In the early to mid-'90s, Carmine's on Penn was the first restaurant to bring an updated take on family-style dining to Denver ("Love, Italian Style," August 17, 1994). The concept was all about big flavors and big portions and, in Carmine's case, some big egos.
But now, six years later, Carmine's current owner thinks the restaurant has finally shaken the stigma left by its founder and original chef. "It was hard for a long time trying to convince people that we were the same or better and that we could do what they did," says Chris Linker, who bought Carmine's three years ago. "And you know, I don't want to knock anybody or bring up any old bad blood, but there were people who liked them and people who didn't."
Linker's talking about original owner Larry Herz and sometimes-volatile (very) chef Santino "Sonny" Rando, who've both moved on from Carmine's -- Herz to his Uncle Sam's, another family-style place located in Greenwood Village, and a much more pleasant Sonny to Santino's, a spot holding its own in restaurant-packed LoDo.
Carmine's on Penn, 92 South Pennsylvania Street, 303-777-6443. Hours: 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Meanwhile, Linker has focused on taking Carmine's back to what made it such an instant success: vibrant, flavorful, upscale Italian food served in portions large enough to feed at least two, but at a small enough price to keep people coming back. And diners do return to Carmine's -- some on a weekly basis. Just try getting in on a Friday night without reservations, as I did recently: You're looking at a nearly two-hour wait, although Carmine's tries to downplay that over the phone.
But the food was definitely worth it, and the staff made the delay more palatable by dropping a few complementary appetizers in front of us as we sat down. The bruschetta (normally $5.95) came covered with garlicky, oily, balsamic-kissed tomatoes and fresh basil; more balsamic-blessed tomatoes topped the portabellos ($9.95), sweet-fleshed mushrooms grilled with rosemary. We happily munched these starters as we contemplated the vast menu. While the possibilities are outlined on a blackboard uncomfortably out of reach for some patrons, we found the servers eager to recap and explain and otherwise attend to our every whim. In the past, people complained about Carmine's servers (and I occasionally found their attitude more overbearing than the garlic in the buttery, addictive dinner rolls), but I've seen no evidence of this behavior continuing under the new ownership. "I think maybe people thought we were kind of full of ourselves at some point," Linker says. "When I took over, we found that we had to work harder at tidying up the glitches people were complaining about."
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One such glitch involved the enclosed, year-round-use patio, once reserved for large parties. "It's always been first-come, first-served out there," Linker notes. "But people would show up thinking they had a shot at it, and they'd be pissed off that there was a large party already using the whole thing. So now we've opened a private dining room that had been a pool room for employees, which makes so much more sense for private parties. And people can sit out on the patio again."
The changes didn't stop there. Linker introduced an interesting, even unusual, wine list with selections well-matched to the menu. And he and co-chefs Brian Senft and Brian Durbins -- "That's Big Bri and Just Bri," he says -- revamped many of Rando's recipes. "A lot of them have just evolved from what we'd been doing, in part because Denver has been exposed to a lot more food, and so we needed to keep pace with that," Linker explains, "and in part because our chefs, both of whom worked for Sonny as sous chefs, just keep getting better and better."
I'll say. Every part of our meal was excellent, from those appetizers to the infamous dinner rolls to our entrees. We didn't make our choices lightly -- the roster includes a dozen pasta preparations, along with a half-dozen each of veal, chicken and seafood dishes, as well as such specialties as ravioli alla vodka -- and were well-pleased by our picks. The bolognese ($14.95) was thick and rich over our choice of spaghetti (you can also order ziti or linguine); in the veal alla Carmine's ($23.95), soft, tender medallions were topped with cappacola and mozzarella, then baked until the white-wine-spiked marinara sauce thickened into a blanket of goo. Much as we wanted to polish off every bite, those two entrees were more than enough to feed three of us.
With food this good covering those big platters, Carmine's remains a very big deal on the Denver dining scene.