Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there was a restaurant ruled by a king named Larry.
Now, King Larry wasn't an evil king. He wasn't cruel or ruthless, as kings so often are. He didn't abuse the peasantry of Hotcakesland, didn't cut off peoples' heads. He didn't even wear silly hats, as most kings are wont to do (at least, he didn't wear them in public).
No, all King Larry wanted to do was run a good place, collect a decent paycheck and not catch a lot of shit from the locals about his very New York vision of what an Italian restaurant should be. He served sausage and peppers like the kind found at street festivals and St. Joe's carnivals back home, fresh chicken and veal parmagiana (made with real meat, not something a short step from becoming cat food) and giant bowls of pasta, each one big enough to feed three fat guys and still send them home with leftovers. Because King Larry was a good owner, his restaurant flourished and the neighbors were all happy. They wished his reign could last forever.
Carmine's on Penn, 92 South Pennsylvania Street, 303-777-6443. Hours: 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday Pasta Montana: $22.95Agnolotti: $9.95Gnocchi: $15.95Fish special: $29.95Frutti di mare: $39.95Sausage and peppers: $14.95
But then one day, a funny thing happened. King Larry got it in his head to abdicate the Italian-restaurant throne and move on. And though there was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth among the people who'd come to love Carmine's on Penn, King Larry would not be dissuaded.
Meanwhile, in his kingdom was a man named Chris Linker, who thought that maybe -- just maybe -- he might be able to rise to the lofty spot left vacant by the king and keep Carmine's going. True, he was just a lowly waiter, but he loved Carmine's and thought (correctly, it turned out) that King Larry was somewhat premature in leaving. After consulting with lawyers and contractors and all the other wise men of the kingdom, Chris the Waiter (along with his wife) decided to step up and buy Carmine's from King Larry.
And everyone lived happily ever after.
The story of Carmine's on Penn is as close to a fairy tale as you get in this business. The notion of a waiter buying the restaurant where he works when its owner grows tired of the place is one of the oldest, most pathetic cliches in the restaurant industry. It happens all the time, believe it or not, and the waiter's brave purchase is almost always immediately followed by two things: First, the rush of wind as the smart employees all make a simultaneous run for the door, stealing everything that isn't nailed down as a hedge against their last paychecks bouncing; and second, the steady hammering of a sheriff tacking on the "Premises seized pending bankruptcy arbitration" notice. Almost never do these sagas have a happy ending. Almost never do these transfers of ownership last long enough for the ink to dry on the contracts that inevitably doom the uppity waiters to lives of penury and regret.
And yet, waiters (and chefs and waitresses and bartenders) keep trying, hoping against hope that their experience will be different from everyone else's. Waiters and chefs and waitresses and bartenders keep buying restaurants, because they want very badly to believe in the fairy tale -- the dream that they will be the ones who beat the odds and make the impossible leap from salad carrier to boss -- and hold tight to the same kind of faith that children have in the Easter Bunny and born-again Christians have in the Rapture. Because every now and then, every once in a very long while, a fairy tale actually comes true. It's like the story of the kid who started out in the mailroom and one day becomes the CEO of the company. But for every Jimmy the Mailboy who makes good and becomes president of WidgetCorp, there are a thousand other Jimmy the Mailboys who labor in anonymity for decades, develop drinking problems or weird obsessions with their supervisors, then show up for work one day with a rifle and settle all bets.
Carmine's on Penn is one of those rare success stories that will forever inspire the unprepared, inexperienced and underfinanced into taking their shot at the restaurant bigtime. When Larry Herz decided to move on in 1996 -- two years after he opened the almost instantly successful Carmine's -- waiter Chris Linker and his wife bought the place, and Linker went from servant to king just like that.
But the story doesn't end there. A couple of years later, when Linker and his wife divorced, she got the restaurant and held on to it until last August, when another longtime Carmine's employee, veteran ops guy Jay Joralemon, bought the keys to the kingdom. Joralemon and his partners, Shannon and Steve Bangert, closed Carmine's while they remodeled -- a round of repainting, some kitchen work, new floors and new fixtures -- and then reopened this fall. Since then, Carmine's has been as successful as it ever was during the reign of Larry Herz, even busier than it was under the Linkers, and a testament to the fact that for every hard-and-fast rule of the restaurant industry, there's always an exception. Every now and then, fairy tales do come true.
Although it can seat 180, easy, on good nights Carmine's will have waits of up to two hours for unreserved tables. Customers pack in three-deep at the bar, spill out the door, stand on the sidewalk waiting for their names to be called. But regardless of the crowds, the day or the hour, no matter how many seats are filled or how many anxious regulars are waiting, Carmine's still acts as though it were a little ten-table neighborhood trattoria, cooking for friends and family, happy to serve anyone who might wander in.
The tables, with their butcher-paper covers, single candles and old Sterno cans filled with crayons, are comfortable and yours for as long as you choose to stay. The dining areas -- which include the bar, two inside rooms and two large, covered and heated patios -- are kept separate from one another, so that even when the place is full to capacity, it never seems crowded (except at the bar). High ceilings keep the space ringing with happy conversation, and the kitchen keeps it filled with good cooking smells -- caramelizing onions and garlic, hot oil, balsamic vinegar, roasted tomatoes and rosemary.
