While Gaetano's (see review) makes a Mafia Disneyland out of this town's Italian heritage, Patsy's, another northwest Denver institution a few blocks away, at 3651 Navajo Street, continues to make history -- and great homemade pasta. Patsy's doesn't have any Mob stories (that I know of), but it did have Chubby Aiello, who founded the place in 1921, named it after one of his daughters, then ran it for decades.
The traditions in the kitchen here are so strong that they, too, survived a big-time ownership change a decade ago when, after seventy-odd years under the Aiello family, Patsy's was sold to Bill Taylor and Cindy Knippel. The new owners wisely kept their meddling to a minimum. They made some small changes to the menu and did a little buffing and polishing, but today Patsy's still looks, feels and operates more or less as it did in the '20s. The spaghetti is thick, the red sauce mercifully free of any unwanted spiciness, the mussels in white wine and garlic an absolute must whenever I sit down at one of the house's wobbly old tables, and the gnocchi are among the best in town (though John Smilanic-Beneventi at Ristorante Amore still does my favorite). If traditional, street-corner ristorante Italian has a champion in Denver, Patsy's is it.
And Taylor and Knippel don't even have vowels at the end of their names. What they do have, though, is a dedication to keeping their restaurant honest.
They're not the only ones in town who do Italian right, of course. There's Cafe Jordano, at 11068 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood. It ain't fancy, it ain't frilly. But if you manage to get a table here, no matter what you order from the simple menu of pastas will be one of the best versions of that dish you've ever had. Armando's (16653 East Smoky Hill Road in Aurora) and Vita Bella (1627 Coalton Road in Superior) are two more good ones, both branches of the same family tree, owned by aunts and sons and grandsons who can trace their culinary roots back to a half-dozen restaurants in the Big Apple and the old Oriental Manor in Brooklyn -- site of Henry Hill's wedding scene in GoodFellas.
Then there's Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street), chef Frank Bonanno's answer to all those people (like me) who used to complain that there's no good Italian food west of, say, Cincinnati. Luca is definitely more highbrow than the north Denver joints -- offering the kind of Italian a good chef with a smart grounding in the classics can offer when he gets it in his head to fancy things up a bit -- but its heart is still in the right place.
Salut: While my teeth were still squeaking from the cheap chianti I'd tried at Gaetano's, I called Bobby Stuckey, owner, sommelier and floorman extraordinaire at Frasca up in Boulder and asked some tough questions about wine pairings. We all know what goes best with Italian food -- Lambrusco, or anything that comes in a bottle wrapped in rope. But what about some of those trickier choices? Say, the best wine to go with Vietnamese food?
"A low-alcohol riesling," preferably something German, Stuckey replied. "For producers, I would say Joseph Leitz."
Why a German wine with Southeast Asian food? "Well, beer is probably the best thing, because with wine, you're generally talking about a higher alcohol content," he explained. "And because Vietnamese food is generally spicy, that's just adding heat to heat. But a low-alcohol riesling is a good choice because it's very refreshing." For milder Vietnamese foods, Stuckey suggested a nice Alsatian, something non-wooded. "Because there's often coconut and tropical flavors, maybe a pinot blanc or a muscat."
Okay, smart guy: What about barbecue?
"Well, barbecue has a lot of sweetness in it," he pointed out, "so I would say go for a great American zin." His pick of makers: Joel Gott, a small, artisan, Napa Valley producer on the rise who specializes in zinfandels. I'd suggest you pour the stuff into paper cups; it'll save you the trouble of trying to scrub barbecue sauce off your good stemware.
Inspired by Sideways, I asked about pairing wine with cheeseburgers. Though Paul Giamatti's Miles went for a '61 Cheval Blanc for his trip to the diner, Stuckey would opt for a more moderate glass of cabernet. "Because, what? You're talking about cheeseburgers, right?" he said. "They're greasy and fatty. So go for something big. And even if it's too tannic? It'll just melt those tannins away." If you have the means, though, the Cheval is not a bad way to spend a night....
For pork -- pork loin, pork chops, pork everything -- Stuckey fell back on the rieslings. "You know, everyone thinks you have to have red wine with pork," he pointed out. "But a good white can be so refreshing."
And talk about refreshing. Stuckey's favorite unusual pairing? Pork rinds and champagne. "Come on, you can't get any more luxurious than that," he insisted. "I think that's wonderful, but people would kill me if they knew that."
Leftovers: Surprise! Go Fish Grille -- the Cherry Creek fishhouse that replaced the doomed Indigo, at 250 Josephine Street, and seemed to be going swimmingly -- has closed. There was no warning, no eleventh-hour distress call, no hint of trouble until the "For Lease" signs went up in the front window last Thursday.
There's also been no word -- yet -- from owner/operator Larry Herz as to what led to the Grille's demise. All I know is that it must have come as a shock to some of his staff, because I've heard stories of waitresses and busboys wandering the streets of Cherry Creek last Thursday night in tears, bracing owners and begging for work at those few healthy, established places in the neighborhood that have managed to survive the flood of new joints (North, Elway's, etc.) coming in over the past year.
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But while the closure of Go Fish Grille was surprising, it was the opening of Z Cuisine at 2239 West 30th Avenue last week that really blew my mind.
Why? So many reasons... It's a small-scale bistro-slash-catering operation, which spelled instant doom in the past but now is catching on as a business model. The location is on the very edge of Highland, not yet a foodie hot spot. And finally, there's the fact that Z Cuisine is a straight French place, when everyone in town who claims to know what's going on keeps saying that French cuisine in the Mile High est mort, mort, mort. But while it's true that the bulk of the recent news in Denver's Francophile community has been about restaurants closing (Brasserie Rouge), backing off all-Frog menus (Steak au Poivre) or otherwise suffering from a dearth of business, I've always believed that if you put the right kind of place in the right space, the people will come.
And this could be that place. "It's just a little bistro," says owner and chef de cuisine Patrick DuPays, who spends Saturday mornings at the farmers' market in Boulder, picking up supplies like a proper Frenchman, and is currently counting on catering to help pay the bills. "I'm here for my neighbors, yes? I really want to live with these people. I want to know what time they get up, what time they come home from work, how I can be of help to them. I want to be a place you walk to, maybe have a little something to eat and drink. That's what people will do."