By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The week after I first stepped into Gennaro's, I went back three times in four days. For the food, sure, and the mushroom sameness of the dining room that reminded me of all the dining rooms in all the Italian restaurants in the neighborhoods where I grew up. But also to venture past the dining room into Gennaro's dark, red-lit lounge, where I enjoyed the perpetual dusk and a shot or two. This is a beautiful old space now getting a second wind of anachronistic cool with live music, a MySpace page and a Sopranos pinball machine shoved up against the wall. One night I listened to the touch-screen juke blare out "Bullet in the Head," by Rage Against the Machine, while I waited for chef Jonathan Larsen to bake my calzone and fry up a bag of zeppoles for the road. On a slow afternoon, I sat with the old men watching a soundless documentary about Howard Hughes and the building of the Spruce Goose during World War II. Then I watched a woman with an aggressive perm and twelve-step eyes demonstrate the proper technique for stabbing someone with a broken beer bottle — taking one of the regulars by the hair, pulling back his head and miming the motion of bringing the smashed bottle up in a tight, savage arc to jam it in under the chin, just to the side of the Adam's apple.
"Dead before you hit the floor," she said proudly.
When I ate my first meatball hero at Gennaro's, it made me crave spaghetti and meatballs, and then the spaghetti and meatballs made me crave the sausage and peppers. The sausage and peppers sandwich is exactly what all the people who moved to Denver from the other side of the Mississippi have been talking about for years, craving just as long. Not everything else on this menu is as good — but not everything is supposed to be as good. Restaurants like Gennaro's are meant to have three or four or half a dozen things for which they're known — excellent plates and specialties that keep the regulars coming back, things that make neighborhood Italian restaurants part of a community and part of a community's routine: Mondays, hoagies from Bobby C's picked up on the way home from work; every Friday, pizza from Ferrara's. The accepted assumption is that the rest of the dishes at these places will be serviceable, standard riffs and expected classics done well enough that they make for a nice, occasional diversion, but not so good that they overshadow the kitchen's true hallmarks.
Italian grilled cheese: $4.95
Meatball hero: $5.95
Chicken parm: $6.95
Sausage and peppers sandwich: $5.95
Penne a la vodka: $8.95
And so Larsen's Italian grilled cheese sandwich — fresh mozzarella laid between two slices of Italian bread that is then egg-washed, coated in herbed breadcrumbs and fried, rather like a croque monsieur — is interesting, but not addictive. Other spots do Philly cheesesteak and chicken wings better. The garlic knots are just garlic knots and the stuffed shells just stuffed shells. Even the "traditional" spaghetti (made with homemade noodles that are more like fettuccine) in red sauce is forgettable. But I'll always remember my first blissful bite of that meatball hero, the simple spaghetti in homemade meat sauce. Ditto for the penne a la vodka, with chunks of prosciutto and a tomato-cream and vodka sauce. And the calzone is pure perfection — no fucking around, just baked pizza dough stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta — that I now want once a week forever.
And this, of course, is the draw of the true neighborhood Italian restaurant — the meta-trattoria from which all others have sprung. In every neighborhood, there should be a place where those with the taste for it can find linguine with white clam sauce, a meatball hero, a calzone that they love above all others. And the trick is that this hero, this calzone or whatever it is they crave be served in a joint that's indistinguishable from all the other joints in all the other places, all with lineages that stretch across state lines and back through time to the uncertain first.
There is only one Italian restaurant with 10,000 mushroom buds, 10,000 names, 10,000 different specialties for which each is fiercely loved. Gennaro's is only one of them — but in being one of them, Gennaro's is also all of them. For more than fifty years, it has been the place to go for a meatball sandwich, a slice, a plate of spaghetti or hand-me-down knowledge on how to kill a man with a beer bottle — unique only because it's ours, but loved because it could be all the others.