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"This is my last restaurant," says 61-year-old Roland "Papa" Canino. "Why does anyone open a restaurant anymore? I don't know how they do it. Too much competition with each other, and for employees. No, this is my last restaurant."
Roland opened Canino's Trattoria, allegedly his last restaurant, on South Downing four years ago--four long years ago. The only way he knows how to make sure everything is done to his exacting specifications is to arrive at the storefront spot by 4 a.m. five days a week and make all the sauces and breads by hand. He then spends the rest of the day shuffling back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, winding his way through the tables and calling out greetings peppered with "You like that?" and "Good, good."
It's like a scene from a classic Italian movie--or maybe a Disney cartoon. "Oh, he definitely reminds me of the Italian chef in Lady and the Tramp," says Deb, Roland's wife of three years. "If the neighborhood dogs knew they could just come to the back door and get a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, we wouldn't be able to get any people in here." As it is, the Caninos can barely fit their whole family in the restaurant, since Roland has nine children and seventeen grandchildren. His youngest daughter, Nicole, helped her father open this Canino's, and although she's almost finished earning her college degree, Roland thinks she'll stay in the restaurant business. "She's got it in her blood, I guess," he says.
The Canino veins must bleed marinara sauce. Like Nicole, Roland started working in the family business when he was nine or ten, starting in his father's American Beauty Bakery. For 35 years, that establishment kept north Denver supplied with bread. "My father was a rough, rough man," Roland remembers. "Every time I tried to cut a corner, he was there, and, boy, did he teach me not to do that." His dad had learned that from his own father, who ran Canino's Casino, "the first nightclub in Denver," at 43rd and Pecos in the Thirties. The philosophy was passed down to Roland's brother, Clyde, as well. "When we were little kids, we'd go into the bakery and watch our aunts," Roland says. "My Aunt Mary and Aunt Flo and Aunt Ange were all great cooks, and I started watching them make things, and then one day, I just took the bull by the horns and started cooking."
500 16th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Roland's grandmother, Rose, worked in the bakery, too, and it was in her honor that Roland and his father opened Mama Rose's on South Federal in 1954. "Not fancy, but good pizza," he says. A decade later, he and his father and Clyde opened Canino's Pizzeria at University and Evans and, later, several locations of Tico's and Piccolo's, but eventually Roland bowed out of the family enterprise. "Let's just say that we decided we needed to be brothers more than we needed to be partners," he explains.
Roland started opening his own red-sauce spots, starting with Angie's at Leetsdale and Monaco, then Papa Canino's at Leetsdale and Mississippi, then Canino's in Cherry Creek, which he sold two years before opening Canino's Trattoria. Which, as he frequently reminds you, is his final restaurant. "I'm here to tell you, it's difficult," he says. "Nobody cares about quality anymore, especially not when there are more employers than employees."
But Roland clearly cares. That's evident before you even sit down--a nearly impossible feat on a weekend without a reservation, because the place is packed with regulars. And once we took our first bite of the warm, soft-crusted homemade rolls smeared with parsley-speckled gorgonzola butter, it was obvious why they keep coming back. Canino's commitment to quality shone throughout the meal. For starters, the appetizer anosta roma pepperoni ($6.25), a platter of fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and anchovies in olive oil, worked particularly well because of the low-salt-content, high-grade fishies. Another real catch was the frito misto calamari ($5.75), large rings of squid so evenly coated with oily breadcrumbs that they were more like onion rings. The calamari came with a side of homemade marinara--the kind that has to sit on the back burner for a while to get pasty--that was perfect for dipping. And while the dinner salad was pretty average under my choice of a rich, creamy gorgonzola dressing, the minestrone was a standout: oversized chunks of soft-cooked vegetables and big, torn hunks of beef, all crowded into a tomato-rich broth.
At first the broth in the cioppino ($13.75) seemed salty, but then it got addictive, and I finally resorted to using scraps of bread to get every drop into my mouth. The gently cooked shrimp, scallops and mussels in this fisherman's stew had been augmented with baby clams and the whole bowl strewn with shards of fresh basil. Another herb, this one fresh sage, gave depth to the veal saltimbocca ($12.50), which layered inconceivably tender veal "scallops" with prosciutto, provolone and fresh spinach. The veal came with a side of spaghetti coated with a simple, exquisite sauce made from fresh tomatoes. The sauces on the ravioli di spinaci tre formaggi ($8.75) and the spaghetti with meatball ($8.25) were more traditional, southern-Italian style: mixtures pumped full of herbs and so thick that they covered the noodles in crests.