I know, I know... I haven't posted anything in 6 months. You were checking back every week, then every month and now I've fallen completely off your radar. Sorry about that.
My only lame excuse is that I've been "saving up" for a good one. I've been wanting to write about Denver's Italian restaurants since we returned part-time last year. And you all know how the RJG feels about this style of restaurant. As someone who grew up in Dallas, perhaps I've been more drawn to cities that embrace their history rather than completely demolish it. Only recently has Dallas become more acutely aware of their past. Previously, any buildings not in use have been razed as fast as possible, to make way for the next brand new shopping center - all in the latest architecture naturally.
Contrarily you have cities like St. Louis that are 19th and 20th century industrial ghost towns - places frozen in time because for most everyone who could, they just up and left to the 'burbs (for various reasons including employment, flawed government initiatives, schools, etc...). Just as places like Bruges in Europe are today considered World Heritage Sites - places that haven't changed since 1600, until it was realized how unusual and cool that really is - well, St. Louis and other Midwestern US cities may begin a similar Renaissance. I'm already in line.
Then again, you have cities like Chicago, who not only embrace their past, but also the future. And so you have multiple decades of unique architecture - all in the same neighborhood. Denver is most like Chicago. They're like the kid who never throws anything away from their closet, even though Mom keeps insisting. As you drive through Denver, it is a remarkable pastiche of 19th, 20th and 21st century architecture. 1960's banks that look like Gouda cheese blocks sit next to 19th century brick fronts, while a 21st century glass building towers above and gazes down at all with a smile. In between all of this history sits Denver's most unheralded and greatest treasure: The Italian restaurant.
Funny enough, in this day and age where real estate agents cannot resist labeling neighborhoods - thanks to the boom in NYC of SoHo, TriBeCa, NoHo, DUMBO, and every other insufferable acronym - Denver doesn't officially sanction a Little Italy. And yet it has one. A real one, a living breathing active neighborhood, like Boston's North End - rather than a row of Italian restaurants with an entirely Chinese population similar to NYC's Little Italy. Here they call the neighborhood Highland. Sure, today it is primarily Hispanic, or urban pioneer Yuppie white. But the old Italian ladies are still seen walking the streets, each with their own secret tomato sauce recipe buried deep inside their gray bun. Highland sits just NW of downtown on the other side of I-25 and was originally populated by Italian immigrants working the railroad. Sound familiar? You bet it does - it's a tale told all across America. And with that comes the little cute homes, the Catholic churches, the grocers, the sausage makers, the florists, the funeral homes, the bakers, and what we cover right here at the RJG: The Italian restaurant. And after all these years, most of the Italian restaurants from the golden age still survive. All, save one, that I was fortunate enough to try in the 1990s (with ancestries going back 50 years earlier) are still around today. And don't go looking for Zamboni ala calce e salsa di funghi sauce (for only $37 dollars including a sumptuous pig tail soup). Nope - pasta, soups, salads, chicken, meatballs, sausage, veal, steaks. Some even have an "American" menu. God, how I love that in an Italian restaurant. In 1957, they needed that to get people to go there. And what the heck, why change now? "C'mon Marty, they have hamburgers!" I love it.
The sad thing about publishing this article is that I haven't even been to all the restaurants in the area. What kind of research is that? And insider Denverites know there is a second Little Italy that grows out west and north including "inner ring" suburbs like Arvada, Wheat Ridge and Lakewood. And I've COMPLETELY NEGLECTED that area here for this piece. So now we have a reason for part 2 right?
The Big 3
This section is for the hardcore, straight-up no chaser, I'm-looking-for-the real-little-Italy-not-the-one-for-tourists. These are the places that only the locals know and care about. They're not in guidebooks. They're the kind of place that food snobs won't go. They label them as plain and dirty. If you like to go to places where the mob have dinner with the cops and politicians, then here are the establishments you must visit:
The kingpin. Ground zero. I can't even imagine how a place like this even exists in 2010. Want to step back in time and see what the world looked like in 1948? Go here. First opened in 1921, and with two neon awnings that once said "Fine Foods" AND "Mixed Drinks", you already know darn well you've hit the Regular Joe's Guide Jackpot. Today it just has HUGE YELLOW BLOCK letters saying P A T S Y 'S. When you first walk in, you are greeted by a large wooden bar from the 1800's, and that leads into the main dining room complete with mood lighting, church pews, stained glass, painted wall murals, a monster heating unit, and the coffee station. Looks like a cross between the Holy Name of the Virgin Mary Cathedral and a 1960's Big Boy. And of course Christmas exists for eternity as the lights blink peacefully over the ferns - in July. When we first visited in the 1990s. my buddy Dan came beaming back from the john "they have ICE in the urinals!!!". They still do in 2010. Dan is a hall of famer Regular Joe. He notices important details such as this. Anyway, want to guess what food they serve here? Pasta, pasta, and, yea, pasta. Lots of different kinds. They make their own too. I should point out here that the Mrs. RJG absolutely despises "homemade" spaghetti or cappellini. She calls them "worms" and is disgusted by the texture. Did I just sell you on the restaurant or send you away? How you answer that question determines your level of commitment to the cause. Pissing off the wife and still loving every minute of your meal will determine your manhood. It will be tested, this I assure you. So guys, man-up and head over to Patsy's with your loved one. Damn, it rules. Website
Carl's is so old school, it doesn't even have a website. Why have a sissy internet site anyway? You either know about us or not. No Googlin' gonna change 'dat! Ya gotta problem with 'dat or wat? In what looks like an Eisenhower era US Highway rest area bathroom, we proudly present the beautiful Carl's, perhaps Denver most obscure and hardcore Old School Italian restaurant. They even have hat racks at each vinyl booth. Comes in handy whenever Eliot Ness or Frank Nitti visits. Red vinyl booths, of course. Stuffing coming out. Of course. And the color red will remind you of their delicious sauce. Do I really need to say the sausage is made locally? And word around the campfire says Carl's makes one of the best pizza's. I haven't got past the pasta to try. Perhaps next time.... and there's always a next time.
