By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
In this cash-and-carry world, nothing is inviolate and everything is for sale. Even memory. Especially memory. There's good money to be made in strip-mining nostalgia, and for those who find a ripe vein -- like the folks at Wynkoop Holdings, who moved their heavy gear into northwest Denver this year -- the temptation to bore that motherfucker clean down to the root must be close to irresistible.
I haven't been in Denver nearly long enough to have eaten at Gaetano's during its most infamous era, but I know people who have, and when I talk to them about the good old days (which, by almost universal accord, they agree were never all that good), they each get that look in their eyes of someone fondling pretty things.
"I remember the place when it was a lot dirtier," says one. "But you know, they always made a good sausage sandwich."
3760 Tejon St.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Tasty Treats: $3.25 each
Linguine with clam sauce: $14.95
Sausage sandwich: $6.50< br>Scampi: $14.95
Chicken scaloppine: $15.95
Sitting at Gaetano's over drinks -- powerful gin gimlets from the Irish bartender's list of classic 1940s cocktails, mixed high and served with the shaker, beads of condensation turning to ice on the side -- another veteran reveals: "It was always dark. You could hardly see the food they served. Sauce out of a can, bread from the grocery store. But it was dark, and there's not a lot of dark bars left anymore."
"I don't know for certain, but I believe they had the real communal soup pot in the kitchen back then," says a former regular thrown out years ago for some offense against the Smaldones, the bush-league Mob family who owned the joint until the Wynkoop group bought it from the heirs. "You know, the minestrone? I'm pretty sure everything went back into that pot." He makes a face, but then, slowly, his eyes drift up past mine and over my left shoulder to that spot in the air where memory is stored. "Do you know if they still have that triptych of Frank Sinatra up over the bar?"
They do: young crooner Frank, middle-aged heartthrob Frank and miserable old bastard Frank, hung center-stage on the marbled gold-and-black-glass backsplash, lording over the ranks of bottles and polished to a high sheen like a sacred icon. The cult of Old Blue Eyes, only religion an Italian bar ever needed.
And, yes, they still have the quilted black-leather booths in the front room, set back against the painted-black brick walls. Yeah, they still have the side room with its faux-fresco decor, even if the curtains are sometimes left open to let previously unseen sunlight come spilling through the glass-block wall. Otherwise, the joint is largely unchanged from the years when it was the neighborhood clubhouse of Chauncey, Flip-Flop and Checkers -- a period commemorated in cheesy, framed newspaper clippings about Frankie, Dean and the criminal misadventures of the Smaldones, who did their business (mostly gambling, guns and loan-sharking, the small-timer trifecta, though the family was investigated for several murders) out of a private room in the basement, where the Wynkoop managers now do theirs. And the new owners even kept the bulletproof-glass door with its stick-on decals of cigarette packs and the words "AIR CONDITIONED," dating from back in the day when having a neighborhood spot where you could cool out and run through a deck of Pall Malls without having to worry about catching a bullet in the spine was much more important than having a place to eat. You could eat at home.
While the old Gaetano's may never have been a great restaurant, it was one that made memories. And in trying to trade on them, the new, squeaky-clean, Wynkoop family's Mafia Disneyland comes up short in the most banal of ways.
There are ferns in the corner of this Gaetano's. Ferns are never a welcome sign in a restaurant, and in a place like this, nothing should be alive in the dining room but the customers and servers. And some of them -- if a joint has any dignity at all -- should be on their last legs as well. For me, an Italian restaurant has no more significant history than that which is recorded in the hard, fake smiles of waiters who've been tromping the floor long enough to remember dancing with their first loves to the obligatory Sinatra and Louis Prima numbers oozing out of the sound system. But here the floor staff has no institutional memory; all they know is the cleaned-up and PR-spun urban legend of Gaetano's spelled out in twelve short paragraphs on the back of every menu. They know the food -- no matter what you order, it's their favorite plate -- and most of them know about the bulletproof glass, but that's because it recently survived an accident that sent an SUV careening through the entryway.
I like the service, which is always cheerful, sometimes fast and occasionally bungling in a charming sort of way -- with servers misplacing plates, forgetting the soup, staggering the appetizers so that half the table is eating while the other half looks on with mounting jealousy. And at least no one tried to dress them up in goombah costumes like the poor dipshits on The Restaurant, with their oversized belt buckles and stripey polo shirts.