Exploring Milk Market, the latest from Bonanno Concepts

By Monica Parpal Stockbridge

Photography by Ryan Dearth

Many Denverites will tell you how the city has woefully been labeled a “cow town” for, well, longer than some of us care to admit. After all, deep roots in agriculture and ranching tend to yield a culture heavy on the meat and potatoes.

The last two decades have brought much change and evolution to the Mile High urban center — including its eateries — and many of us are proud that Denver has established a culinary name for itself beyond Rocky Mountain oysters. Yet, there are still places around town — like the old Windsor Farm Dairy Company building — that hint at our Heifer-heavy history.

The best part? That’s not a bad thing.

A Dose of Vitamin D(enver)

In the early 1900s, a dairyman from Michigan named H. Brown Cannon came to Colorado to make his fortune. He went on to found the Windsor Farm Dairy, and in 1918 signed a real estate deal for a building at 19th and Blake streets that would house his business. Cannon and his sons went on to become influential civic leaders and businessmen in Colorado. And Windsor Dairy remained, recognized as part of the Dairy Block even after years of vacancy.

Fast forward to 2007, when a New Jersey-born chef named Frank Bonanno was just opening his first restaurant in Denver: Mizuna. The now 17-year-old restaurant is still one of Denv

er’s finest, and Bonanno’s restaurant group has since flourished. Bonanno Concepts now operates nine additional concepts: Luca, Bones, Vesper Lounge, Osteria Marco, Green Russell, French 75, Russell’s Smokehouse, Wednesdays Pie, and Salt & Grinder. From Mizuna’s Lobster Macand Cheese to Green Russell’s bespoke pre-Prohibition era cocktails, the Bonanno restaurants have indisputably influenced Denver’s dining scene.

And yet, Bonanno has long dreamed about doing something different, something more than a restaurant … something big. His vision? A food hall that brings together all his favorite fare, honors his most meaningful family relationships and sings an ode to Denver where he and his wife and business partner, 

Jacqueline Bonanno, have raised their family. Together, they hatched a dream to leave a thoughtful food and beverage legacy in Denver.

All they needed was a place to bring their vision to life.

Milking an Opportunity

In 2013, Loveland development firm McWHINNEY announced it would be redeveloping the area on Blake between 18th and 19th streets, known as the Dairy Block. It was to be a combined effort with longtime building owners Grand American and local hospitality management

and development company, Sage Hospitality. Frank and his wife Jacqueline caught wind of the development and realized they may have stumbled on their goldmine.

“This part of downtown, the ballpark neighborhood, just speaks to me,” Frank Bonanno says. “It falls directly on the literal and figurative pathway between historic old Larimer and Union Station, and the newness of RiNo.” Not long after he and Jacqueline shared their vision with McWHINNEY, the space was theirs. Knowing they had extensive renovations ahead — as well as the opportunity to be part of Denver’s first alley activation — the Bonannos took the plunge.

Cow-a-bunga!

In a recent email newsletter, Frank describes his time opening Milk Market as “being sidetracked,” although we have a feeling that this is a humble deflection of the reward that comes from achieving a longtime dream. After all, opening 16 new concepts is no little thing.

From the beginning, the Bonannos knew they wanted to operate several unique eateries within their food hall, with dine-in, take-out, and retail items available to give it a true restaurant-meet-market feel. Each concept is unique and designed to complement, not compete against, one another.

“I had a solid culinary start,” Bonanno says, referring to the professional cooking he’s done up until now. “The opening, though, of 16 concepts, of figuring out the food that was entirely new to me (like gelato and poke), hiring 250 people all at once, designing and building for two years prior, and a lease roughly the size of a set of encyclopedias … well, that was all new.”

The fact that Milk Market’s concepts all fall under Bonanno ownership is a characteristic that sets it apart from other market halls and restaurant incubators in Denver. It echoes Bonanno’s desire to make Milk Market a place of celebration and coming together rather than one against the other. Each concept is intentionally and thoughtfully designed, each with its own logo and brand identity, intended to blend seamlessly together without feeling homogenized; intermingle without diluting one another.

This is due to the genius design elements spearheaded by Jacqueline Bonanno, who collaborated with Cynthia Steinbrecher of Davis Partnership Architects on each design element of Denver Milk Market. Original art and light fixtures, hand-laid floor tiles, and intricate details all make for a unique curated experience.

“Cynthia Steinbrecher and I worked intense hours together to try to create a setting where the kitchens and bars are open and on full display,” says Jacqueline, “so that in walking through, you immediately get a sense that there’s real hand-tossed, hand-rolled, cooking and baking going on. We tried to make it so that each venue has seating right at the counter, so you can better appreciate that action and the expertise that goes into it, and that there’s an explosion of art and beauty to experience, so that you want to return, again and again, to see something new that you perhaps didn’t notice the last time you were in.”

A Portion of All Sales Benefits Children’s Hospital Colorado

The whole Bonanno family is lovingly folded into Milk Market, where the husband-and-wife duo has honored generations before them as well as their younger brood, sons Marco and Luca. What’s more, Bonanno Concepts donates a portion of all sales to the neurology department at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“Our history with the Children’s Hospital began when my son had brain surgery there a while back,” Frank says. “We started fundraising efforts through our other restaurants just to thank Children’s for their team and a venue that provided professionalism and warmth during a very personal experience. Over the years, though, as Children’s has grown and expanded and become one of the top children’s neurology platforms in the world — well, we want to s

upport that growth in any way we can, not just from the lens of what our son went through, but for our state, our neighboring states, for the research and work that Children’s does, specifically

in the neurology department, that elevates medical standards everywhere. Imagine that we have this facility, one of the best in the world, right outside Denver. It’s amazing, really.”

