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Pasta Imperfect

It was a deeply and profoundly abysmal lasagna that I wouldn't feed to an enemy. A few layers of limp pasta swimming in an acid bath of red sauce that would've embarrassed Chef Boyardee, stuffed with rank ricotta and topped with some desiccated parsley dandruff -- are you kidding me? And I'm not being flowery when I say that the ricotta was bad. It was turned. Curdled. It tasted like vomit -- like sour milk and eggs left too long in the sun. And if whoever sent it out of the kitchen couldn't smell the evil vapors coming off this plate, then he must have had a head cold or his fists up his nose or something, because I sure could. From two feet away. I've eaten some awful things in my life. This lasagna was worse than almost all of them. I've had better Italian food made by homeless people warming cans of Spaghetti-O's on the engine block of a truck, and seen more care given to a plate of noodles by wasted truck-stop hash-slingers at the bad end of a triple shift.

The above excerpt describes what was, without a doubt, one of the worst meals of my life, which I suffered through almost a year ago to the day. My first dinner at Three Sons Italian Restaurant("Same Old, Same Old," September 11, 2003) was an abysmal failure, a meal so monumentally awful that the experience has flavored every meal I've eaten and every review I've written since.

It wasn't just run-of-the-mill bad, wasn't just disappointing -- I've had plenty of those. My job depends on the constant up-and-down interplay of good dinners and bad dinners; on my ability to weigh them, one against the other. No, this meal at Three Sons was supremely awful, a tragedy of epic proportions. It was the Macbeth of Italian meals -- that prime gut-wrencher against which all future disasters will forever be judged -- and when my review was done, I felt like all that was left were the poisoned blades and bodies on the floor.

But now Three Sons has come back from the dead, adding yet another chapter to the long, storied history of this fifty-year-old northwest Denver landmark.

In March, Johnny Saninno -- one of the brothers behind the Three Sons moniker -- sold the pinky-white wedding cake of a space to one of his waiters, Michael Scarafiotti. But Scarafiotti wasn't just a waiter -- wasn't actually a waiter at all, but rather a twenty-year Denver restaurant veteran, former owner of Nuchiks, former owner of Hot Cakes, and a recently ex-partner at Vinnola's Italian Marketwho was taking off much of the 2003 holiday season and only waiting tables for kicks, pocket money and because he knew the Saninnos from way back when.

"Look," he explains. "I had really no intention of purchasing this thing. My partner at Vinnola's had just bought me out. I was just going to skate on through the holiday season. I've spent eighteen, nineteen years in the restaurant business. I didn't want to do anything, really, but then I hear that Johnny is thinking about selling the place..."

One thing led to another -- as things have a tendency to do -- "and I found myself buying the place," Scarafiotti says, laughing a little. "That was March." Now it's September, and 2915 West 44th Avenue, while looking the same on the outside and retaining the historic Three Sons name, is a whole different restaurant. The waitstaff? All gone, many of them to Arvada, where Jimmy Saninno has opened his own place, Mama Saninno's. The kitchen? Emptied, and now under the command of Tony Fordyce, late of Houston, where he spent the past few years working the chain gang at a bunch of nationally franchised restaurants, and a former cook of Scarafiotti's during his Hot Cakes days. Fordyce is backed up by Scarafiotti's son, Gino, as sous chef, and the two of them are working together on recipes supplied (mostly) by Scarafiotti's wife, Susan.

"When the boys left, the recipes went with them," Scarafiotti tells me. And I can tell you, that was no big loss. Now, in place of the limp linguine in white clam, blunt fra diavolos and poison oil-slick red sauces, Three Sons has quick and light scampis, almond pesto-crusted salmon, bone-in pork chops served over Tuscan white-bean ragout, and an Italian-sausage lasagna made the way Susan's mother made it, having learned the trick from her own mother, the woman who started Denver's Canino's Sausage way back in the day.

So the Scarafiottis -- like the Heitmans and Sarlos, et al., from the extended family of Cafe Jordano -- have the generations of history required for a good Italian restaurant. The proper lineage isn't a guarantee of success, mind you; the Saninnos had history coming out the wazoo. But being able to trace your recipes back to some mythical Old Country flavor never hurts.

"I'll be honest with you," Scarafiotti says. "When I was still waiting tables, I was embarrassed to bring out the chicken. You know, the roasted chicken? It looked like a game hen, not a roaster." So that got changed. The lunch and dinner menus got changed. "We're cooking with garlic now, buddy!" he crows, obviously proud, obviously jazzed about the whole thing. And the specials board -- which used to consist of some regular menu item, pulled at random and reduced in price -- is now actually full of specials made specifically as specials, and the dessert menu is a collection of real Italian classics: pear tartlets, Italian cream cakes and the same lemon tartuffo served at Cafe Jordano, because Scarafiotti has always been a fan of that place, too.

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