DU Alumni

Frank Bonanno is the Denver dining scene’s man of many places

“I think if you put a great product out there and you give great service and you take care of people, they’ll come back,” says Frank Bonanno. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“Opening a restaurant is fun,” says Frank Bonanno. “It’s the running of them that’s tedious.”

Maybe that explains why the 43-year-old Denver restaurateur has opened three new places in the past three years: the cozy noodle bar Bones, which sits on the same block as his flagships Mizuna and Luca d’Italia; Green Russell, an underground, Prohibition-style speakeasy fronted by a pie shop; and Lou’s Food Bar, a French casual restaurant that occupies a former biker bar in north Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood.

“I said, ‘I think pâtés and sausages are the next hot thing,’” Bonanno says. “‘So we’re going to have seven different kinds of sausages and we’re going to have seven different kinds of pâtés. And we’re going to make them all from scratch — we’re not going to buy any of them — and we’re going to do it at a really good price point.”

Bonanno (BSBA ’90) says he’s never written a business plan in his life; he’s relied on his instincts and his knowledge of what’s cool on the coasts to fuel a career that took him from making pizzas at the Denver outpost of New York Italian chain Sfuzzi after graduating from DU to opening the French fine-dining restaurant Mizuna in 2001.

A key stop along the way was an eight-month stint managing the Anthony’s Pizza and Pasta on Evans Avenue just west of DU. Bonanno was there when Chipotle founder Steve Ells was opening his very first burrito restaurant in a former Dolly Madison ice cream shop down the block.

“I became friendly with him, and basically he said, ‘You should pursue your passion,’” Bonanno recalls. “[He said], ‘Spinning pizzas is great, but you should go cook.’”

So Bonanno saved his money and went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he says he learned discipline to complement the cooking skills he gained from years on the line. He returned to Denver after graduation and worked at the venerable Mel’s Bar & Grill in Cherry Creek. Owner Mel Master treated him well, sending the young chef to train at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Daniel in New York and Michelin-star restaurants in Italy and France.

With partner Doug Fleischman, Bonanno opened Mizuna in 2001, followed by Luca in 2003. When Fleischman was killed by a drunk driver in 2003, Bonanno soldiered on with his wife, Jacqueline, as his new partner. They opened Osteria Marco in 2007, Bones in 2009, and Green Russell and Lou’s in 2010. (Luca d’Italia is named for his son Luca, now 9; Osteria Marco is named for son Marco, 7.)

It’s notable that three of Bonanno’s eateries opened in the midst of a recession; some restaurants, it seems, are immune to the economy.

“We haven’t discounted anything, we haven’t changed any pricing, we’re not doing any specials — we’ve never put one print ad in a magazine or a newspaper,” Bonanno says. “I think if you put a great product out there and you give great service and you take care of people, they’ll come back.”

For now Bonanno is content with his dining empire the way it is, but he’s already looking ahead to the opening of his next restaurant. There’s no location yet, but the wheels are already turning in his head.

“We’ll start looking for another piece of property to buy in about 16 months, with a target opening in two years,” he says.

“I’m thinking barbecue.”

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