And speaking of no websites. In some ways, Lechugas takes the "what a dump" award. Well, it did 10 years ago anyway when it seemed to be on its last legs. But then the "greatest cannoli in the world" crowd got cookin' and saved the place. Now it's almost nice. Almost. BTW, we're not talking cannoli's the dessert. No sirree, we're referring to the stuffed pasty filled with meat and cheese. OK, a calzone by any other name, but it's really a cannolli by shape and design. And do I really need to say the sausage is locally made... They even put down hard wood floors in a feeble attempt to draw its first new customer in 20 years. The data is inconclusive if that's happened yet.
Old School and they know it too
When the RJG took to backpacking Europe in the late 1980s, the greatest book of wisdom back then was Rick Steves' "Europe Through the Back Door". To this day, I never forget his observation about Italian hill towns in Tuscany and Umbria. Paraphrasing, he basically said some know exactly what they have and exploit it to the maximum while others have no idea and are still surprised to see a tourist. The latter is what we just discussed above. For these next two, they know darn well what "old school" means and exploit it to the fullest. Just as with the hill towns, all are worth visiting in any case.
When I first visited Gaetano's in the mid 1990s, it was clearly a place that would have fit in the category above. But that was before the Wynkoop Brewery took it over. I'll tell this to anyone who listens - Denver has the coolest current mayor in the country, hands down. John Hickenlooper (and others) started the Wynkoop Brewery in the late 1980s, certainly one of the original brewpubs in Denver. It was in a slightly rundown section of downtown across the street from the dilapidated Union Station. Today it's some of the most desired real estate in all of Denver and very close to Coors Field. In addition to the Wynkoop, he formed a restaurant group that has bought some of Colorado's greatest restaurant landmarks including the Cherry Cricket as well as the Phantom Canyon Brewery in Colorado Springs (amongst several others). Gaetano's, as you have intimated by now, is one of those. Go to their website and they spin a fantastical tale of Denver and the mafia - and how Gaetano's is central to all of it. Funny to see such a heritage lauded today, while they were probably creating a reign of terror for the locals at the time. But that's history for you. So the food? Oh yes, the food of course. Well, I'm here to tell you that everything about Gaetano's has improved with the new ownership. If you're looking for red sauce Italian, you'll be more than pleased with what comes out of Gaetano's kitchen. And even if you would like more adventurous offerings, Gaetano's has that as well. Naturally enough, the price tag has also gone considerably up. This is now a Denver dining destination, so be prepared to wait on weekends. "Italian to Die For". Hysterical! Website
Everything that Gaetano's does right, the below restaurant does wrong....
For as long as I've lived in Denver, Pagliacci's has always been full of themselves. Perhaps it's their more visible location, where you can see their (pretty cool) neon sign clearly on I-25, that makes them feel more superior to the others. No lunch hours here, no need they figure. Plenty of business for dinner. And at the prices they charge, they only need 25 percent capacity to stay open. While I think Pagliacci's is good, it's not the high quality of the others mentioned so far, and you pay a 50% markup for everything. Sorry, but that defines touristo trappo for me. We won't go unless they change things here (prices mainly). With so many great restaurants in the same vicinity, we recommend you bypass Pagliacci's altogether. They need a wake up call. So let them go out of business. See the menu for yourself on the website. They don't even charge $22.50 for chicken parm on Mulberry Street in New York City - for crying out loud! Website
One that got away, but is still cool
The classiest joint in the old Little Italy was Three Sons. The place always felt to me like a visit to an elegant home. Stately furniture, and a formal atmosphere dominated. They renovated the place extensively in the late 90's, and that's why I've always been a bit confused why they moved away to Arvada (though, to be fair, Arvada is a logical choice for an old school Italian restaurant). Perhaps it's location was a bit out of the "Little Italy" mainstream - being just a bit too far north (44th) and west (Federal) for casual drive-bys to notice. So we made our first journey to the new locale about a month ago (and noticed the subtle name change from "Three" to "3"). My fear was it would be another Ianni's story (follow Pietro's link above), and they would go high end fru-fru. But my concerns were alleviated immediately when I recognized the old granny furniture had been moved with them. The place does sit in a modern strip mall, and is considerably brighter in step with modern trends. All of this doesn't matter if the food suffers, and it didn't. The lunch serving was a reasonable portion and priced appropriately. Flavor wise, 3 Sons was always in the middle. Is it worth drive to Arvada (considering we're in Southeast Denver)? Maybe not - but if you're anywhere nearby it's definitely recommended. Website
Gone, but not forgotten
While I'm sure there were plenty of great Italian restaurants in the Highland area that I never was able to try, Little Pepina's is the only one we did and has since closed. In fact, it closed a month after my second visit with RJG contributor Dan (sometime in early 2001). It was more Three Sons than Patsy's, with a quaint Granny style living room setting, and slightly more upscale dishes.
