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When the host of a popular national cooking show on bread devotes a segment to some of the country's best pizzas, you don't expect a Denver area pizzeria to rate a starring role. As anyone who's tried to find decent pizza in this town knows, you're better off showcasing kosher food in Salt Lake City or collard greens in Butte. We're just not known for our great pizza.
But Father Dominic Garramone, a Benedictine monk at the St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois, who moonlights as the host of Breaking Bread with Father Dominicon PBS, had inside information on Amici's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria. Father Dom's grandfather, Jim Garramone, managed the original Coors baseball team in the late '30s and early '40s, then managed the M&O Cigars, our entry into the 1946 Victory League. In the years that followed, Jim owned many bars and restaurants across Denver -- one of the best-known was the Twin Gables bar out on Morrison Road -- and in the '70s, he went to work for his nephew, also named Jim, at the newly opened Amici's.
Over the years, Amici's has employed many members of the Garramone family, and although Father Dom grew up in Peoria, Illinois, he's very familiar with Denver's Italian community. "Everyone in the family talked about the Potenza Lodge out there, and Little Italy," Father Dom says. "Back then, everybody knew everybody, and even though we were in another state, we got together as much as we could and stayed very close."
4300 Wadsworth Blvd.
Wheat Ridge, CO 80033
Region: North Denver Suburbs
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Father Dom has kept in touch with his Colorado connections, including Uncle Bob Garramone, a second-generation Denverite who still frequents Amici's and other neighborhood Italian joints. "Amici's sort of grew out of friendships with all the old neighborhood gang," Bob says. "The people I grew up with going to Pagliacci's and Patsy's, some of them are still around, and although a lot of it has changed, there are a few things that held on." In the old days, Denver's Little Italy was the area in north Denver "from Tejon east," Bob remembers, and the Potenza Lodge was famous for its exclusivity. "Now I think you just have to be Italian to join. But back then, either you had to be from Potenza, Italy, or someone on your dad's side of the family had to be from Potenza," he explains. "It had to be your dad, because they only wanted people with original Potenza names. If it was your mom, forget about it."
It was Bob's grandfather who came to Denver directly from Potenza in 1901. While he earned his living as a brick-maker, other family members seemed to lean toward the food industry. Not only did Bob's father Jim help nephew Jim out at Amici's, but nephew Jim's father, Joe, also worked there. And Amici's is still in the extended "family," since the Garramones sold the restaurant in 1985 to Beverly and Bernie Fanelli, who, like the Garramones, had graduated from north Denver's Holy Family High School.
Beverly had worked at Amici's for years before she and her husband bought it, and now her own family members work there. Husband Bernie had been employed as a butcher, so he handles all of the meat served at the restaurant. Three daughters -- Stephanni Cito, Shawna Martinelli and Kelly Poole -- work the front of the house with Beverly and daughter-in-law Nicki Fanelli, while husbands Rick Cito and Gerald Martinelli run the kitchen with the Fanellis' son Tony and "our token Irishman and non-family member, Matt Scanlan," Beverly says. "And most of our servers have been there since the beginning, or near about."
But Amici's isn't just about family. In keeping with its name (amici means "friends" in Italian), the restaurant has a warm, welcoming atmosphere. The setting is casual and bustling, with tables jammed close together and covered with the usual checkered tablecloths. And the best dish to land on those tables is the pizza that Father Dom showcases on his show. (Breaking Bread with Father Domairs every Saturday on KRMA-TV/Channel 6 at 4 p.m.; the pizza episode is scheduled to run November 4.) When the Fanellis took over, they replaced most of the Garramone recipes, with one notable exception: the pizza dough. The dough is what makes these pies such standouts. The crust turns out thin but sturdy enough to hold the generous amount of toppings Amici's piles on; it also stays soft and just this side of too chewy, while the edges bubble up slightly, taking on a few air pockets and turning a crispy, crackly golden brown. (You can order a thicker crust for another 75 cents, but we found that it made for a heavier, more filling pizza with a much chewier crust and edges that were sometimes too hard to bite into.)
The topping choices are simple: You can get a green pepper pizza or a black olive pizza, an anchovy pizza or an onion pizza. Or you can mix any two or three of those items, or go for the deluxe, a combination of sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper and onion. Or you could stick to the plain pie: a well-crafted version with plenty of cheese, just enough on-the-sweet-side sauce to keep it moist, and that killer crust. We found that all of the toppings were quality items, with the veggies nicely diced, if barely cooked.