More than fifty years ago, Sicilian immigrant Frank Grandinetti opened Pagliacci's in what was then an Italian neighborhood in northwest Denver. "The restaurant was born out of this love between Frank and his wife, Thelma," says Rose Ann Langston, the Grandinettis' niece and Pagliacci's current owner and manager. "In fact, you could say this restaurant has been a continuing testament to their love of food and their love of family."
The Grandinettis met in 1940, when Frank worked as a fruit and vegetable vendor on the streets of what's now known as LoDo. "My uncle was this handsome Sicilian who sold his produce in what was the manufacturing area of lower downtown," Langston explains. "Thelma, then Thelma Balzano, worked on the second floor of a garment manufacturer, and one day she leaned out of the window to flirt with this handsome vendor who was down on the street. Frank tossed her an apple, and that was the beginning of a long partnership that was nurtured by an appreciation of good food and a sense of fun."
Good food and fun are still available in abundance at Pagliacci's, although the restaurant has gone through a few changes since 1946. "We've had to bow to the demands of the neighborhood and of the tastes of Denver diners," says Langston, whose son, Mark Gonzales-Langston, plans to take over the restaurant's operations as soon as he finishes his business degree. "Since Frank and Thelma had no children, I took over in 1978, and we'd already moved away from the steaks and lobsters that they served when they first opened. They were doing frogs' legs and real fancy food, because that's what people wanted then. But we've had to change, adding things like fried calamari and risotto that no one ate then."
And another change is on its way: The foliage-sprouting, Italian statue-centered fountain that sits next to the ladies' room will soon be moved. Although the fountain is in need of repair--it leaks--long-delayed bathroom renovations make the move inevitable. "We finally have to change the bathrooms over to handicapped-accessible," Langston explains. "We'll redo the fountain somewhere else in the room."
They can't just get rid of it entirely. Like Pagliacci's name (opera buff Frank Grandinetti named his restaurant after Leoncavallo's clown-themed tragedy), the spumoni-colored lights in the ceiling and the bouffant-haired older server ladies who call everyone "honey," the waterfall helps the dining room scream, "That's Italian!" To be specific, the New York Italian of my childhood. One weekend every fall, we'd take the Greyhound from Pittsburgh to New York City, where we'd shop for school clothes and eat at whatever Italian eatery struck our fancy. No matter which restaurant we chose, they all smelled the same.
Just one whiff of Pagliacci's thick, gravy-like red sauce took me back decades. I started to feel like my legs were dangling over the booth and my feet weren't touching the floor. And then, with just one taste of Pagliacci's time-honored red, I was completely transported.
That first taste came with an appetizer order of calamari ($6.95) that was saved by the marinara. The squid, nicely coated with breadcrumbs and otherwise well-cooked, had been showered with so much salty parmesan cheese that the little bands were almost inedible. And without a dunk in the red sauce, they would have been. But that smooth, herb-flecked marinara--with its underlying sweetness balancing the tang of the tomatoes and just enough tomato paste to thicken the sauce but not turn it into glue--washed away the salty bite.
After that, our meal was flawless. The calamari was followed by Pagliacci's signature minestrone ($6.95 a la carte; it's still free with your meal, making it a true bargain), one of the many recipes that was passed on to Langston. A large pot of the tomato-based brew was set at the end of the table, and everyone helped themselves. Again and again. Soft-cooked vegetables--carrots, celery, onions, zucchini, potatoes, peas--had been combined with enough herbs and spices to give the soup that homemade taste. The minestrone came with a basketful of chewy-crusted, spongy-centered Italian bread that was ideally textured for slapping on two or three pats of semi-hard sweet-cream butter.
The bread was also optimal for sopping up the heavy waves of sauce left over from our entrees. The eggplant parmigiana ($14.95) was particularly well-done: The eggplant had been thickly sliced, thoroughly baked with mozzarella and parmesan, then slathered with that sauce. But the manicotti ($11.95) was no slacker, either, its fresh crepe noodles packed with ricotta and smothered with mozzarella. More cheese and more pasta in the baked ravioli ($12.95) offered yet another commendable variation on the sauce theme. But the one non-red-sauce item we tried, the fettuccine Alfredo ($12.95), was just as noteworthy: al dente noodles, just enough cream, not too much butter and lots of parmesan.
On a second visit, we skipped the red in order to see what else Pagliacci's was made of. Plenty, it turned out. An order of the risotto al salmone ($18.95) brought perfect Arborio rice in a light cream sauce sparked with chives and watercress and a hint of lemon; the salmon came in big, plush chunks. The shrimp scampi ($18.95) featured jumbo shrimp that benefited from the addition of capers to the garlic-infused white-wine-and-butter sauce, which had also been enhanced by shallots and lemon juice for a piccata-like effect. ("Scampi," by the way, is actually the Italian word for shrimp, and I've found no reliable resource explaining why Americans chose to name their creation "shrimp shrimp.") And the chicken cacciatore ($14.95) tasted as though someone's grandmother had made it--and made it wonderfully--with red and green peppers sweetening a spicy, fresh-tomato marinara that coated two pieces of tender sauteed chicken. (See Mouthing Off for the recipe.)
Dessert was done well, too. We dug into a rich, well-textured chocolate mousse and a respectable zabaglione-custard-topped tiramisu ($4.50) served in a coffee cup. Even the spumoni ($3.50) was top-notch, with chocolate, rum and pistachio flavors bursting through.