The best Italian restaurant in Denver and with a heritage to the old Little Italy
I use the term "best" only in relation to the places I've frequented in Denver. I've heard of places in Lakewood that may be better, but haven't been yet. But even then, hard to imagine anyone topping Mama Louise as far as I'm concerned. Why? Because they have the best chicken parm I've ever experienced. Anywhere. In the world. I like my parm crispy, and that's what you get at Mama Louise, along with an incredible seasoning mixture unlike anything I've ever had. Make sure you ask for "Louise" sauce with your pasta. It's a spicy concoction made up of Italian sausage, ground meat and tomato sauce. Extremely flavorful and with a kick. Each meal starts with a minestrone soup, which I quite like, though it's not a traditional recipe. This is followed by a cold iceberg lettuce salad, that is pleasantly simple with a nice homemade Italian dressing. And they have fine desserts as well. Excellent all around. The family originally had a restaurant in Highland as far back as 1978 (the name of the establishment escapes me, but I'm pretty sure it didn't have Louise in the title) and closed down. Kent is the son of the founder and opened Mama Louise to much success in the Denver Tech Center on Arapahoe and Dayton. A few years ago, they shut down that location and moved further east to Orchard and Parker Road in the Piney Creek area of Aurora. It's a wonderfully decorated restaurant. Website
Old School restaurants not in Little Italy
Gennaro's Cafe Italiano
There may be many folks reading this from Denver, confused, saying "Isn't Gennaro's closed?" Well, it was for a few years, but it's back! In deference to modern times, they added the "Cafe Italiano" and removed the much missed "Lounge", but it's still good ole Gennaro's. The original Gennaro's made Carl's (see above) seem like Tavern on the Green by comparison. From the outside, it looked like a 1950 gymnasium's bathroom. Inside, they were the last of the die-hards (literally) when it came to smoking. In order to meet health code standards, they were required to have a non-smoking section. So they had one table designated non-smoking. Right in the middle of the restaurant. Eventually, the restaurant succumbed to the glut of new restaurants and places like Gennaro's Lounge suffered, especially since it didn't sit in the establish Old Little Italy section. The new owners have refurbished the building, but with an eye on history and haven't gussied it up much at all. They opened it up a bit, there's no smoking anymore (of course), but the dive bar next door lives on. They even have a website, wow! And the food is classic Old School red sauce Italian. Gennaro's is on Broadway just north of old Englewood. Website
The Saucy Noodle
"If you don't like garlic...go home!". Most Denverites know the slogan and the restaurant. Opened in the early 1960's in the Bonne Brae neighborhood near the University of Denver, The Saucy Noodle has maintained a certain popularity over the years. Especially as the area has gentrified and become one of Denver's most sought after areas to live. A fire about a decade ago nearly did them in, but they were resilient and rebuilt it to perfection. They even expanded the place. Some of the best al dente pasta is served here. They're one of the few Italian restaurants in Denver to offer an Arrabbiatta sauce (spicy), a favorite of the RJG. Website
And speaking of desired neighborhoods, Washington Park's Angelo's (well, close enough to Wash Park anyway) is probably the closest representation to an Old School place in the area. Inside feels like an old church and they have a nice patio/backyard as well. Prices are dirt cheap for the area. The place gets mixed reviews, primarily because the restaurants in the area tend to be more hip and modern. And most (not all) of the criticisms come from that sector. Angelo's is the opposite of hip and modern. If it were located on 38th Street west of I-25, then I'm sure it would have more followers. A gem in the rough as far as the RJG is concerned. Not the best Denver has to offer, but worth an occasional visit. No website.
And, with that, I look forward to starting a Part 2 next year. We'll also cover some of the really good modern Old School places like Pasta Jay's, Lil' Ricci's and Luigi's Bent Noodle amongst many others.