Bite Me

For the Birds

"To be honest," he told me, "because I wasn't a chef, I had to get whoever I could to run the kitchen while I concentrated on running the business." He never had the best people in there, didn't have a crew that could possibly keep up with the kind of food Pham had been serving. "After the reviews, you know, we had so much business that we couldn't compete, couldn't keep up," Chadrom continued. "People would come in, and one of them would have the best meal of their lives; the others would feel ignored and just walk out."

Now, with Pham back on board and the bar and lounge crowd paying the bills, Chadrom plans to resurrect the restaurant's reputation. "I have the luxury of not having to worry about whether or not my dining room is full," he explained. "So we just want to build things slowly. Actually, it's kind of fun now, you know? It's kind of running on autopilot, and I'm getting bored."

Everything old is new again: Late last year, in a crushing blow to GoodFellas and Frank Sinatra fans everywhere, Gaetano's, at 3760 Tejon Street, was sold to Wynkoop Holdings Inc. , the company that's running Mayor Hick's chain of restaurants while he's running City Hall.

Closed Location

Gaetano's has been one of Denver's most notorious joints for close to seventy years, owned right up to last December by the Smaldone family. Back in the day, the three Smaldone brothers -- Eugene ("Checkers"), Clyde ("Flip Flop") and Clarence ("Chauncey") -- operated the restaurant while making a mint in the gambling, bootlegging and bookmaking trades. History has it that their rise to mob prominence began in the early 1930s, when another, unnamed Colorado bootlegger was shot fourteen times -- "riddled with bullets," according to headlines of the day -- and left for dead in north Denver. The brothers were questioned in connection with the crime but never charged.

After that, the Smaldone saga reads like any other American story, full of boosted cars and booze, contract murders, gambling debts, tax evasion and linguine with clams. As recently as 1983, the brothers were still working the system, with Eugene, Clarence and a nephew, "Fat Paulie" Villano, all reeled in by John Law for running a loan-sharking operation out of Gaetano's.

According to Wynkoop's Jamie Nicholson, the new owners -- who kept the place open through a long couple of months of renovations -- are keeping the Gaetano's name and playing off the joint's well-known history with framed newspaper clippings on the walls and this advertising tagline: "Italian food to die for." Making that food will be chef Tony Lombardi, a vet with twenty years in the galley, a few of them back in Italy. He's taking over the kitchen of a restaurant that he grew up not two blocks from, making a menu that represents the best of the north Denver Italian heritage.

Look for a new and improved Gaetano's grand reopening sometime in April.

Leftovers: In the restaurant industry, you never need to stretch as far as six degrees of separation to find your Kevin Bacon. Before Marlo Hix became chef at Tante Louise, for example, young Duy Pham was behind the grills, working his first exec's gig at the ripe old age of, like, twelve. (Okay, he was actually in his early twenties, but still very young for the job, proving that owner Corky Douglass has one spooky nose for talent.) Before that, Pham was sous chef to top Tante toque Michael Degenhart, back when Degenhart was just the cat's pajamas when it came to Denver celebrity chefs. During Degenhart's time at Tante, the restaurant was unrivaled in the white-tablecloth arena, and Degenhart had a rep for running an excellent training kitchen that turned out some of the city's most powerful young chefs-to-be.

In addition to Pham, who later picked Hix for his sous, Goose Sorenson, now chef-owner at Solera, was a Tante trainee. Also doing a long turn in the Tante Louise kitchen (in the pastry department) was Gerald Shorey, now the owner of the great Devil's Food Bakery, at 1024 South Gaylord Street ("A Hell of a Place," November 18, 2004). And who's in the Devil's Food kitchen, helping Shorey keep things together now that the house is doing a killer three-a-day service, plus wine, just like a real restaurant? Degenhart, that's who, leaving Shorey more time to concentrate on what he's best at: pastries.

Cafe Cero reopened on March 1 at 1446 South Broadway -- as its answering machine promised last month -- but under new owners and with a new, Mexican menu that lacks some of the original's quirky charm. Also up and running is the revamped Josephina's, which gave up some of its space in Larimer Square for Rioja, then went through a couple months of housecleaning and updating. Look for a mid-April reopening at 975 Lincoln Street, the address formerly belonging to Moda, which developer Jim Sullivan recently added to his portfolio (think Mao). Son-in-law/chef Troy Guard (former top dog at Zengo) will rule over the restaurant whose name will be Nine75 (maybe).

Closed for good is Seoul Food, the little Korean joint at 701 East Sixth Avenue that pioneered that part of town before it became restaurant central. The space will now be a combo Japanese/Korean eatery called Yoki Japanese. Closed for who-knows-how-long is Santino's, at 2390 South Downing Street. Owner Sonny Rando's temper was legendary (just ask any of his former staff) when the original Santino's was located in LoDo, and he was recently charged with sexual assault, which could be the family emergency cited as the reason for the temporary closure. (He's pleaded not guilty.)

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