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All in the Family

Bucking tradition: Some things have changed at Gaetano's, but the food isn't one of them.
Mark Manger

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."

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.

I also like the butcher's paper on the tables and the red plastic water glasses that remind me of family dinners at Pizza Hut. But I hate the theme-parkish new motto: "Italian food to die for." It smacks of the saccharine, My Favorite Mobster version of the Gaetano's story that's being traded on, a version more My Blue Heaven than GoodFellas, more Mickey Blue Eyes than Donnie Brasco -- a lightweight farce of old Denver that's not trying to be much more.

Still, the best, the sweetest part of having memories and holding them close is being able to say, "Oh, this place was so much better when..." -- even if it never really was. Being able to complain about the present is what the past was made for, so if my only objections to Gaetano's were the ferns, the shlocky motto and the forced wistfulness for the era of Ralph and Mamie Smaldone, who opened the Tejon Street Cafe (the original name of Gaetano's) back in 1934, I'd be all right with it. That's just business, and far be it from me to tell the Wynkoop Family of Restaurants (as they're described on the menu) how to make a nickel.

But while taking history and turning it into a marketing hook is one thing, mining the past and turning it into a menu is something else entirely. Screw that up, and a restaurant is going to have serious problems. And Gaetano's does.

I showed up on a quiet Monday for an early dinner -- just me, my appetite and a taste for the sort of old-neighborhood fare that Gaetano's purports to serve: red sauces, scaloppine, maybe sausage and peppers -- classic stuff that's as hard to find out West as a decent burrito in Queens. And after I'd been seated, fortified with a glass of cheap, fruity Chianti and listened to staffers argue about who was going to be sent home early and whose turn it was to refill the crushed-red-pepper shakers, one look at the menu had me believing I was in the right place. The kitchen's offerings are extensive, stretching from pizzeria to trattoria, with Italian sandwiches (garlic-shot top round sliced and served on a roll with mozzarella and roasted bells); pizzas both flat and stuffed; calzones and pastas; a couple more salads than I'm comfortable seeing on a menu boasting so much sausage, but also cavatelli, which you don't find much these days; fresh-baked lasagna; and three kinds of linguine and clam sauce. The menu also includes some entries I'd never before encountered, dishes that are distinctly old-West Italian. A pepper fritti made with Pueblo chiles, for example. And Gaetano's "Tasty Treats," essentially rollatini made with sausage and whole-roasted Southwestern green chiles rolled up inside a pastry shell.

I had polpette -- a la carte meatballs that my server swore were made only of breadcrumbs but tasted like meat, set swimming in a greasy tomato gravy that was respectable, even if it had broken in the steam table. I dug into linguine in white clam sauce, a huge portion of al dente pasta in a cream-heavy trifle of sauce and tossed with canned clams, fresh clams, herbs and minced garlic. During the three years I've been in Denver, I've searched for a good linguine and white clam -- one that tastes the way I remember it tasting at all those places that make up my treasure chest of restaurant memories. After this, I'm still searching.

And while the Tasty Treats were a spaghetti-Western triumph of regional fusion, the sausage at the center seemed a little pink to me. Not so pink that I would send it back or even leave so much as a crumb on my plate, but a pink that, in retrospect, foreshadowed worse.

The next night, I returned for the carbonara. No better than the linguine with clams, it was dampened with a bland sauce that appeared to have been ladled on with a teaspoon, then scattered with a few bright peas, some sluggy and anachronistic button mushrooms, and far too little pancetta to matter. It tasted like noodles washed in milk. The minestrone, though certainly fresh, was nearly flavorless. I took a sausage sandwich to go, ate it in the car, and felt a little better. All else aside, Gaetano's serves some great sausage.

I came back on a Saturday with reinforcements, still hoping that Gaetano's would deliver on the promise of its menu. The joint was busy, filled with families and couples and neighbors soaking up the atmosphere and reflected infamy staring out from the walls. We began with calamari that was fresh, crisp and greasy from the fryers, and followed it with an antipasto -- a huge platter of deli meats, provolone, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts. It was an auspicious start, and we were having such a fine time drinking and talking that we didn't begin to wonder about the whereabouts of our entrees until forty minutes after the arrival of our first course. Fifty minutes after its arrival, our mains finally showed up. And about ten seconds after that, I was wishing the kitchen had taken just a little longer. Or not bothered at all.

The shrimp scampi sat in a puddle of dull, broken sauce, sprinkled with parsley and mounted with shrimp that were barely blushing and totally undercooked. The ravioli looked and tasted like something from the drive-thru at Fazoli's. For my linguine with clams in garlic and oil, the kitchen had somehow managed to take all the correct ingredients -- olive oil, wine, butter, garlic, crushed red pepper, salt, black pepper, dry herbs and clams -- and bind them together into something that tasted like I was licking the inside of a can of tuna. Finally, the chicken scaloppine -- boxed off on the menu and tagged as "To Die For" -- nearly was: It had been chopped into hunks by some grillman wielding a hatchet, given barely a sear on the flat grill, then served just this side of raw.

For me, that was it. I understood that it was a busy night and the kitchen was unprepared and under fire. But that's no excuse. After three disappointing meals culminating in a couple of plates that could have been flat-out dangerous had I been polite (or stupid) enough to eat them, I was done with this new, improved Gaetano's. After all this, I'm thinking maybe I would have been better off with the communal soup pot, the sauce from a can, and the three brothers who made the place famous just by being themselves.

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