That's Italian, all right. I hope to still be eating at Pagliacci's fifty years from now.
Fifty-one years after the Grandinettis opened Pagliacci's, Sicilian immigrant Santino "Sonny" Rando opened Santino's a few blocks away from the garment district where Thelma and Frank once courted.
Rando, who grew up on a farm in Torre Faro, Sicily, came to Denver in 1993. In 1994, his cooking quickly made Carmine's on Penn one of the city's most popular restaurants. But after he and Carmine's owner Larry Herz parted ways, Rando started doing odd jobs around town, including some catering and private parties for major-league athletes. These guys loved Rando's food so much that they helped him open Santino's in August 1997--and they got dishes named after them as thanks.
The front of the menu explains that Santino's is a "work in progress." Over a year after the restaurant opened, this still seems to hold true. The dining-room decor, at least, appears to be complete: The former dairy barn (built in 1858, according to the menu--but that seems dubious, given that Denver wasn't even founded until that year) has been transformed into a comfortable space with exposed brick, hardwoods and candles that soften the cavernous feel. And the bathrooms are simply stunning. Less stunning is the menu, which is in the process of being revamped. At the moment, that means the prices and dish names are on one page and their descriptions, in tiny type and all jammed together, are on another, making choosing from the vast roster a formidable task. And the wine list mentions no years, so it's a crapshoot as to what you're getting.
What we got from the waitstaff was indifferent service at best, although considering the sorry state of service these days, I'll take indifference over being spat upon or completely ignored. Still, it would have been helpful for the server to stick around and portion out our main-course dishes, which are offered "family-style" as well as individually. As it was, the serving of fried calamari ($13.95) looked no larger than the portion you'd get for half the price at another restaurant; although the squid was evenly coated and seasoned, it wasn't worth the high ticket. And it would have been smart to use smaller shrimp in the scampi "chef" ($12.95) rather than five large ones. The four diners in our group each lunged rudely for that last shrimp, awash in Rando's mixture of garlic, mushrooms, white wine and sherry finished with cream. Besides, big shrimp are harder to cook, and these babies were tough on the outside. The sauce was wonderful, though, and fortunately, it also went well with the garlic rolls--specifically, the tops of the garlic rolls, since the bottoms were as hard as hockey pucks.
For our second course we sampled Mitchell's minestrone ($9.95 for sharing size), a bright-orange concoction of white beans, tubettini and various vegetables that suffered from too much salt. (Sadly, this bore no resemblance to the concentrated, intensely flavored soup Rando made at Carmine's.) We also dug into a bread salad ($13.95 for sharing size) that was ridiculously expensive for day-old bread cubes soaked (too much) in balsamic and tossed with a few diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onion. The promised roasted red peppers were nowhere to be found, and the buffalo mozzarella was rationed at two tiny chunks per person.
Former Av Curtis Leschyshyn was the apparent inspiration for the carbonara ($10.95), which had been made with too-salty bacon but otherwise was a commendable version of the rich dish, with red onions providing a sweet element. The "G-Man" ($12.95), named after The Fox radio personality, was a personable combination of blackened pheasant thigh meat tossed with our choice of farfalle (you also can get linguine, spaghettini, fettuccine, penne, pappardelle, farfalle or rigatoni) and sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus and mushrooms in a cream sauce. Too bad the black pepper on the pheasant obliterated any other tastes. The veal piccata ($12.95) featured four well-pounded veal medallions in a lackluster lemon and white-wine sauce and served with rigatoni--with nothing but a teaspoon of capers to save the dish from its whiteish-gray color scheme.
The best of our entrees was Sonny's gnocchi Napoli ($13.95), which boasted a fresh tomato sauce subtly flavored with fresh basil and Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese, which permeated the perfect potato-flour dumplings. Like the carbonara and the G-Man, though, this entree came in a too-small bowl (was the kitchen trying to make the portion look bigger?), and the first few bites were precarious.
Our desserts were generously portioned, but a few also carried hefty price tags. The Heath Bar cheesecake ($7.95) may have been two or three bites more than one person could finish, but it certainly wasn't worth eight bucks. While the tiramisu ($6.95) was arguably overpriced as well, I'd pay almost any price for this fantastic confection. It was covered with a light, fluffy zabaglione-like sauce and full of sinfully smooshy ladyfingers. And the canoli ($2.50) was a surprisingly good deal: An order brought two of the rich, sweet Sicilian specialties.
On a return visit, we continued the sporting theme. The Amy Van Dyken cioppino ($24.95)--the Olympian isn't an owner, the waiter explained, but a buddy--was a delightful, soupy mix of seabass, scallops, mussels, clams, shrimps and calamari swimming in a brandy-spiked, red-pepper-rich broth. The veal parmigiana ($22.95) was another winner, an ample portion of breaded, fried meat smothered in mozzarella and baked in Sonny's notable fresh marinara.
But once again, the garlic rolls were crusty on the bottom. And the bruschetta ($1.75) wasn't the masterful merger it had been at Carmine's, but rather an oily slick of too much garlic and salt.
Santino's may well be a work in progress, as the menu suggests, and it appears to be headed in the right direction. But at some point, people are going to want it finished--and I don't think Denver's willing to wait fifty years for that.
Pagliacci's, 1440 West 33rd Avenue, 303-458-0530. Santino's, 1939 Blake Street, 303-298-1939.
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