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Jungle Gem

When Tony Zarlenga first spotted Marla Maria Diaz, they were both on vacation in Greece. "I was by myself, and I noticed this girl on the other side of the boat who was laughing and having a good time," he remembers. "She had a wonderful smile, and I kept thinking to myself that I had to meet that girl. But I was kind of shy, and I couldn't find any excuse to meet her on the boat. Then we got off and had to go through customs; she was waved through, but I was stopped. And I thought, 'There she goes. She's lost to me, and I'll never see her again.'"

Luckily for us, however, the future owners of Cafe Brazil were destined to meet less than an hour later. "I had planned to stay at this campground several miles from the dock, but when I got there, it was too expensive," Tony explains. "I asked the man running the place, 'Do you have anything cheaper, because I can't afford this.' And he points and says, 'That girl over there, it's too much for her, too, so maybe you can share a site.' And it was her! And I tell you, I was in heaven."

That was 28 years ago. For the past 25 years, the Zarlengas have been married; for the last nine, they've been sending Denver diners straight to heaven with their flavorful Brazilian food. "It's all Marla," Tony enthuses, obviously still smitten with the woman. "She does the prep and handles the supervision of all the food, and she makes the sauces and the stews. And I help, too, by doing a little of the cooking--and a lot of times you can find me in the dining room, checking on things. But then when she comes out and smiles at the customers, well, she still has that smile."

The smile comes naturally. The cooking Marla learned while growing up in Colombia before moving on to Milan to work as an au pair. Tony, who spent most of his childhood in Naples, was a chef in Luganno, Switzerland, when he met Marla. After they married, they toured the States, including Colorado, and Tony wound up getting a job at Chez Paul in Chicago. But they never forgot how much they'd loved Denver, and so when a friend was moving here from Chicago in 1979, the Zarlengas helped him move--and never looked back. "It was so beautiful and serene here," Tony says. "We just felt like it would be the most wonderful place to live and that it would never feel like work while we were in such a beautiful place."

But they still had to make a living, so Tony went to work for Chateau Pyrenees and later helped Noel Cunningham open Strings. In 1986, Pat Bowlen and a group of celebrity investors started two restaurants in Hawaii; they hired Tony to join them. "That was a fun four years," Tony says. "Sort of like an extended honeymoon. But we knew we wanted to open our own place, and so we came back."

Still, the couple was nervous about working so closely together. "It was mostly me who was terrified," Tony says. "Because when you're working separately, that gives you some space apart, and I had worked for couples in restaurants where it was frightening to see what they went through, with all the stresses and problems that come up, and it can be very hard on two people who start out loving each other. But we were in love with Colorado, too, and we wanted to make this work."

They found a small storefront on Navajo Street that had been home to several restaurants since it was built in 1939. "We still wonder to this day if we should move to a bigger place," says Tony. "But we like having quality control." As a compromise, a few years ago the Zarlengas tore out the storage room to add more space for tables, and that's helped. While it's still almost impossible to get into Cafe Brazil on the weekends without reservations, weekdays can be slow. "People these days, they seem to want fancier dining rooms and more exciting decor," Tony adds. "Yes, we are busy on the weekends, but I think people are going to the hipper spots during the week, maybe."

It's hard to imagine any place looking hipper than this, though. The brightly painted turquoise-and-pink exterior is matched by the fiesta-style atmosphere inside, where Brazilian baubles hang from the ceiling. The dishes also arrive with adornments: the freshest, most colorful ingredients available. The only thing more stunning than each dish's appearance is its taste. "It's all about Marla," Tony explains. "It's her food."

Although Marla's native Colombia is on the opposite side of South America from Brazil--and borders a different ocean--the two countries share a common love of seafood and chiles, both of which are put to good use at Cafe Brazil. For example, the starter of lula frita ($10.95), fried calamari, came with an herbed tomato sauce that had just the right amount of chile spark to give the squid some zing without overpowering it. This dish--a 1999 Best of Denver award winner--brought enough perfectly flour-dusted, golden-fried, greaseless calamari ringlets to serve at least four as a starter.

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