Because there are no menus, just a profusion of chalkboards, and because the chalkboards contain no descriptions clueing customers in to the difference between the veal marsala and the veal pazzo, the boscaiolo and the pasta Montana, the servers become tour guides of Carmine's Italy. They crouch down beside two-tops, stand tall beside larger parties, unashamedly pimping their favorite dishes and giving lists of ingredients, of preparations and possibilities. Orders are written on the butcher paper at each table, sketched in waiter shorthand, and the same warnings are given over and over again: Service is family-style, the portions are large, and to-go boxes are available for everything.
The cooks in the kitchen work the same way as the waiters on the floor -- cooking big, but preparing everything to order with that mythic ten-table trattoria in mind. Ingredients are handled with care -- asparagus tips arrive verdant green and crisp, chicken breasts precisely grill-marked, roasted wedges of tomato still steaming and sweet from the oven -- and sauces are composed with a skill and subtlety that I don't expect at family-style operations, where the stuff usually comes from a bag, is warmed by the bucket-full, then haphazardly dumped on bowls of flaccid noodles.
On my first visit, I ordered the Montana (the most popular dish on the menu) and received a massive platter of ziti and asparagus and chicken and sundried tomatoes in a balanced Gorgonzola cream sauce with just enough addictive, acidic bite so that long after I'd had my fill, I kept picking at the dish -- using my fingers to sweep noodle after noodle through the deeply rich sauce that hit every note of a proper Italian béchamel. I also ordered the linguine and white clam sauce, a preparation that has never failed to disappoint me elsewhere in Denver. The waiter served it right, setting the platter on a tray jack that groaned under its weight, then spinning pasta onto my plate, using a fork to lift up the enormous nest of linguine and a spoon to get at the sauce that had puddled underneath. That sauce had all the clam-centric oiliness, blunt spice and simple saltiness I've been looking for ever since abandoning the Coast.
On another night, I ate agnolotti stuffed with three cheeses and arugula, served in a brown-butter sauce with leaves of fried sage on top. It was wonderful, surpassed only by the warm, crispy garlic knots I used to mop up the buttery dregs. But I pushed things too far by trying the house special gnocchi, which were undercooked, tasting like wads of raw bread dough bathed in underripe tomatoes done concassé style, then blended into a chunky, rustic sauce that might have been decent had anyone in the kitchen thought to spice it with, well, anything. The dish was bland, disgustingly pasty and a tragedy start to finish, which I tried to forget by quickly swallowing two glasses of Prosecco and ordering the tiramisu. I was served a full quarter of a cake, enough to choke Augustus Gloop, and by the time my leftovers were packed up, the bag weighed thirty pounds. I know, because I checked -- discovering in the process that I'd put on a few pounds myself.
But as happy as I was with the straight-up GoodFellas linguine and white clam, the agnolotti, the bites of spaghetti Nicodemos with pancetta, roasted tomatoes and a deceptively uncomplicated white wine, garlic and oil sauce that I'd filched off a companion's plates, it was a special that had me swooning. On my last run through the menu, I'd planned on the frutti di mare or maybe the fra diavolo, just because Sunday night is prime time for a kitchen to fuck up the seafood, and I am a bastard that way. But Johnny, my server, wasn't having it.
"Let me tell you about the special," he said, crouching down next to me at my table in the corner. "You have to try this. It'll blow your mind."
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It was filets of Colorado striped bass, line caught and cooked in the best way any fish can be -- a little lemon, a little salt and nothing else. These were then mounted over garlic and goat cheese risotto -- the best I've had in ages -- and laced with nineteen-year-old balsamic vinegar. Finally, the plate was set with an entire butternut squash, quartered, roasted, glazed in butter and brown sugar and sprinkled with crushed pecans. The entire dish was a miracle of restraint -- three elements (protein, starch and veg) each offering a pure, three-ingredient high -- and an epiphany in showing what a kitchen that knows exactly the flavors it's after can do with great ingredients. The bass was flaky, delicate and powerfully flavored; the risotto fluffy-sticky, beautifully smooth, grounded by the funkiness of the goat cheese and hint of garlic, then sent soaring by that single lace of bittersweet balsamic; and the squash beyond description. I don't particularly like squash, but I loved this with the sort of embarrassing passion some people feel when tasting truffles for the first time or taking their first sip of truly great wine.
As promised, the special blew my mind.
This is what you get when fairy tales come true.
Want to be the waiter who beats the odds and becomes the king? Go to Carmine's on a night when the kitchen is running the striped-bass special, when the crowds make it impossible to open the door and the hostess is still seating tables five minutes before closing. If you think you have what it takes, then by all means, go talk with your restaurant's owner and start drawing up papers. But if not, do yourself a favor and walk away. Few people can do what Chris the Waiter did back in the day, what Joralemon and his partners and his staff are doing now -- but I'm glad none of them ever stopped believing in the Easter Bunny.