"Here's the thing," confides veteran journalist Dick Kreck, "the family is not crazy about the new Gaetano's." One family's opinion of this Italian institution might not matter, but we're not talking just any family, here. We're talking The Family, as in descendants of the Smaldones who founded the restaurant in 1947, the same family chronicled in Kreck's book Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family. See also: - Mob rule: Is a meal at the revamped Gaetano's an offer you can't refuse? - Photos: Behind the scenes at Gaetano's - Red alert: Denver's old-school Italian joints are disappearing
As Kreck tells it, he was at the refurbished Gaetano's this fall to speak to a book club -- one of an estimated twenty appearances he's made there to discuss his book -- and he invited Gene Smaldone, son of the family's now-deceased crime boss, Clyde, and Gene's wife, Linda, to join him. (Gene -- forbidden by his mom to join the "family business" -- and Kreck had become friendly during the years spent researching and writing the book, and the two have stayed in touch since its publication in 2010.) While the retooled food was found somewhat lacking, what really got to the Smaldones was the vibe. "It doesn't have same family feel," explains Kreck. "I think that's what bothers them most."
The comment might sound surprising, considering the old Gaetano's wasn't exactly an ice cream parlor. With a bulletproof front door and dark interior, it was a hang-out for Gene's dad and uncles, whose gambling and other illicit activities frequently put them on the wrong side of the law. But as Kreck discovered as he wrote the book, the Smaldones were also family men, quick with a buck or an offer of food for someone in need (as long as that someone didn't owe a gambling debt).
"I can't tell you the number people who have come up to me at signings and said, They helped out my mom,'" recalls Kreck, whose new book, Hell on Wheels, is due out next summer.
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Who knows? Maybe Kreck and the Smaldones picked an off-night. On recent visits for my review of Gaetano's, I've seen babies in highchairs tended by doting grandmas, kids discussing homework with their mom while waiting for their pasta, and siblings vying for the last ciabatta in the bread basket. It's a different kind of family business, to be sure, but the new Gaetano's still seems to be doing a fine family business.