It was a deeply and profoundly abysmal lasagna that I wouldn't feed to an enemy. A few layers of limp pasta swimming in an acid bath of red sauce that would've embarrassed Chef Boyardee, stuffed with rank ricotta and topped with some desiccated parsley dandruff -- are you kidding me? And I'm not being flowery when I say that the ricotta was bad. It was turned. Curdled. It tasted like vomit -- like sour milk and eggs left too long in the sun. And if whoever sent it out of the kitchen couldn't smell the evil vapors coming off this plate, then he must have had a head cold or his fists up his nose or something, because I sure could. From two feet away. I've eaten some awful things in my life. This lasagna was worse than almost all of them. I've had better Italian food made by homeless people warming cans of Spaghetti-O's on the engine block of a truck, and seen more care given to a plate of noodles by wasted truck-stop hash-slingers at the bad end of a triple shift.
The above excerpt describes what was, without a doubt, one of the worst meals of my life, which I suffered through almost a year ago to the day. My first dinner at Three Sons Italian Restaurant ("Same Old, Same Old," September 11, 2003) was an abysmal failure, a meal so monumentally awful that the experience has flavored every meal I've eaten and every review I've written since.
It wasn't just run-of-the-mill bad, wasn't just disappointing -- I've had plenty of those. My job depends on the constant up-and-down interplay of good dinners and bad dinners; on my ability to weigh them, one against the other. No, this meal at Three Sons was supremely awful, a tragedy of epic proportions. It was the Macbeth of Italian meals -- that prime gut-wrencher against which all future disasters will forever be judged -- and when my review was done, I felt like all that was left were the poisoned blades and bodies on the floor.
But now Three Sons has come back from the dead, adding yet another chapter to the long, storied history of this fifty-year-old northwest Denver landmark.
In March, Johnny Saninno -- one of the brothers behind the Three Sons moniker -- sold the pinky-white wedding cake of a space to one of his waiters, Michael Scarafiotti. But Scarafiotti wasn't just a waiter -- wasn't actually a waiter at all, but rather a twenty-year Denver restaurant veteran, former owner of Nuchiks, former owner of Hot Cakes, and a recently ex-partner at Vinnola's Italian Market who was taking off much of the 2003 holiday season and only waiting tables for kicks, pocket money and because he knew the Saninnos from way back when.
"Look," he explains. "I had really no intention of purchasing this thing. My partner at Vinnola's had just bought me out. I was just going to skate on through the holiday season. I've spent eighteen, nineteen years in the restaurant business. I didn't want to do anything, really, but then I hear that Johnny is thinking about selling the place..."
One thing led to another -- as things have a tendency to do -- "and I found myself buying the place," Scarafiotti says, laughing a little. "That was March." Now it's September, and 2915 West 44th Avenue, while looking the same on the outside and retaining the historic Three Sons name, is a whole different restaurant. The waitstaff? All gone, many of them to Arvada, where Jimmy Saninno has opened his own place, Mama Saninno's. The kitchen? Emptied, and now under the command of Tony Fordyce, late of Houston, where he spent the past few years working the chain gang at a bunch of nationally franchised restaurants, and a former cook of Scarafiotti's during his Hot Cakes days. Fordyce is backed up by Scarafiotti's son, Gino, as sous chef, and the two of them are working together on recipes supplied (mostly) by Scarafiotti's wife, Susan.
"When the boys left, the recipes went with them," Scarafiotti tells me. And I can tell you, that was no big loss. Now, in place of the limp linguine in white clam, blunt fra diavolos and poison oil-slick red sauces, Three Sons has quick and light scampis, almond pesto-crusted salmon, bone-in pork chops served over Tuscan white-bean ragout, and an Italian-sausage lasagna made the way Susan's mother made it, having learned the trick from her own mother, the woman who started Denver's Canino's Sausage way back in the day.
So the Scarafiottis -- like the Heitmans and Sarlos, et al., from the extended family of Cafe Jordano -- have the generations of history required for a good Italian restaurant. The proper lineage isn't a guarantee of success, mind you; the Saninnos had history coming out the wazoo. But being able to trace your recipes back to some mythical Old Country flavor never hurts.
