I can only imagine what Chauncey Smaldone, the youngest of the loan-sharking, book-making Smaldone brothers, would've said when Lou's Food Bar hung out its shingle down the street. For decades, Smaldone ran Gaetano's, a cherished Italian-American restaurant that his family founded in 1947, and he no doubt would've seen Lou's — owned by Frank Bonanno, a Jersey boy of Sicilian descent — as cause for a turf war, especially when Lou's started beating Gaetano's at its own game.
Photos: Behind the Scenes at Gaetano's
But by the time Lou's had upstaged Gaetano's as a neighborhood favorite, nabbing a 2011 Best of Denver award for Best Spaghetti and Meatballs and becoming the restaurant that parents take kids to when no one wants to cook, Smaldone was already seated at the great gambling table in the sky, and Gaetano's was in corporate hands. And instead of settling the score with nighttime raids, the current owners of Gaetano's, BW Holdings, took a decidedly more modern approach: They knocked down walls, revamped the menu, and hired a new chef.
3760 Tejon Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; 5-10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Risotto croquettes $5
Polpette in tomato sauce $6
Gaetano's Caesar Photos: Behind the Scenes at Gaetano's
Gorgonzola flatbread $8
Gnocchi with brown butter $7
Chicken parmigiana $16
Pan-seared lemon fish $16
Pork chops $18
When the changes were unveiled three months ago, they came as a shock to generations of north Denverites, who'd grown up over plates of Gaetano's spaghetti and watched their parents down Manhattans at the iconic bar. Many feared the worst, having watched the same holding company renovate another Denver institution, the Wazee Supper Club, to less than rave reviews. Fortunately, in the case of this storied establishment, the worst has not materialized.
Even fans of the original admit that the new space looks terrific, a spot-on combination of old and new. Gone is the long brick wall along Tejon Street, which made the interior so dark (and so good for shady dealings). In its place are floor-to-ceiling windows, which usher in precious little daylight — not now, at least, when night falls before five — but plenty of atmosphere. The room is still kept dark, with trim black pendant lamps and flickering candles allowing you to see, from the corner of your eye as you bite into warm, crusty ciabatta, the somewhat glamorous streaks from passing headlights and the constant red glow of the Gaetano's sign. This warmth is echoed by red lighting behind the bar and red-lit columns by the burgundy tufted booths (installed, by the way, so that no one's back is to the door).
Gone, too, are the tables by the bar and the framed articles about the "family business." No one should mind, though, given the thoughtful replacements. Green booths, open on both ends, sit close enough to the booze that you're buoyed by the barman's happy chatter without having to endure the pain of a chrome stool. (Not that people complain about the stools; one night, an older patron nursed an antipasto and a glass of red throughout my entire dinner, while several younger groups laughed nearby over specialty cocktails.) Mural-sized snapshots of prominent north Denver figures, hair coiffed and standing by vintage cars, fill the back walls. And in case you're wondering, the Botticelli-like Venus —cause of many a kid's wide eyes — still hangs.
Feelings are more mixed about the menu, which was revamped shortly before renovation by Chris Cina, executive chef for Ghost Plate & Tap, another BW Holdings property; Daniel Ramirez, a Mexican-born, Italian-trained chef, most recently of Pagliacci's, took over in early fall. Hoping to capture the charm of an Italian trattoria, Cina did away — on the menu, at least — with many Italian-American comfort foods, including pizza and spaghetti with meatballs. In their place are fancy-sounding dishes: risotto croquettes, pork chops with orange gremolata, flatbread with Gorgonzola. Meatballs are still available, but as a $6 appetizer (polpette) or a $3 accompagnamento. And while there's pasta carbonara and Bolognese, pasta with red sauce isn't listed on the menu as an entree, just a $6 side. The changes can seem a bit pricey and confusing, not just to old-timers but to newbies, too, who come to a restaurant such as this with certain expectations. The menu's layout increases the confusion. A section called "prima (to begin)" appears not on the first page but the second, with some dishes you'd want to begin with, such as bruschetta, and others, such as heavier lemon risotto, that you wouldn't. Meanwhile, other starters, including olives and crostini, are listed up front. Pastas constitute a stand-alone category, except for a few that are lumped with vegetables and sausage in the "to add" category, while lasagna appears in neither place. This old-time favorite is buried among six proteins under "posto (to continue)."
When in doubt, go with dishes rooted in the old Gaetano's. That polpette gets you a trio of tender meatballs, with just enough marinara to accent the all-beef flavor. They outshine the new risotto croquettes, which are awkward to eat because the green-olive relish is served under, not atop, the fried wedges. (Who wants to use a fork for what should be finger food?) More successful are the revamped Caesar salad, with whole leaves of romaine drizzled with creamy, anchovy-spiked dressing, and the crispy flatbread, with oven-roasted tomatoes, sliced fingerlings and Gorgonzola.
The old-school entrees don't disappoint, either. Gnocchi, listed as a side but hearty enough to serve as a main, are plump and chewy, with plenty of ridges to capture the brown butter. Lasagna features fresh pasta — not yet made in-house, though Ramirez hopes to change that soon — loaded with the right ratio of crumbled sausage and cheese. Chicken parmigiana is pounded until tender, hand-breaded, then fried until it reaches the perfect intersection of crisp but not dried out. And while it's not listed on the menu, you can still get pasta with thick rings of spicy, fennel-spiked sausage, green peppers and red sauce. Servers arrive quickly with fresh parmesan and pepper, and comply, smiling, when kids ask for lots of cheese.
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Newer entrees tend to be an offer you can — and probably should — refuse. Mushroom ravioli are served with sliced oyster mushrooms in a bowl of brown liquid that tastes more like water than parmesan-porcini broth. Pan-seared lemon fish tempts with a great sear but lacks brightness (the lemon refers to the fish's type, not citrus), and the accompanying tomato risotto is heavy and wet. A pork chop — billed as "chops," plural — promises loads of flavor, but the half-teaspoon of orange gremolata (a mix of parsley, garlic and orange zest) can't begin to cover the hefty chop. Broccoli rabe, served on the plate with fried red potatoes, waffles between woefully over- and under-salted.
Ramirez, who inherited the menu and is still working out kinks in execution, recognizes its shortcomings, some of which — like the formerly inauthentic but now delicious tiramisu — he's already addressed. "Most of the time people are looking for pasta or traditional dishes like chicken piccata or chicken marsala," he admits, adding that he's asked corporate for a green light to restore some of these items.
In the meantime, this onetime architecture student — who switched directions and spent his culinary career in Italian restaurants across the West and in Rome — is doing his best to keep customers happy. He serves longtime favorites such as the "half and half" — spaghetti and ravioli with either a meatball or sausage — as a lunch special and goes so far as to buy ingredients and invite guests back another night when they request something he can't make with what's on hand. He's also trying to care for his staff, insisting that the morning crew sit down together for a family meal, as was the custom in Rome.
With the heart of an Italian grandmother and the skills of a trained chef, Ramirez seems to have what it takes to bring Gaetano's food on par with the decor. And with time, who knows? He just might settle the score with Lou's.