When I was young, Christmas in the Sheehan household was a fairly predictable event. It began about 4 a.m., or whatever godawful hour my brother Brendan and I would drag our parents out of bed for our annual living-room reenactment of the battle of Thermopylae, with Mom and Dad playing the 300 Spartans trying to hold the pass against Bren and me, standing in for tens of thousands of Persians. The Christmas tree, of course, was Greece, and Mom and Dad never managed to hold out more than twenty minutes, let alone the historic seven days the Spartans lasted.
After that, we had a huge farmhouse breakfast -- eggs and toast and coffee cake and slices of ham and potatoes in multitudinous variety -- followed immediately by lunch with more coffee cake and whatever we could scrounge from the dinner preparations, then a second lunch maybe two hours later of appetizers and snacks, cold sausage, cheese and crackers. A couple of hours after that came dinner, for between four and a dozen family members, and traditionally featuring baked ham, German spinach, Irish champ, and cream of broccoli soup of no particular provenance. After our proper dinner was done, there'd always be another meal of cold leftovers a few hours down the line.
For years, this was my Christmas. It wasn't until I fled the nest that I realized some people marked the holiday much differently. Once out in the wide, weird world, I ate Christmas tamales with my dishwashers, standing on the loading dock behind a French restaurant while thirty stuffed geese roasted in the ovens inside; celebrated Christmas on a hotel line full of Indians and Tamils, eating rogan josh and naan and almond butter cookies packed by the cooks' wives; celebrated Christmas at a sushi bar in Buffalo, where I drank too much sake and ended up decorating the men's room in festive red flying-fish roe and green seaweed.
My favorite commemoration, though, was the Christmas dinner at the home of a girl I knew whose Polish Jew father celebrated the Christian holiday by watching all three Godfather films back-to-back, then cooking a huge mutt-Italian dinner of pastas and lasagnas and baked fish and turkey with stuffing. He was nuts, this guy. I liked him a lot -- the world's only Jewish-Italian part-time culinary gangster. And he was a helluva cook, too.
There aren't enough mob hit men living in Denver. Because if there were, Maggiano's Little Italy would have been run out of the Denver Tech Center a long time ago, with every cook, all the managers and most of the servers getting two in the back of the head, a rolled-carpet coffin and a midnight trip off the banks of the Platte.
But if that were to happen, I have to wonder where every office in the DTC would have its holiday party. Without Maggiano's, the suburban streets would be choked with wine-drunk executive secretaries in knee-highs and sneakers going door-to-door begging for giant meatballs and an extra slice of tiramisu; with copier techs and department managers in their best casual-Friday party duds wandering the office parks, looking for someone to spill their drinks on and sexually harass.
Two Fridays before Christmas Eve, the scene at Maggiano's is a horrifying descent into one of Hell's side rooms, an antechamber that Dante missed while taking his grand tour of the lower galleries. As I walk in, I'm immediately greeted by the sight of twenty or thirty servers rolling silver, counting tips, sucking cowishly at their beverages and staring google-eyed at the Gordian knot of parties -- ten-tops, twelve-tops, twenty-tops -- all tangling at the hostess stand. The main dining room is full, the balcony dining room is full, and drop-leaf tables are being cleared, reset and turned as fast as the swarming, silent busers can move. At the bar, one of the tenders looks ready to murder a floor manager (they're arguing about an overdue break, I think), and Bing is on the Muzak dreaming of a white Christmas. Still, I know that somewhere, the owners of Maggiano's -- a concept that came oozing out of Chicago thirteen years ago and now claims something like nine zillion locations across nineteen states, including another massive restaurant in the Denver Pavilions -- are seeing nothing but green.
According to the Maggiano's home office, every link in this Eye-Tie-for-Dummies chain is meant to evoke the spirit of pre-war Little Italy. Little Italy in the '30s as envisioned by Spielberg, maybe. Bankrolled by Disney. And set-dressed by whatever yutz did the scenery for A Bronx Tale. Every flat surface that can't be used to set chairs in front of is covered with Christmas trees and bows and ribbons and fake presents and garlands and wreaths and lights. Every wall is hung with more Christmas paraphernalia, alongside thousands of less seasonal, grainy black-and-white prints of long-gone Italian relatives that carry all the true historic resonance of those ghost-town tourist snaps you get while on vacation in the American West: Here's Granny in jail for bank-robbing, here are the kids in plastic hats and sheriff's stars...
Somewhere there must be a central clearinghouse for the sort of wall clutter so endemic to chain restaurants. In Jersey, I'll bet. Probably Passaic. When Brinker International wants to open a new Maggiano's, the boss just puts in a call to Leon over at Cheesy Wall Crap Ltd., tells him where to send the stuff, and then Leon boxes up twenty framed Vino Blanco posters, a fake signed photo of Dean Martin, 3,000 red-checked plastic tablecloths and a gross of "Somebody's Grandfather Leaning on New Packard" prints, suitable for hanging. Bam, you got yourself a restaurant.
Our lonely two-top is jammed in at the head of a long communal table where a couple dozen ladies sit spooning out tiny portions of lasagna and spaghetti marinara from family-style serving troughs and trying to answer movie-trivia questions being asked by their boss. Anyone who guesses right ("What was the movie with the big shark in it?") wins a five-dollar gift card or a scented candle from the pile of shlock in the middle of the table, and these people look like they're having the best time ever. It's frightening.
