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Friends and Family Plan

Now, that's Italian: Tony Fanelli (left) and Gerald Martinelli keep the kitchen all in the family at Amici's.
Q Crutchfield

When the host of a popular national cooking show on bread devotes a segment to some of the country's best pizzas, you don't expect a Denver area pizzeria to rate a starring role. As anyone who's tried to find decent pizza in this town knows, you're better off showcasing kosher food in Salt Lake City or collard greens in Butte. We're just not known for our great pizza.

But Father Dominic Garramone, a Benedictine monk at the St. Bede Abbey in Peru, Illinois, who moonlights as the host of Breaking Bread with Father Dominic on PBS, had inside information on Amici's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria. Father Dom's grandfather, Jim Garramone, managed the original Coors baseball team in the late '30s and early '40s, then managed the M&O Cigars, our entry into the 1946 Victory League. In the years that followed, Jim owned many bars and restaurants across Denver -- one of the best-known was the Twin Gables bar out on Morrison Road -- and in the '70s, he went to work for his nephew, also named Jim, at the newly opened Amici's.

Over the years, Amici's has employed many members of the Garramone family, and although Father Dom grew up in Peoria, Illinois, he's very familiar with Denver's Italian community. "Everyone in the family talked about the Potenza Lodge out there, and Little Italy," Father Dom says. "Back then, everybody knew everybody, and even though we were in another state, we got together as much as we could and stayed very close."

Father Dom has kept in touch with his Colorado connections, including Uncle Bob Garramone, a second-generation Denverite who still frequents Amici's and other neighborhood Italian joints. "Amici's sort of grew out of friendships with all the old neighborhood gang," Bob says. "The people I grew up with going to Pagliacci's and Patsy's, some of them are still around, and although a lot of it has changed, there are a few things that held on." In the old days, Denver's Little Italy was the area in north Denver "from Tejon east," Bob remembers, and the Potenza Lodge was famous for its exclusivity. "Now I think you just have to be Italian to join. But back then, either you had to be from Potenza, Italy, or someone on your dad's side of the family had to be from Potenza," he explains. "It had to be your dad, because they only wanted people with original Potenza names. If it was your mom, forget about it."

It was Bob's grandfather who came to Denver directly from Potenza in 1901. While he earned his living as a brick-maker, other family members seemed to lean toward the food industry. Not only did Bob's father Jim help nephew Jim out at Amici's, but nephew Jim's father, Joe, also worked there. And Amici's is still in the extended "family," since the Garramones sold the restaurant in 1985 to Beverly and Bernie Fanelli, who, like the Garramones, had graduated from north Denver's Holy Family High School.

Beverly had worked at Amici's for years before she and her husband bought it, and now her own family members work there. Husband Bernie had been employed as a butcher, so he handles all of the meat served at the restaurant. Three daughters -- Stephanni Cito, Shawna Martinelli and Kelly Poole -- work the front of the house with Beverly and daughter-in-law Nicki Fanelli, while husbands Rick Cito and Gerald Martinelli run the kitchen with the Fanellis' son Tony and "our token Irishman and non-family member, Matt Scanlan," Beverly says. "And most of our servers have been there since the beginning, or near about."

But Amici's isn't just about family. In keeping with its name (amici means "friends" in Italian), the restaurant has a warm, welcoming atmosphere. The setting is casual and bustling, with tables jammed close together and covered with the usual checkered tablecloths. And the best dish to land on those tables is the pizza that Father Dom showcases on his show. (Breaking Bread with Father Dom airs every Saturday on KRMA-TV/Channel 6 at 4 p.m.; the pizza episode is scheduled to run November 4.) When the Fanellis took over, they replaced most of the Garramone recipes, with one notable exception: the pizza dough. The dough is what makes these pies such standouts. The crust turns out thin but sturdy enough to hold the generous amount of toppings Amici's piles on; it also stays soft and just this side of too chewy, while the edges bubble up slightly, taking on a few air pockets and turning a crispy, crackly golden brown. (You can order a thicker crust for another 75 cents, but we found that it made for a heavier, more filling pizza with a much chewier crust and edges that were sometimes too hard to bite into.)

The topping choices are simple: You can get a green pepper pizza or a black olive pizza, an anchovy pizza or an onion pizza. Or you can mix any two or three of those items, or go for the deluxe, a combination of sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper and onion. Or you could stick to the plain pie: a well-crafted version with plenty of cheese, just enough on-the-sweet-side sauce to keep it moist, and that killer crust. We found that all of the toppings were quality items, with the veggies nicely diced, if barely cooked.

Once we moved past the pizza, though, we stumbled up against Amici's red sauce: bland, acidic and lacking in oomph. This wasn't an insurmountable obstacle with the baked rigatoni parmigiano or the stuffed manicotti, because the sauce bubbled up and mingled with the cheeses in each of those tasty dishes. But the mediocre sauce proved problematic for the homemade spaghetti and vermicelli. The pastas were the overwhelming taste in those dishes, since the scanty allotment of sauce quickly soaked into the porous fresh noodles. But both of those plates came with spongy, well-seasoned meatballs that contained plenty of oregano and gave off a warm garlic scent.

Amici's Italian salad was another pleasant surprise, interesting and enormous (on one visit, our party of six barely made a dent in one of the two platters brought to the table). It looked like a pizza on top of a lot of chopped iceberg lettuce; the kitchen didn't skimp on the pepperoni or grated mozzarella, either. Amici's makes its salad dressings in-house, and its herb-packed Italian version brought to mind the old Roman saying that it takes four people to make a good salad: A wise man to season it, a miser to put in the vinegar, a spendthrift for the oil, and a madman to mix and toss it. This dressing contained just the right amounts of the ingredients I could identify with certainty -- oregano, basil, garlic and fennel -- and the perfect ratio of vinegar to oil. The creamy-lumpy blue cheese was delicious, too, and while we weren't too excited about our server's suggestion that we mix together the ranch and Italian for a "Caesar-like" dressing, the ranch worked fine on its own.

Our server didn't limit herself to waxing poetic about dressings. She was friendly, chatty without being overbearing, and surprisingly efficient, as were all of the staffers we encountered at Amici's. But then again, they have to be efficient, because the restaurant is packed day and night. "We're kind of out there as far as location goes," says Beverly. "But we've just always been lucky to have this clientele that comes in regular, and they have for years, many of them from when the Garramones had it, and we want them to keep coming back. And most of them are coming in to share a couple of pizzas."

Father Dom thinks that makes sense. "Few other foods are as communal as pizza," he points out. "Everyone's sort of sitting around sharing this same food; it's just like breaking bread. People are always surprised to find out that monks love pizza. We have pizza parties all the time, and it's that sense of community, of being together, that seems to dominate the atmosphere. So when you find a good pizza place like Amici's, where the owners are into what they're doing, and they're doing it right, that can become like your second home."

Amen.

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Amici's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria

4300 Wadsworth Blvd.
Wheat Ridge, CO 80033

303-455-5585

www.fanellisamicis.com


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