Mouthing Off

Sonny daze: Rando "Sonny" Santino--saint or sinner? The restaurant industry loves nothing more than a good food fight, and these days the rumblings always return to the owner of Santino's, at 1939 Blake Street.

In one corner are the people who believe the rumors that Sonny is a monster, a maniacal control freak who has terrorized his customers and his employees. And in the other corner are Sonny and the Santino's employees--some still working for him, some who've quit--who think he's a misunderstood, overworked first-time restaurateur who's been victimized by the media and some inexperienced help.

It's a little hard to sort out the tangle, but here goes:
Santino's, which opened in August with a massive, celebrity-studded bash (several athletes have invested in the venture, including Larry Walker, who also has a place bearing his name nearby in LoDo), had only been serving a few weeks when Sonny had Denver Post sportswriter Adam Schefter thrown out. His crime? Allegedly "inviting" Larry Herz, Sonny's arch-enemy and the former owner of Carmine's on Penn (where Sonny served as chef), into Santino's during a birthday party for a mutual friend of Schefter's, Herz's...and Sonny's. Schefter denies asking Herz inside--"I made a joke that it was too bad Larry couldn't come to the party," he explains, "and Larry was at the Rockies game that night and decided to drop in for a minute"--but pleads guilty to being irritated that a cop got involved in his permanent removal from the eatery.

On his way home from Santino's, Schefter ran into a sportswriter pal from the Rocky Mountain News, and so Norm Clarke's next column included a sketchy report of the incident. The following day, Clarke offered an embellished version. And after that, just about everyone who had been at the party, including the birthday boy, declined to go on record about the incident. As one guy says, "I don't want Sonny mad at me. The guy's a loose cannon." Adds another former employee, "Sonny is a very sick person. I don't want anything to do with him."

But Sonny--who once got into a fistfight with an employee at Carmine's while several witnesses watched--claims he harbors no ill will toward anyone other than Herz, who he says put him in the food-stamp line when "Larry promised me Carmine's and then backed out of the deal." (Why Sonny had to resort to food stamps in a town full of restaurants dying for a competent chef is a question that remains unanswered.) Herz, who disputes Sonny's account of the Carmine's deal, says he stopped in Santino's only because he wanted to wish his friend a happy birthday and didn't expect Sonny to be out in the dining room. "If a friend of yours is having a birthday party, it seems reasonable that you can stop in to say happy birthday," Herz adds. Beyond that, he, too, declines to say more.

Quick on the heels of the Schefter incident came a mass exodus of employees from the kitchen and the front of the house. One of those who left was chef Mark Gordon, who'd also worked with Sonny at Carmine's; he wants everyone to know he didn't quit because of Sonny. "I left Santino's because my wife is having a baby in two weeks," Gordon explains. "I also have a two-year-old, and with working eighty, a hundred hours a week to get this restaurant opened, I had no time for my family. I had to get my priorities straight. There'll be another restaurant to work in, but my new baby will only arrive once."

Gordon takes responsibility for another situation that made its way into Clarke's column: booting a liquor rep from the Santino's account. "Listen, we were getting enough bad press over the Adam Schefter incident, because he's a media guy and he has all these friends," Gordon says. "So this wine rep, I thought she was getting too personal here, wanting to butt into stuff--like saying we needed more pasta on the menu. And she's friends with Penny Parker (of the Denver Post). So I thought, this is bad news and we should get somebody else, start with a clean slate. I didn't fire the company, I just asked for a new rep." Gordon didn't even tell Sonny about it--"I figured he had enough to worry about," he says, "and it was my decision to make"--and Sonny says he didn't find out about it until he read yet another Norm Clarke column.

Another story circulating in the restaurant biz never made it into print: the one about a woman suffering from cancer who's on a high-acid diet and was reportedly refused a plain sliced tomato at Santino's. According to the rumor mill, Sonny told the waitress, "We don't do special orders," and when the waitress refused to obey him, he fired her. Wrong. Gordon says he was manning the kitchen when the incident occurred and initially asked the waitress to see if a caprese dish of tomatoes and mozzarella would do. When the waitress, Tonya Cavallaro, reported that the woman didn't want the caprese, Gordon told her to charge $2.95 for a tomato.

