We've written quite a bit about the demise of Denver's red-sauce joints, the old-school neighborhood restaurants that once formed the nucleus of northwest Denver, or, as some called it, Little Italy. After 66 years as the city's longest family-owned Italian restaurant, Pagliacci's shuttered last year; the remodeled Gaetano's, while still loosely rooted in Italian cuisine, in no way resembles -- in its aesthetics or its menu -- the glory of its heyday as a fixture for the city's most notorious mobsters; and Carbone's, the iconic Italian sandwich shop and market on 38th Avenue, closed earlier this year, allegedly just temporarily, although the space is still dark and there's no visible sign that matriarch and owner Rosa Lenardo plans to reopen any time in the near future.
See also: - Red alert: Denver's old-school Italian joints are disappearing - Pagliacci's, Denver's oldest single-family-owned Italian spot, will close August 19 - Photos: RiNo's on Blake opens in the former Brauns space
I grew up on that side of town, spent numerous days and nights in all of those restaurants with my family, but it was at Little Pepinas, an opulent Italian restaurant -- at least at the time -- where we spent the majority of our nights.
It was my mother's favorite restaurant, and even now, more than twenty years after chef and owner Richard Blick abruptly walked away from the kitchen, she still waxes nostalgic. We danced, often, with Dino Santoro, the restaurant's insatiably flirtatious maître d'; we cooked in the kitchen, making red sauce and osso bucco with Blick, who was enamored, as was Santoro, with my mom.
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I had my first underage cocktail at Little Pepinas; my stepfather, an academic curmudgeon who despises just about everything except history books, adored Little Pepinas, at least until that one evening when he innocently inhaled too many martinis and found himself face-down on the sidewalk. One night, while Pepinas was closed for a private party -- it had been bought out by some marvelous transvestites from Trinidad -- we were summoned, by phone, to join them; it was one of the best nights of my life. My rehearsal dinner was at Little Pepinas. Someone -- I don't remember the culprit -- had way too much wine and teetered backwards, breaking the window. Santoro celebrated by uncorking another bottle of Champagne.
When Little Pepinas closed, I was devastated. Several years later, when Santoro passed away, I sobbed. I have no idea where Blick is -- or whether he's still living -- but his unassailable food made an indelible mark on my life, and for years, I've driven past Little Pepinas, stopping in front of the boarded up building, now in disarray, to plot how I could sneak back at night to pilfer the scripted sign that's bolted to the crumbling stucco exterior. The only reason why I haven't is because I can't reach that high. Still, I want it. Desperately.
And perhaps, just maybe, the new owners will give it to me. The space will soon become Kobe An Japanese Fondue, presumably a sibling of Kobe An, a long-standing Japanese restaurant and sushi bar in a Lakewood strip mall. After more than twenty years, the desolate Pepinas, located at 3400 Osage Street, will rise again, only instead of Chianti in straw baskets and shrimp fra diavolo, sake and shabu will take their place. A liquor-license hearing with the Department of Excise and Licenses is scheduled for Friday, April 26, at the Wellington Webb building.