A Land of Milk and … Hot Chicken

Described by the Bonannos as “all-local and all-wonderful,” the concepts at Milk Market are thoughtfully designed to offer the best of Bonanno’s flavors and culinary inspiration. Many will recognize Lou’s Hot|Naked, a resurrected Denver favorite formerly served at Bonanno’s Lou’s Food Bar, whose Nashville Hot Chicken practically has a cult following. Bao Chica Bao celebrates steamed bao buns from his Capitol Hill restaurant Bones, and recently began serving jelly beer, a Thai-inspired “beer slushie.” At S&G Salumeria, house-cured meats, imported cheeses, and handmade burrata take the stage as a salute to Bonanno’s Highlands restaurant, Salt & Grinder.

The Green Huntsman offers fresh chopped salads, house-made drinking vinegars and nitrogenized green tea, while nearby MoPoke brings an island experience to Milk Market, serving fresh fish over rice with toppings like kimchi, seaweed salad and guacamole. And for those who like their milk in cheese form on a pizza, Bonanno Brothers Pizza (named after Frank’s two sons, Luca and Marco,) pays tribute to many past generations of Bonannos hand-tossing the Italian favorite.

All these concepts are perfect for dining in or taking out, and a few are especially notable for their market options. Ruth’s Butchery recreates Jacque line’s grandmother’s famous hamburger, as well as dry-aged and deli meats for taking home. “My grandma, Ruth, was a farmer and a cook,” Jacqueline recalls. “She wore overalls and knew how to use a knife and a hatchet. The countertop at Ruth’s Butchery is maple cutting board, the walls are simple subway tile, and the floor is a patchwork of red that reminds me of the quilts she used to make for weddings and births.”

Opposite Ruth’s Butchery is Albina by the Sea, honoring Frank’s grandmother who “lived in Brooklyn in a penthouse and had a very sophisticated palate,” Jacqueline explains. “Her food experience spoke more of going to markets to find the daily catch and fresh vegetables and seasonings in an era when that wasn’t the popular thing to do.” Cabrera marble countertops, herringbone floors, and oversized fish scales imported from Italy make up the décor here, while the cooks sling crab cakes and lobster rolls alongside fresh tuna, shrimp cocktail, and steamers. “I like to imagine them, Ruth in overalls, Albina in her pearls, chatting across the way from each other, from two completely different worlds,” Jacqueline says.

Those who love Frank’s pasta will be taken with Mano Pastaria, where hand-rolled pasta is displayed in a rainbow of candy-like colors (thanks to ingredients like carrots and beets) and available by the plate or by the pound with accompanying sauces. Denver loves its drinks, and guests will find several options at Milk Market. Under its one-of-a-kind chandelier, MOO Bar cuts a conspicuous centerpiece where guests crowd for craft beer, wine, and cocktails, many made with house-made bitters and syrups. (During happy hour, weekdays from 4-7 p.m., look for the floating happy hour cart with specialty cocktail selections).

Around the corner, Cellar  offers wine by the glass, by the bottle, and wine on tap (fill your bottle with your favorite to bring back to your table.) More of a beer geek? Stranded Pilgrim  lends a true pub feel with an all-local tap list previously unavailable outside the breweries themselves. The exclusive “Frank’s Honey Blonde” is a Great Divide Brewing Company creation in honor of Frank’s own muse (Jacqueline, of course).

Being located in the heart of downtownmeans appealing to guests from dawn ‘til dusk. Morning Jones  satisfies early risers with coffee and pastries (including fun spins on Rice Krispies treats and Pop Tarts) and nitrogenated nut milks. Fem  (which stands for Flour, Eggs and Milk) makes sweet and savory crepes that might make you ache for Paris. And when you’re ready for dessert, Cornicello  will whisk you to Italy with its selection of housemade gelato, soft serve, and more dairy-based treats.

Part of the Dairy Block’s charm and significance is the beautified alleyway, and the Bonannos didn’t miss an opportunity to welcome guests with walk-up windows with quick grab-and-go options from Bao Chica Bao, Morning Jones and Cornicello. This fall, look for Engine Room , a late-night joint for New York-style slices and Sicilian pies.

“Denver is so vibrant,” Frank says. “It’s a city full of art and life and athleticism and great food and beer and wine. My hope is that the Milk Market embraces all of those things and speaks to the very essence of Denver.”

When you visit, take your time and look around. Check out the wallpaper at Bao Chica Bao, and gaze up at the crown-shaped light fixture above Cornicello gelateria. Don’t miss the unique penny tiles at S&G Salumeria (there are over 3,000!) or the vintage scarves used to make the Albina figurehead. Best of all, the folks behind the counters are there not only to serve up something delicious, but to answer your questions, offer a sample, or talk to you about the benefits of dry-aging or the secret to a successful crepe.

Indeed, Milk Market will draw you in and show you something worth celebrating. From morning ‘til late night, you’re invited into the embrace of a family of concepts that form a singular experience not to be missed in Denver.

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