The waitress, however, thought that was too much--I have to say I agree with her--and, inexperienced and embarrassed, avoided the table. When the woman came to the kitchen to inquire about the tomato, which was sitting in the window ready to go out, Gordon took Cavallaro into his office and straightened everything out. Sonny went to the table to apologize, and the tomato arrived. And obviously, Cavallaro wasn't fired, because she called me from the restaurant to leave a message on my voicemail corroborating Sonny's version of that story.

But the food fight continues. Clarke reported this past Sunday that a Santino's investor, Jon Barocas, sent him an e-mail message that read, "Stop in and write something positive about the food...But before you go in, be sure and put your patch over the other eye so you can see things more clearly." That charming sentiment echoes what Sonny himself said to me two weeks ago: "I know Norm Clarke has his spies here. Hell, I'll bet they're even wearing eye patches, since they're obviously not seeing things here very clearly."

Sonny admits that throwing Schefter out "was a stupid thing to do," but he says he sees red when it comes to Herz. He's also angry that "all of these people writing about me haven't even eaten here."

But I have.
Not surprisingly, given how much attention Sonny is devoting to things other than Santino's food, eating at his place isn't much of a treat these days. When I dropped in for lunch last week I got mediocre service, but even a great waiter wouldn't have made up for the watery, bland tomato sauce that seemed to come with everything. (There must be a big vat of it somewhere in the kitchen.) The sauce came on the side of the stromboli ($4.25), which sported a very dark-brown crust that was nearly impenetrable with a knife. When I showed the thing to the waiter, he told me, "Sonny likes to darken the crust."

He also must like to bake the special of the day, pre-cooked penne ($5.95), until it resembles Styrofoam peanuts in only enough watery, bland tomato sauce to color it orange. There was supposed to be some ricotta in there somewhere, but all we could find were wads of mozzarella mixed in with the crunchy penne. We sent both of the dishes back half-eaten, and no one seemed to care.

Since we were still hungry and we'd already ordered a pizza to go, we asked the waiter to bring it to the table instead. We'd asked for a thin crust with cheese, sausage, onion and mushroom ($15). (Note to Sonny: Something done in the Naples style should be billed as napoletana, not napolitan.) Although the pizza crust wasn't as dark as the stromboli's had been, it was just as chewy.

Santino's lunch menu is essentially New Jersey Italian deli--cold subs, hot subs, pizza, a pasta special of the day and a "tuna bowl" salad, whatever that is--which makes me suspect that Sonny wants to attract the baseball crowd at noon and lure a more upscale clientele at night. But no one dressed for a game would feel comfortable eating here, and business types don't like to have meatballs and sauce all over their ties.

By all appearances, this seems to be an ill-conceived restaurant run by someone who's dynamite in the kitchen--the food Sonny did at Carmine's was exceptional--but who needs to get some decent help.

"This is a 10,000-square-foot place," says Gordon. "The first manager he hired just couldn't handle something this big, and so now Sonny needs someone good who can let him take care of the food.

"I think Sonny's really being portrayed wrongly. I don't really understand it, other than maybe it sells."

But his food won't, unless Sonny gets some help soon and returns to what first won him fans: his cooking. "These recipes are Sonny's mother's recipes," Gordon adds. "His mother passed away before Carmine's opened, and when these recipes started becoming popular, there were tears in his eyes."

Who's crying now?
More brew-ha-ha: The Great American Beer Festival brings 1,700 beers to Currigan Hall October 2-4; the fest's added a Saturday afternoon tasting (12:30-4:30 p.m.) to supplement the traditional Friday and Saturday night tastings (5:30-10 p.m.). For details, call 447-0126 or visit the festival Web site at; tickets are $28 in advance and $30 at the door.

On October 5, Scotch drinkers can wet their whistles at the Wynkoop Brewing Co., where Scotch authority Michael Jackson will, according to the 'koop, "convince you to never bother with vodka again." (Beer, of course, is always acceptable.) The cost is $50, which includes port-finished and Madeira-finished Glenmorangie, three Balvenies and a rare "black" Scotch, as well as a Scottish buffet; call 297-2700.



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