"I'll be honest with you," Scarafiotti says. "When I was still waiting tables, I was embarrassed to bring out the chicken. You know, the roasted chicken? It looked like a game hen, not a roaster." So that got changed. The lunch and dinner menus got changed. "We're cooking with garlic now, buddy!" he crows, obviously proud, obviously jazzed about the whole thing. And the specials board -- which used to consist of some regular menu item, pulled at random and reduced in price -- is now actually full of specials made specifically as specials, and the dessert menu is a collection of real Italian classics: pear tartlets, Italian cream cakes and the same lemon tartuffo served at Cafe Jordano, because Scarafiotti has always been a fan of that place, too.
The old Three Sons relish trays? Gone, and replaced with baskets of warm rolls, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The wine list? Friendlier and cheaper, no longer top-loaded with $90 bottles you have to speak Italian to order. And the decor? "I wanted to make it look a little more like a Tuscan village than the Roman Empire," Scarafiotti says, laughing. When Saninno left, he took most of the pictures from the walls, as well as the busts of Caesar. There's now a mural along one wall of the dining room, vases full of fresh gladiolas, a feeling that someone actually looked outside and realized that this is the 21st century.
"Look, I believe in this restaurant wholeheartedly," Scarafiotti says. "I mean, Christ, this place has been around forever, right? And I'll tell you, I spend way too much time here, but once you come into the restaurant and sit down? I'm going to try and touch every table. I'm going to check and make sure everything is all right, that you're enjoying everything. And if something isn't? I'm not going to send one of my servers over to try and smooth things over; I'm going to do it myself, right? I want everyone to know that we want you to come back. And if you walk out of here hungry? Then that's your fault."
And that's exactly the attitude it takes to turn a restaurant around these days.
Day laboring: Labor Day weekend is supposed to be a time to celebrate the fact that you're not laboring -- a time to enjoy backyard barbecues, picnics, a few cold beers and a good game on TV. But for Denver's kitchen community, this workman's holiday means one thing: A Taste of Colorado.
For me, Taste of Colorado represents a chance to get out there and rub shoulders (and elbows and knees and everything else) with the masses; to cruise the streets and follow my nose wherever it may take me; to stuff myself stupid with all manner of grub on the cheap, then walk off the bloat while ten zillion of my closest friends and neighbors do the same.
This year's event was crushingly well-attended, with every third person on the street carrying around a bag of kettle corn or a Cajun turkey leg as though they were at some kind of Renaissance Faire sans the costumes and horseshit. A part of me couldn't help thinking that if all these people (even the ones who were there only for funnel cake and some sort of food-on-a-stick) went out to eat at least once a week -- somewhere that wasn't Applebee's, somewhere without a drive-thru -- then Denver's restaurant scene wouldn't be in the trouble it's in. But this was no time for grudges. This was a time for celebrating.
India's Restaurant took this year's prize for most approachable ethnic cuisine, dishing up the kormas, naan and saag paneer in huge portions to all comers. Wisely, India's had two people working the counter, so when I got stuck behind the family of six who'd tromped up to the trough demanding an entire history of Indian cuisine from one poor, harried counterman before grudgingly handing over their tickets for a mango lassi and some rice, I was able to cruise right on by, get my saag and get gone. Maneuvering a floppy Styrofoam plate full of Indian food through a crowd is a trial, but it's amazing how the threat of a hot spinach facial will get people out of your way.
Philadelphia Filly -- run by the folks who once had a joint with the same name on South Pearl Street and now concentrate on festivals and food carts -- made good use of its street expertise for handling large volumes. From start to finish, the Filly had lines stretching clear across Broadway and still served tens of thousands of mini-cheese steaks without a hitch. Kudos, too, to Caribbean Cuisine Plus, which got festival-goers to eat curried goat and oxtail; to An's Lemongrass Grill for having the wisdom and foresight to offer Vietnamese coffee on the off chance that a bleary-eyed restaurant critic might be wandering the streets at noon, still looking for a quick pick-me-up; and to the Broker for not skimping on the shrimp cocktails in the fine-dining zone.
It was in the fine-dining area on Saturday that I was also served up some very good news: Sean Kelly is back in business at 1313 East Sixth Avenue, the space that had been Clair de Lune until very recently. Kelly's new place is called Somethin' Else -- a joke, sure, that refers to his oft-repeated response when asked what he'd be doing after Clair closed, but also named after one of Kelly's favorite Miles Davis songs -- and it's a tapas joint, of all things.