And so is our food. An order of bruschetta brings thick slices of garlic bread lumped up with fresh tomatoes, basil and more garlic, drizzled with a cheap, harmless balsamic vinegar -- but that's as good as it gets. A giant slab of breaded, fried mozzarella, topped with more mozzarella, arrives adrift in a puddle of embarrassing red sauce. Broccoli florets murdered on the steam table come snarled in a rat's nest of gummy linguine and topped with a clotted, chunky alfredo. Soft, doughy, undercooked gnocchi have been drowned in a strangled tomato-vodka cream sauce that tastes like milk-thinned Campbell's tomato soup threaded with wilted shoelaces of basil. The chicken piccata features grill-seared chicken breasts poached off God-only-knows-how-many hours before, so soft that each bite is like eating warm, chicken-flavored taffy.
The sauce, though, is surprisingly good -- butter-thickened and spiked with the bright bitterness of lemon and capers -- and we can't figure out why our waitress tried to talk Laura out of it three times, urging her to order the marsala instead.
We think about that for twenty minutes, which is how long it takes for dessert to arrive once the entrees are cleared away. The massive square of tiramisu, though served without a hint of liquor, is sweet and dosed with enough cocoa powder to keep us twitching for hours afterward. This is the only plate we clean. It's also the only thing on the table that tastes even vaguely Italian -- besides the big bottle of San Pellegrino bubbly water that the bar has the nerve to charge four bucks for.
We clear out quickly after settling the tab. Our table is desperately needed by forty real-estate agents in blinking Christmas-tree ties getting rowdy in the bar and still waiting to be seated.
The next evening, we head to LoDo. It's early enough that the sidewalks aren't yet frosted with recycled Jägermeister and the riot police are still nestled all snug in the cop shop. The folks at Il Fornaio seem happy to see us -- but then, there's not an office party in sight. (That could be because there's an Il Fornaio in the Tech Center, too, and another at FlatIron Crossing.)
This Il Fornaio is beautiful during the holidays -- not tarted up like some trampy working girl trying to bring in the Christmas trade, but dressed in tasteful whites and reds and golds, with just one tree set up in the doorway between the bar and dining room, and soft music fluttering from hidden speakers somewhere up in the hammered-tin ceiling. In this world of green and gold, Laura and I eat our way into a garlic-scented fog, devouring several courses prepared by a kitchen more Italian than a hundred Maggiano's kitchens stacked on top of each other, and more talented than any kitchen in a chain restaurant has a right to be. In the Il Fornaio empire -- which extends to twenty-some locations, none east of Colorado -- all kitchens are overseen by a single executive chef, Maurizio Mazzon, and individually bossed by one or more local chefs, most of whom have come from or been trained in Italy. In these kitchens, the cooks and bakers make their own breads, roll their own pastas, arrange their own deals with local suppliers for product. They roast in wood-fired ovens, finish pizzas the same way. And unlike those bullshitting scamps at the Olive Garden, these guys actually go back to Italy now and then -- with annual trips arranged for the chef-partners who run each location, all on the company dime.
Massimo Ruffinazzi is the chef at this Il Fornaio, and he's good. The crostini di polenta -- pan-fried squares of crisp polenta topped with Italian ham, zucchini sliced thin as paper, Gorgonzola, prosciutto and mushrooms kicked up with a lace of black-truffle oil -- are fantastic. An order of involtini di melanzane brings some of the best eggplant I've ever tasted, rolled around goat cheese, red bells and fresh basil, then served in a good, spicy red gravy that anyone's Italian grandfather would be proud of. There's beef carpaccio served with curls of shaved grana and capers; a stiff-crusted pizza margherita with fresh mozz and a sweet tomato sauce; half a chicken that's been rotisserie-cooked so well that I can taste the places where the wood smoke has snuck up under the skin; real gnocchi Bolognese in a proper beef-and-pork ragu; and simple spaghetti and tiny veal polpettine meatballs in a spicy red juiced with a shot of Trebbiano wine.
Everywhere we turn, there's more great food. Floppy homemade ravioli con aragosta stuffed with lobster, scallop and bread comes topped with a silky shrimp-and-lobster cream sauce that's a little weak against all that pasta, but the dish is still wonderful. An order of cappellacci di zucca brings another round of homemade ravioli, these turned at the corners almost like wontons, filled with butternut squash and walnuts, and sauced with a light nap of tomato and brown butter; the plate is decorated with battered and fried sage leaves.
Across the wide, white-clothed table, Laura looks lovely -- smiling and relaxed. Feeling foolish (and a little goofy from the wine), we raise our glasses and quietly toast the holidays, each getting in a quick sip to make it official before the soft-footed waitress arrives with the dessert cart and begins giving smart descriptions of everything available. We agree on the tiramisu without even having to discuss it. Through the window beside our table, we can see the Christmas lights twinkling on the rails of the Mongolian BBQ joint across the street. Inside, the air is filled with the scent of fresh bread, good cooking smells coming from the huge open kitchen, and the sound of other couples clinking other glasses, making other toasts as the first seating of a busy Saturday starts winding down.
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