Tom Sumner was wise to eschew typical Italian fare when he opened his Trattoria Stella, since Denver has more than its fair share of fair-to- middling red-sauce joints. And then there are those rare, old-time eateries that rise way above the rest, like Dardano's, at 11968 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood.
The original Dardano's was a tiny pizzeria that Ernie Dardano opened 41 years ago in the University Hills shopping center; not long after, he opened a second location in Villa Italia. In 1976, he and his wife, Velma, built the building they've occupied ever since, eventually selling the other locations. They certainly didn't need the space: Dardano's is one of the largest restaurants in the area. Upstairs, a series of rooms -- including the main dining room, where a window seat nets you a wonderful mountain view -- seats a total of 220 diners; the downstairs includes a banquet area that's ladled out an ocean's worth of Italian wedding soup. The building also holds two kitchens and a large lounge, which has a way of making the whole place seem like a smoking section, especially if you wander in through the wrong door.
Son Dennis takes care of most of the day-to-day operations, although Mom and Dad still come in to keep an eye on things and do some of the cooking. "Since we're an evening restaurant, we kind of all take turns at the cooking," says Dennis. "My dad's 74, but he still makes the breads and the pastas, and my mom, who is an awesome cook, does the minestrone and some of the sauces. The recipes are from all of us, and we enjoy it so much I guess we kind of look at it as an indulgence to make the dishes the way we like them."
A love of food runs through the extended Dardano familia -- another branch of the group, the Belfioris, became famous in Denver for their homemade sausages. At Dardano's, in fact, the sausages are about the only things that aren't made from scratch on the premises. All that homework shows: The homemade pastas are thick and soft, the bread is spongy fresh, the meatballs -- big, fat wads of sauce-soaked meat -- are out of this world, and the red sauce is sublime. We tried it on the lasagna ($8.65 for a half order), a three-inch-high dense cake of homemade noodles layered with sausage and ricotta, with plenty of mozzarella that makes everything stick to your fork on its way to your mouth. And, of course, we got more sauce with the spaghetti and meatballs ($7.80 for a half order). The linguine vegetable primavera ($8.95) featured a rich, cheese-thickened cream sauce that coated every last broccoli flowerette and carrot coin. Since all meals come with bread, a tummy- warming minestrone or simple salad, and a small wedge of Dardano's fluffy, feather-light cheesecake, I highly recommend the half-order entree for all but the most voracious of appetites.
While Dardano's continues to exhibit staying power, another one of my favorite red-sauce joints, Geppetto's , is apparently closed; the phone's disconnected at its 699 West Littleton Boulevard address -- a former church that the brothers Gigli ( Maurizio and Massimo ) had transformed into one of the cutest eateries around. They also made the best pasta e fagioli I've had outside of Tuscany, so I hope they haven't disappeared for good.
Also gone is La Brasserie, which had filled the former home of La Coupole at 2191 Arapahoe Street for a few short months; La Brasserie's departure comes as no surprise to anyone who tried to get some actual food out of that chaotic kitchen. A sadder loss is Sweet Surprise, the little bakery and sandwich shop that had operated out of the Barth Hotel at 1514 17th Street. But this closure was no surprise, either; as one former aficionado of the teeny Sweet Surprise says, "There are so many more choices downtown than there were when I started going there."
Carrie Hessel , marketing director for the Lodo Restaurant Group , took me to task (on the Westword Web site, no less!) for my April 13 "Tex-Mexican Standoff" review of Señorita's Cantina (1700 Wynkoop Street) and Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant (1525 Blake Street). In particular, Hessel criticized me for "implying" that LoDo had until recently offered nothing better than "mediocre Mexican" -- when her group's Croc's Mexican Grill has been operating out of 1630 Market Street for years.
Although I did give Croc's a Best Margarita award in both our 1996 and 1997 Best of Denver issues, I don't recall ever lauding its food. Despite Hessel's assertion that Croc's is "the progeny of Señor Frog's -- the most notable Mexican food chain IN THE WORLD," my meals there have been no more exciting than those at any average Mexican chain IN THE WORLD. In fact, mediocre is a kind word for the food I've tried there. Still, the place is fun as heck, especially if sweaty frat boys are your favorite drinking companions.
Which, truth be told, they sometimes are.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.