PAST LA VISTA, BABY
So you want to open a restaurant? The recipe for success has gotten quite simple: pasta and whatever. The beauty of something made from flour and water and a little egg is that it goes with everything. Pasta with jalapenos! Pasta with 75 kinds of cheese! Pasta with a microbrew! Pasta with pasta!
Trendy pasta is so omnipresent that I was recently overwhelmed by the desire to slip into something a little more comfortable, like a slow-cooked ragu, a chunky minestrone or anything blanketed alla parmigiana. My only requirement was that the dish had to taste real, as if the person in the kitchen came from Italy rather than from a business economics class. And at Marsala's Ristorante, the food and the Italian-born owners made the grade.
Part of their success stems from the fact that they've stayed the course. Guglielmo Mannone and his mother, Rose, helped run a restaurant in Boston also named Marsala's and owned by an uncle whom Guglielmo finally talked into taking a chance on Denver last year. "I've been in this city for seventeen years," Guglielmo, a hairdresser by day, says. "But my uncle, he didn't like Denver. He say, `These people, they do not know Italian food.' So he went back to Boston. But I stay and my mother stay, and we're trying to make it work."
It's not easy. Although Rose's heady cooking is straight from the restaurant's namesake region, Marsala's location is nowhere, squeezed into a strip mall in Westminster. "We should have gone to Cherry Creek," Guglielmo says with a big sigh. "But who could afford it at the time? And--I don't know. Would they appreciate it? They eat at Macaroni Grill. How can you people eat that stuff?"
Well, with Rose around, we don't have to. Her bread is enough to conjure up images of Tuscany by moonlight, all soft and warm and herb-scented, sort of like Rose herself. Although she speaks about five words of English, the language of food never fails her. In fact, when I pointed to the bread and asked, "Anise?" she gave me a broad grin and pinched my cheeks. Then she pushed her hands at me and told me to eat some more.
No problem, since we were working on the antipasti of pan-fried butterfly shrimp and calamari ($5.95), a nicely priced portion big enough for three--unless the three love it as much as we did (we were reduced to splitting the last shrimp into three pieces). Both the shrimp and the squid had been sparsely coated with breadcrumbs and sauteed in scant amounts of butter and olive oil and a generous amount of garlic, with a little parsley and oregano sprinkled over for good measure. The same herbs figured prominently in the minestrone ($1.95 for a cup), a mellow version of the Italian staple. Rose knows how to use her bean--the cannellinis tucked among the long-simmered vegetables were tender but not mushy, a sure sign that the minestrone was fresh. Its meaty broth was enhanced by a light touch with the plum tomatoes and a heavy hand with the freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. Next to the soup, the iceberg-tomato salad was an unsophisticated snore ($1.95...for iceberg and a tomato wedge).
An order of fettuccine Alfredo ($7.95) brought an unusually peppery take on this heart-attack-on-a-plate. Copious amounts of white pepper cut through some of the richness of the butter-cream sauce, and for the first time, I was able to actually finish a whole portion of Alfredo. My companion had no trouble polishing off the eggplant lasagne, either; it was more eggplant and mozzarella than noodle and drenched in excellent red sauce, all thick and tomatoey with its acid cut and sweetened by carrots. But the portion of gusto vivo ($9.95) was so huge, there was no getting around a doggy bag. The name means "a live taste," and this invention of Guglielmo's offered just that. Five large shrimp had been tossed with garlic, then strewn across a mound of fettuccine and a chunky, olive-filled marinara spiced with crushed red-pepper flakes and parsley. The result was a pungent pasta, an updated twist on puttanesca (minus the anchovies) with a traditional flavor.
The obvious ending--at least in this country--to such an Italian repast was the cannoli ($2.50), a homemade shell packed with not-too-sweet ricotta. We got extra flavoring with ours: The waitress didn't like the way it sat askew on the plate she placed in front of us, so she picked up the dessert with her bare hands and gave it a twist. Since she was obviously new to the job--earlier she'd endeared herself to us by filling our wineglasses to nearly overflowing--we forgave her, especially after Rose came out and offered us a plate filled with chicken cacciatore. A large party across the room had ordered it for the whole table, and Rose had made too much. Although we were stuffed, we were still game, and this pile of poultry cooked "hunter's style" turned out to be the best thing we ate all night--mushrooms, onions, carrots, tomatoes and a bit of Marsala wine had fused with the chicken until the meat was falling off the bones. Between the cacciatore and Rose, we were almost able to forget that we were sitting in a drab, poster-filled plaza space.
There's much more atmosphere at Patsy's Inn Italian, a northwest-Denver institution run for the past fifteen years by part-owner Mary Lansville (partner Tony Broncucia joined her in 1992). Filled with high-backed wooden booths, red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and Italian men wearing fedoras, Patsy's dining room is low-key and well-worn, and the food has a similar feel. There's that tired iceberg salad (complete with bottle-flavored dressing), the desserts come from a bakery and the red wines are often chilled, but there's a comforting familiarity to the food. "The landlord's family started the place years before I came along," Lansville says. "That's where the `Patsy' came from. The recipes are from them, although we added a few of our own."
One that caught our eye was the appetizer of lupine beans ($2.50), which arrived as a bowl full of, well, beans. "I call them `Italian popcorn,'" Lansville says. "Once you start eating them, you find that you keep nibbling away." Yeah, but only if you're a big fan of what is essentially an enormous lima bean. "We like to surprise this new generation with these old Italian foods," Lansville continues. "We're getting that new artsy crowd in on the weekends, and you'd be amazed that they go for these old favorites." Like the starter of cherry peppers ($2.50): young bell peppers, pickled and spicy and far more addictive than the beans.
The rest of the menu was more predictable, much of it a variation on the "spaghetti with" theme. The spaghetti, along with the rest of the pasta, is made fresh for Patsy's; the "withs" include sausage, meatballs, chicken livers, and olive oil and garlic (no aglio e olio here). The simplicity of the last ($5.75) appealed to us, but the garlic came out overdone and bitter. At least it was there, though, which is more than could be said for the alleged garlic in the garlic bread ($1.60 for a half-loaf). Fortunately, Patsy's signature sauce was fairly garlicky itself and pleasantly heavy on the tomato paste. We slurped the sauce off the ravioli and meatball ($6), fat, cheese-filled pasta sided by a hefty round of onion-studded ground beef, and also enjoyed it with the eggplant parmesan ($7.25), layers of paper-thin eggplant interspersed and coated with cheese.
The best use of Patsy's sauce, however, was on the meat lasagne ($6), which our waitress warned was not the Americanized pasta casserole we might be accustomed to eating. And it wasn't, thank God. Underneath that old-style sauce, the space between the yielding noodles was jam-packed with herb-filled meat and a mere smattering of parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.
Now, that's Italian.
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