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Saucy Behavior

Bonnie Brae institution the Saucy Noodle finds room to stretch.

Across the street from Seven 30 South (see this week's review), a longtime Denver favorite is about to get the extra space it's needed for several decades. Fourteen tables simply aren't enough for fans of the Saucy Noodle, which has been serving up a quintessential red sauce at 727 South University Boulevard since 1964. That's when owner Sam Badisput the Bonnie Brae neighborhood on notice that he intended to offer Italian food in which garlic was the dominant ingredient. Badis died four years ago, and his granddaughter, Erin Markham, and her husband, Nathan, officially bought the place two years ago. But Erin had managed the Saucy Noodle for seven years prior to becoming its owner -- she got her start there washing dishes at the age of ten -- and Nathan had already been doing the cooking for several years. "We knew from the start that we needed to get more space," Erin says, "but there weren't too many options, since we didn't want to move."

Then, a few months ago, the hobby shop next door declined to renew its lease, and the Markhams made their move. Without knocking down a whole wall, the Saucy Noodle will be able to add 24 more tables, a bona fide waiting area and a small wine bar. "It's been hard on the customers all these years, to be so close together and to have to wait in that tiny area out front for a table," Erin says. "But it's been an absolute nightmare for the servers, who can hardly move."

I know all about those waits out front -- but the food is worth waiting for. The spaghetti with meatballs ($7.95) is a classic: homemade noodles covered with a thick, sweet red sauce, with huge, tasty meatballs on the side. Every meal comes with a salad wearing a rich, creamy, herb-packed dressing and sporting a thick breadstick; there's also an endless supply of fresh, spongy-centered Italian bread and real butter. The idea that someday soon I could experience all this, and experience it leisurely, without having to feel guilty about the ten people waiting on the sidewalk, is wonderful.

"Our hope is not to have to close down during the remodeling," says Erin, who's simultaneously expanding her family, since she and Nathan expect their first baby this August. "The city may make us do that while we get the additional liquor license, but that would still only be for a day or two, I'd think." They hope to have the new dining room completed within the next two to three weeks. "We really wanted to be open for this year's Dining Out for Life," Erin adds, "but I don't think that's going to happen."

Plenty of other places will be part of that March 9 benefit, though, so make your reservations now for the sixth annual Dining Out for Life, when participating restaurants donate 25 percent of the proceeds to a very good cause: Project Angel Heart, which delivers meals to people with HIV/AIDS. Since the number of restaurants involved this year currently totals 126, I can't print the list here, but check out www.projectangelheart.org or just call your favorite spot to learn if it's signed up.


Goin' south: Good red sauce can be found in the oddest places. On a recent trip to Cañon City -- not to visit someone in the joint, by the way, but to hike around the Royal Gorge area -- we noticed dozens of billboards along U.S. Highway 50 touting Merlino's Belvedere, an Italian restaurant that's kept things cooking in Cañon City for 54 years. After about the tenth sign, we started wondering if the eatery could indeed be "A Treasured Name in Fine Foods" and "Southern Colorado's Most Distinctive Restaurant" (how much competition could there be for that?), and decided to drop by 1330 Elm Street.

As anyone who likes to hike until it hurts knows, butter-covered construction paper is fabulous when your quads are burning, so we tried to keep that in mind. Still, I'm certain that eating at the Belvedere was one of the better dining experiences I've had in ages. Sure, it was red sauce all the way, but for $50 -- tax, tip and three desserts between the two of us -- we came away stuffed and satisfied.

Joeand Tony Merlinostarted the Belvedere in 1946 in what is now the main dining room. Over the years, the family kept adding on (and had to rebuild the entire restaurant after it burned in 1992); today there are four dining areas. (We sat in the Grotta, which boasts a cute little fountain.) Joe retired in 1981 and Tony died in 1986, and since then, Tony's son, Michael, has been running the place with his wife, Cathie, and their kids, Adamand Michelle. Michael still does some of the cooking.

And what cooking it is: The menu lists only two dishes that use "imported" (as in dried) pasta, and the rest is made on the premises. So the ravioli is fresh and soft, filled with a delicious mixture of spinach, pork and ricotta, and the spaghetti noodles have that great homemade texture (I got a half-and-half order of each for $12.10). My meal included two huge, marvelous meatballs that were heavy on the meat and light on the breading, as well as a bottomless salad bowl that held crisp, well-chilled, chopped iceberg and tomatoes sporting an addictive, ideally balanced, herb-packed Italian dressing; a generous-sized bowl of blue-cheese crumbles came on the side. (I confess to spreading some of the cheese on the heavenly, soft-centered Italian bread.) Our other entree was the manicotti ($12.05), which included one each of Belvedere's excellent sirloin- and cheese-filled versions.

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