The outer East edge of Larimer street hides what appears to be a quaint little restaurant. Dio Mio’s maroon wall strictly contrasts the murals that draw tourists to this side of town. However, the other side of the restaurant showcases praying hands with a fork twisted around a heaping load of pasta between them.
To add to its unique l nature, the garage door style window might have you thinking you can get your oil changed here. Luckily the only oil Dio Mio has is the liquid gold that comes from olives. The dark exterior gets disrupted immediately with the shades of white that compose the kitchen and dining room. Descending from the ceiling are pieces of white paper that decorate the restaurant like clouds. Upon further glance, these innovative trifold pieces are actually reused pasta containers. This abstract chandelier gives insight that this won’t be a conventional restaurant.
Dio Mio doesn't have an extravagant outdoor deck to post about online or a neon sign that blinds you when you go inside. Instead, they let the food speak for itself; even though the menu features only six entree dishes, each will have you talking about them for weeks to come.
The intimate restaurant is always bustling with people dining at countertop tables. The minimalist decoration leads you right to the action – the food. After being named among the Top 25 Restaurants in Denver, there is a bit of expectation that goes into that credential. These types of restaurants typically don't fare well for your wallet and require more than a couple of outfit changes in preparation for your arrival. Yet, making this list marks ingenuity and innovation to strict it as a memorable experience with high-caliber dishes. The anticipated experience may take a minute if you stand at the door, waiting for the hostess to find you a table in the already jammed restaurant. So, take a minute and look up; in bold red letters, the instructions are clear: “Seat yourself. Order at the Counter”. Order at the counter? No, you are not at Noodles and Co. Continue on, you won’t regret it.
The simplistic menu is actually quite complex. While some are Italian classics, nuanced elements make something a Dio Mio dish rather than just another pasta night. All of their pasta dough is made in-house by craftsmen that are crazy about carbs. Some of their dishes feature their classic dough that has the lovely yellow glow of egg yolks. The ingredients are not unexpected; instead, they prioritize local provisions to supply their dishes, because the taste is fresher and the community is stronger. They even mill their own flour which shows their commitment to doing as much of the groundwork as possible. All this action takes place on their long wooden counter, which acts directly as a cutting board.
In the minds of Chef Spencer White and Alex Figura, each pasta shape has a personality that requires its own unique dish to showcase all its beauty. While Dio Mio offers classic combinations that everyone knows, they continue to push the bounds of what contemporary pasta dishes can be.
For traditionalists, Italian dreams can be immediately satisfied by ordering either the chicken parmesan or the spaghetti with the optional (or as I would say, required) addition of meatballs. Chicken parmesan is not a dish for the faint of heart – it’s meant to be a big squeeze from grandma that radiates comfort. All those feelings are maintained and elevated with a dash of creativity from the minds of fine dining chefs. The chicken parmesan is still as enormous as hoped for, with the tender, yet crisp, piece of chicken extending past the rim of the plate. The golden-brown shell of bread crumbs is a nice contrast from the healthy dose of melted cheese bubbling on top.
The composition is a true trifecta of mozzarella, provolone and parmesan. Most restaurants would stop there or add some extra tomato sauce, but Dio Mio has salami hidden underneath to add a fatty saltiness that you didn’t know you needed. They also include brined Thai chilis that give an acidic twist to this typically dense dish. It is a unique, fermented addition that makes for a cross between kimchi from Asian cuisine and Italian pickled giardinara. The pasta cannot be out shadowed because it beautifully holds the taste of fresh stewed tomatoes. Chicken parmesan is one that’s made at home, but this dish cannot be replicated anywhere outside of the Dio Mio kitchen.
Similarly, a lasagna is nothing novel. The layers of ground beef, sauce and pre-shredded cheese sandwiched between delicate ribbons of pasta are a mother’s go-to. Since this combination wouldn’t survive in an up-and-coming food scene, Dio Mio presents a dish that might need a new name. Their take on lasagna utilizes beef brisket that has been shredded across each layer, making it impossible to lose track of the hearty, smoky flavor. Instead of the pale cheese top hiding what’s going on inside, sliced mushrooms combine with the creamy bechamel sauce to develop into a sophisticated mashup of beef stroganoff and lasagna. In order to keep the dish’s balance intact, there are spring onions to accentuate the earthiness and garnishing of a salsa verde to add a refreshing kick to a heavy dish. It’s embellished with well-made ingredients but maintains the soul of a true lasagna.
Pesto is often associated with a vibrant, green color that represents the garden herbs that comprise the lively sauce. Dio Mio still gives the earthy flavor that pesto deserves, but in an unconventional manner – walnut pesto. This sauce is a bit thicker than an oil-based pesto. The nuts give it body that almost emulates a light cream sauce. The roasted nuts in the sauce would make a vegan think they were eating buttered noodles. The squat spiral pasta locks the sauce into each little ripple, and a dash of crushed red pepper allows for flecks of color and spice. The sauce is also paired with two textural contrasts: sweet and salty crumbles of candied walnuts and chunks of pickled sunchokes. These pearly, white pieces have a more neutral and earthy flavor similar to other root vegetables like potatoes or parsnips. Instead of a squeeze of lemon, it is these sunchokes that allow for a hit of acid that replicates the zestiness of pesto. This isn’t the perfect picture of pesto that is often seen, but, nevertheless, the full-bodied flavor is not one to miss.
The charcoal black nature of squid ink pasta appears to be elevated right from the start. Something unrecognizable of what's found on the menus of ordinary Italian restaurants. Dio Mio reels it back in to add a bit of semblance but incorporating pepperoni for its meaty spiciness. It's a play on the Shrimp Fra Diavolo. The shrimp intermixed handle the spice quite well. Then for more playful decadence, the flakes of breadcrumbs were crisped up in pork fat giving extra richness that far surpasses butter. The simplistic curl of cavatelli may seem easy, but when wound too tight the pasta quickly overcooks. Dio Mio leaves there's a bit looser to accept in as much sauce as possible with the bite of al-dente still present.
While the pride and joy of this institution can be easily seen in their pasta, their fresh sourdough has been given the same dedicated attention. The bread hosts a robust flavor while the chewy, air-pocket-filled interior is what defines a perfectly risen sourdough. The crunchy texture of the crust comes from the golden-brown roast from the oven. This bread is also not served alone; this appetizer is coupled with two other Italian classics. The shaved prosciutto is thin enough to see through it, but it still has a cured and salty flavor even in its delicate state. Bread and ham are
incomplete without cheese, which is why a heaping round of burrata is the ideal silky addition. Finished off with a drizzle of aged balsamic, it provides tangy and bittersweet notes to compliment the other ingredients.
A counter-service probably never thought that it would get picked up to the big leagues, but it made it there because it wasn’t worried about gaining any accolades or awards. Dio Mio focused on the craft, community and culture. They don’t need frills or even reservations to ensure the dining room stays lively. The chefs at Dio Mio use simple ingredients, classic techniques and an easy-going environment to make their restaurant inviting to all.
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