new recipes and experimented with other cuisines. On weekends the family would go into New York City and try different restaurants. His big Italian family gathered around a table laden with pastas, breads and antipasti.

Today, Bonanno’s Denver home is reminiscent of that family comfort. A grand old red brick from the turn of the century, the home was the rectory for the former orphanage across the street. One of the deed restrictions—perhaps one of the oddest on Denver city records—remains: Whoever owns the house must have children. Children have worn the original wooden staircase and trampled through the front door for more than a century now. Family is important and Bonanno and his wife Jacqueline, along with their two boys Marco and Luca, welcome friends and their children as well as dozens of cousins to their home regularly.

The kitchen is the heart and life of the home. “We didn’t design our kitchen like people who don’t use it,” says Bonanno. His wife Jacqueline bakes cookies and pies, and makesbreakfast. Her specialty is waffles. Bonanno cooks the other meals and entertains. The oven is the centerpiece. It is a Lacanche, custom-built for the Bonanno’s kitchen, and was the only splurge when they remodeled the home.

The cabinetry has as much character as the owners. A one-piece is a Hoosier from the 1800s that the previous owners left in the basement and now serves as a large cupboard. The other cupboards are part of the cabinetry dismantled from the old Rocky Mountain Seed Company’s 15th St. flagship store. The farmhouse sink and beaded board complete the authentic period kitchen that looks as if it has been there as long as the house.

“My kitchen at home is better than my kitchen at Salt & Grinder,” says Bonanno. “But Luca has every gadget—a Vitamix, Kitchen Aid and big Atlas hand-cranked pasta machine. Sometimes I slip over there and steal some pasta from the kitchen, or make it there myself.” On occasion, however, even he admits to buying a boxed pasta, but only Barilla or De Cecco brands, and only for the home.

Apart from his Lacanche, Bonanno can’t do without his knives, a good cutting board and aluminum foil. Yes, aluminum foil. Garlic bread or roasted veggies can go on it. Whatever he can put on it, he does. He considers it a great substitute for a pan or cookie sheet; it cuts pan clutter in the kitchen sink and makes cleanup easy.

When he entertains, Bonanno always considers the kids. His pigsin- a-blanket, made with sausage and cheddar cheese, and creamy macaroni and cheese are as big a hit with the adults as the children. He also serves a pigs-in-a-blanket variation made with pork belly at Russell’s Smokehouse restaurant and the Green Russell bar.

Bonanno doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously when he invites guests into his home. For him, it’s about people coming together over a meal and enjoying a few drinks. He calls himself the King of Impromptu, and follows his own advice: “Keep it simple. Never experiment on your guests. Keep your food simple and fresh, not a lasagna from scratch.”

 

His go-to home fare always includes a pasta, often angel hair or linguine with fresh clams. Bonanno likes to mash up some fresh avocados for guacamole and fire up the grill to cook a whole salmon marinated with soy and hoisin. In the summer, he brings in vegetables and herbs from the garden and uses whatever looks good that day.

“In the restaurant, everything is timed and gets to the table hot. “At home, I’m happy to get it out warm. I’m OK with that,” says Bonanno. He even confessed to burning garlic bread because he got so wrapped up with his guests and having a good time. “It’s about friendship.”

Just outside the kitchen is the garden, planted with fresh herbs, vegetables and a peony or two. Fragrant honeysuckle fills the evening air as guests gather under the pergola for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. It’s the perfect place to serve a plate of house-cured prosciutto and homemade, hand-pulled mozzarella and to share a nice Italian wine with friends and family.

FRANK BONANNO’S RECIPES AND TIPS

Ricotta

Ingredients

2 quarts organic whole milk

5 lemons (1 cup lemon juice)

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup heavy cream to fold in at the end (after the cheese has been hung)

Pinch of salt

Tools

Citrus reamer, saucepan, cheese cloth, large bowl and stand mixer

 

Process

1. Ream the lemons; set juice aside.

2. Bring cream and whole milk to a boil.

3. Add lemon juice, buttermilk and salt.

4. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring until thick.

5. Wrap in cheese cloth; knot the top and hang over kitchen sink (Bonanno hangs it on the faucet).

6. Drain 24 hours. Use stand mixer to whip additional heavy cream into ricotta until it is the consistency of soft ice cream.

– Makes approximately 12 ounces of cheese

– Serves 8

– Ricotta is very easy to make.

– Change it up by using goat’s milk.

Tasty Variations

Ricotta Salata

– Instead of whipping ricotta with cream, form ricotta into thin logs or small bulbs.

– Sprinkle with sea salt.

– Wrap in cheese cloth, hang to dry for two weeks.

Ricotta Al Forno

– Oil the inside of a ramekin, fill with ricotta.

– Bake at 400 degrees for 36-45 minutes until golden.

– Let cool and firm.

Sweet Ricotta

– Add 1 cup of powdered sugar into the first ricotta recipe.