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I sat, eyes closed, back to the wall in one of the big booths in the dining room, packed wall-to-wall with loud, large parties and families strong-hearted enough to resist that black-hole pull of the Olive Garden, and felt the back-brain sizzle of bad memories dying.
Good Italian food must straddle the line between pastoral rusticity and fiercely controlled, upmarket flair. It does so by hewing close to tradition — by bending to the central conceit that the best plates in any canon are the ones done the way they have been for generations, absent modernization, absent fusion, absent influence from anything that wasn't around when the dish was invented. But Italian food also must glorify its ingredients. Since it is one of the most basic canons, and one in which the best preparations involve the fewest ingredients, those ingredients must be as close to perfect as possible.
At its most elemental, a great shrimp scampi consists of shrimp, garlic, lemon and white wine. It is shrimp in an Italian beurre blanc — the garlic (and shallots) used to start a sauté pan, seasoned with good olive oil, deglazed with white wine, spritzed with lemon juice and mounted, at the last minute, with a knob of high-fat sauté butter. When cooked at the right heat (read: high) and done at the proper speed (read: fast), this composed sauce will be an unbreakable monster, slick and smooth and silky with a flavor like being hit in the mouth with a garlic-and-lemon brick. The shrimp? They're tossed in almost as an afterthought. In Italian cooking, everything beyond the sauce is simply a transport vessel for the sauce. Sauce rules.
4363 Tennyson St.
Denver, CO 80212-2307
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Northwest Denver
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And at Gemelli's, the cooks understand this. Their sauces — all of them — are done in the pan, hugely flavorful and strong as iron. They do not break. They do not separate. If you want to sit at one of the tables, polishing off a second bottle of Chianti and chatting with your significant other while you mop at the bottom of a bowl with chunks torn rudely from the basket of excellent house bread, the sauce will hold out as long as you do. Longer, probably.
The shrimp scampi was only a beginning, an eraser applied to the chalkboard of my brain before I moved on to the rest of my meal. I had it as an appetizer, alongside an antipasti plate (forgettable but for the perfectly wispy prosciutto, some surprisingly good mozzarella and a cappicola that damn near lit my tongue on fire) and a bowl of the house minestrone made from long-simmered scraps, leftovers, beans and tomatoes — with perfect authenticity, in other words. I was there with Laura, who looked away while I gorged myself on shrimp, on table bread, on sauce that slicked my chin and stained my cuffs. Our waitress (new, I think, because she walked the floor with a certain baby-bird trepidation and went slowly in and out of the swinging door to the kitchen) bungled the progression of courses but was very friendly about it — bringing plates as they came up, shuffling empties, beer bottles and water glasses to make more room for rollatini di pollo (the Italian version of a French roulade, the rolled chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, fontina and sage, dressed in a white sauce and served over fettuccine), racioli in a rough farmhouse red with chunks of soft tomato spooned over three-cheese ravioli, and beef Madeira in a brown sauce of veal stock, demi, garlic, rosemary, Madeira wine and a last-minute shot of marinara for muscle, sided with one of the best, softest, most perfectly comforting mounds of risotto I've tasted outside of Denver's top-flight Italian kitchens. It was so good that I accidentally stabbed Laura in the hand with my fork while reaching across the table for a bite.
At least I told her it was an accident.
Everything we had that night was excellent — satisfying in a way that no sundry collection of focus-grouped chain food is ever going to be. Gemelli's itself was lovely, comfortable, full of good feelings, raised voices and the smell of garlic in the pan that drifted out from the kitchen. But really, what I'll remember most is the shrimp scampi — that first, eye-opening bite, that lemony, garlic-shot slug in the mouth. I'll remember the way that sauce clung to the bread, how the shrimp tasted like shrimp — like bit players making the most of their tertiary roles in a scene that was all about the sauce — and how the whole plate, with its chunks of this and swirls of that, came off like a midnight snack thrown together on a whim, but it was really a rustic masterpiece.
It was almost enough to make me forget I'd ever had that bad scampi.