So after my exertions at the Taste, I drove over to Kelly's place and found him there in his civvies, wife and kids in tow, getting ready to sit down for a quick meal. Seth Black, his former roundsman and jack-of-all-trades, is the newly minted chef de cuisine at Somethin' Else, and he was wearing the big white jacket and working the pans in the galley. I asked Kelly how it felt to be watching someone else man the stoves in the cramped little kitchen that, for the last two years, had been his exclusive domain, his culinary retreat after closing the much-loved Aubergine and The Biscuit. "Weird," he replied, smiling hugely. "It would've been worse if I hadn't gone through the same kind of thing at Aubergine, but still, it's weird.
"That's good, though, right?" he continued. "I mean, I wanted something where I didn't have to be in the kitchen all the time. You know, where I could be here enough, but not too much. Not too little, either. But I don't want to have to be up here all the time like I used to be back in the kitchen. I don't want people coming in, not seeing me and going, 'Where's Sean?,' right?"
I concurred. Let Rocco DiSpirito deal with that kind of crap in New York. There's no place for it in Denver.
The walls at Somethin' Else smelled like fresh paint (warm earthtones now -- dark browns and oranges instead of Clair's Van Gogh blues), the credit-card machine (which Kelly had never allowed at Clair) had just been installed Friday, and the menu is still in flux. Right now it's a mass of small plates, figs and nuts, some seafood, some Aubergine classics like fried baby artichoke hearts and other dishes that made the grade at Clair. It looks like it's tailor-made for Black, who's always at his best handling garde-manger duties, doing amuses and cold plates and little tastes of this and that.
In the coming days and weeks, Somethin' Else will find its niche, and no doubt come into its own as yet another entirely new restaurant from Sean Kelly. One without fine dining. One without white tablecloths. "It's going to be fun," he said. "Simple. Just the kind of place anyone can stop at any time and get a little something to eat."
While he was talking, two people did just that -- strolled by, stopped when they saw the menu in the window, and came in for an early dinner. No fussing with reservations, no wondering whether there'd be space enough for them in the notoriously small dining room. Everything about Somethin' Else feels looser and more casual than at Clair de Lune. The smiles come quicker. The food is easier. It's just dinner, after all.
Leftovers: It hasn't been long since 2 Boys Bakery threw in the kitchen towel. And now, Manna Bakery, which has survived seventeen years of boom and bust in the Woodlawn Shopping Center, at 1500 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton, may be the next to go. "It's been a horror show down here," says Jeff Noble, the bakery's third owner. "People just aren't spending money. They come in complaining about the crap they get at Costco or whatever, and then their eyes get as big as dinner plates when they see what I'm charging."
Which isn't much, all things considered: $3.50 for a fresh-baked artisan loaf of handmade bread; $4.50 for a whole pastrami sandwich and a pickle; $1.25 for a cupcake as big as your fist. Still, when people can get a loaf of machine-extruded Play-Doh masquerading as a baguette for $1.19 at their local grocery store, they tend to suffer sticker shock when they see Manna's prices.
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"This is what it costs to bring it from the mixing bowl to the front of the house," Noble explains. "That's what I tell them. But people are willing to settle for an inferior product just because it's cheaper. I'm from the East Coast, and back there, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a great bakery. And you never see them close. But out here, the Costcos and the Wal-Marts, you know? They're really breaking it off in me."
For now, Noble's hanging on at Manna. He's working 75 hours a week with one other baker in the kitchen and a zero balance in the business's checking account. He's gone a year without taking a paycheck, comes in every day at 2 a.m., and last Thursday, took in exactly $432.
"And this isn't just me," he adds. "For God's sake, the whole city just sat back and watched Clair de Lune go away. That just doesn't happen back home, you know? I've been baking and cooking around the country now for twelve years, and I've never seen anything like this here."
So once again, I'm putting out the call. If you're near Littleton Boulevard and feeling peckish, stop in for a sandwich -- and pick up some fresh bread for dinner. Just coming off the South Beach Diet? Go to Manna to celebrate. Taste some bread, some pastries, some cakes made with real, fresh buttercream. Just try something, Denver, because if you keep taking your trade across the street to the chains, the grocery warehouses and the corporate-theme restaurants of the world, remember, one of these days you're gonna wake up and discover that's all that's left.