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Red Alert

More than fifty years ago, Sicilian immigrant Frank Grandinetti opened Pagliacci's in what was then an Italian neighborhood in northwest Denver. "The restaurant was born out of this love between Frank and his wife, Thelma," says Rose Ann Langston, the Grandinettis' niece and Pagliacci's current owner and manager. "In fact, you could say this restaurant has been a continuing testament to their love of food and their love of family."

The Grandinettis met in 1940, when Frank worked as a fruit and vegetable vendor on the streets of what's now known as LoDo. "My uncle was this handsome Sicilian who sold his produce in what was the manufacturing area of lower downtown," Langston explains. "Thelma, then Thelma Balzano, worked on the second floor of a garment manufacturer, and one day she leaned out of the window to flirt with this handsome vendor who was down on the street. Frank tossed her an apple, and that was the beginning of a long partnership that was nurtured by an appreciation of good food and a sense of fun."

Good food and fun are still available in abundance at Pagliacci's, although the restaurant has gone through a few changes since 1946. "We've had to bow to the demands of the neighborhood and of the tastes of Denver diners," says Langston, whose son, Mark Gonzales-Langston, plans to take over the restaurant's operations as soon as he finishes his business degree. "Since Frank and Thelma had no children, I took over in 1978, and we'd already moved away from the steaks and lobsters that they served when they first opened. They were doing frogs' legs and real fancy food, because that's what people wanted then. But we've had to change, adding things like fried calamari and risotto that no one ate then."

And another change is on its way: The foliage-sprouting, Italian statue-centered fountain that sits next to the ladies' room will soon be moved. Although the fountain is in need of repair--it leaks--long-delayed bathroom renovations make the move inevitable. "We finally have to change the bathrooms over to handicapped-accessible," Langston explains. "We'll redo the fountain somewhere else in the room."

They can't just get rid of it entirely. Like Pagliacci's name (opera buff Frank Grandinetti named his restaurant after Leoncavallo's clown-themed tragedy), the spumoni-colored lights in the ceiling and the bouffant-haired older server ladies who call everyone "honey," the waterfall helps the dining room scream, "That's Italian!" To be specific, the New York Italian of my childhood. One weekend every fall, we'd take the Greyhound from Pittsburgh to New York City, where we'd shop for school clothes and eat at whatever Italian eatery struck our fancy. No matter which restaurant we chose, they all smelled the same.

Just one whiff of Pagliacci's thick, gravy-like red sauce took me back decades. I started to feel like my legs were dangling over the booth and my feet weren't touching the floor. And then, with just one taste of Pagliacci's time-honored red, I was completely transported.

That first taste came with an appetizer order of calamari ($6.95) that was saved by the marinara. The squid, nicely coated with breadcrumbs and otherwise well-cooked, had been showered with so much salty parmesan cheese that the little bands were almost inedible. And without a dunk in the red sauce, they would have been. But that smooth, herb-flecked marinara--with its underlying sweetness balancing the tang of the tomatoes and just enough tomato paste to thicken the sauce but not turn it into glue--washed away the salty bite.

After that, our meal was flawless. The calamari was followed by Pagliacci's signature minestrone ($6.95 a la carte; it's still free with your meal, making it a true bargain), one of the many recipes that was passed on to Langston. A large pot of the tomato-based brew was set at the end of the table, and everyone helped themselves. Again and again. Soft-cooked vegetables--carrots, celery, onions, zucchini, potatoes, peas--had been combined with enough herbs and spices to give the soup that homemade taste. The minestrone came with a basketful of chewy-crusted, spongy-centered Italian bread that was ideally textured for slapping on two or three pats of semi-hard sweet-cream butter.

The bread was also optimal for sopping up the heavy waves of sauce left over from our entrees. The eggplant parmigiana ($14.95) was particularly well-done: The eggplant had been thickly sliced, thoroughly baked with mozzarella and parmesan, then slathered with that sauce. But the manicotti ($11.95) was no slacker, either, its fresh crepe noodles packed with ricotta and smothered with mozzarella. More cheese and more pasta in the baked ravioli ($12.95) offered yet another commendable variation on the sauce theme. But the one non-red-sauce item we tried, the fettuccine Alfredo ($12.95), was just as noteworthy: al dente noodles, just enough cream, not too much butter and lots of parmesan.

On a second visit, we skipped the red in order to see what else Pagliacci's was made of. Plenty, it turned out. An order of the risotto al salmone ($18.95) brought perfect Arborio rice in a light cream sauce sparked with chives and watercress and a hint of lemon; the salmon came in big, plush chunks. The shrimp scampi ($18.95) featured jumbo shrimp that benefited from the addition of capers to the garlic-infused white-wine-and-butter sauce, which had also been enhanced by shallots and lemon juice for a piccata-like effect. ("Scampi," by the way, is actually the Italian word for shrimp, and I've found no reliable resource explaining why Americans chose to name their creation "shrimp shrimp.") And the chicken cacciatore ($14.95) tasted as though someone's grandmother had made it--and made it wonderfully--with red and green peppers sweetening a spicy, fresh-tomato marinara that coated two pieces of tender sauteed chicken. (See Mouthing Off for the recipe.)

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