Reddy, Willing and Able
Service with a smile.
Not harried help with a grimace.
Not a smile paired with the total cluelessness that you might actually need a fork to get that food into your mouth and that you might want your meal before it is the temperature of that guy's body they found on Mt. Everest.
I'm talking about service that makes sure you have everything you need; service that checks back in again before the bill is slapped down; service that suggests you might want to reward it at some point. And the cherry on top: Service that doesn't try to make you feel bad that you're being waited on.
It's out there. And in places where you'd least expect it -- in restaurants where the waitstaff isn't pulling in $50 a table and the atmosphere doesn't make you nervous that dog hair from your suit is going to leap onto the tablecloth. Places where "No problem" comes as easily as "I'll take that when you're ready."
Places like Papa J's Italian Restaurant and Lounge.
Of course, unlike so many upstart eateries these days, Papa J's has had some time to practice the art of service. This Westminster spot has been serving up red sauce since 1976, when Julius and Antoinette Giraldi decided that between his artistic skills and her recipes, they could make a go of it. Now in their eighties, the Giraldis have long since "retired," but Papa J still comes in every day for three or fours hours to make some sauce and check on things, and every Saturday night he plays violin for his customers.
Nine years ago, one of the Giraldis' sons, Mark, took over. "They'd been in the restaurant business since the Depression," Mark says. "And we all kind of wanted to keep it in the family. Through the years, everyone in the family, and even our friends, helped out with the place, but I wound up being the one who wanted it the most."
It would be hard to let go of a place with such a story, one that's told all over its walls. Papa J's may have the typical red-checkered tablecloths and grapevines hanging from the ceiling that other Italian joints have, but it's the only one where nearly all the possible wall space is covered with some 200 celebrity caricatures, all drawn by Papa J and most of which were eventually signed by the celebrities themselves. Frank's there, and he signed. Bing Crosby, Bill Cosby, Pat O'Brien, Mitzi Gaynor, Joe Namath, John Elway -- they all signed. The Pope didn't sign.
It looks like Elvis signed, but it's a fake. There was one with a real Elvis signature once, but Papa J gave it away a long time ago to a little girl who smiled at him. "That's my dad," Mark says, sighing a little. "Can you imagine what that would be worth?"
Probably less than Papa J's own smile, since that's what got all of those celeb signatures to begin with.
"When all of these people would come to entertain at the old Elitch's or at the Denver Center, Papa J would draw their pictures, and then he'd go down to the show and somehow talk his way in to seeing them," Mark says. "He'd make them sign it, and then he'd ask them to come out and eat at the restaurant. And a lot of them did. And if they said they didn't have time or couldn't, he'd make up a big thing of food and take it back to them. And to this day, you'd be surprised at how many of them still keep in touch, send notes and call, send updated photos and autographs. It's amazing."
Papa J doesn't draw anymore, and Mark's not an artist. "Now I have to keep the restaurant alive, make it competitive with the chains, and it's a lot harder than it was back then for my father," he says. "We're lucky, though, that we have people here who've been with us for fifteen, twenty years."
It probably has more to do with the kind of place Papa J's must be to work rather than luck, though, because although one server has been there for nineteen years and a cook for twenty, most of the staff is young. But you'd never know it by the way they act, like the teenaged gal who asked me if I needed her to escort my daughter to the ladies' room. Since I was trying to settle the other one into a booster, I was grateful. "No problem," she said.
And that's how the rest of two meals went, with all the details -- extra napkins, drink refills, to-go containers, silverware with every course, more butter, less air conditioning -- anticipated and taken care of promptly and with so much good cheer that I thought Bing had leapt off the wall and we were in the middle of "White Christmas."
And throughout, someone stopped by at reasonable intervals to see if everything was okay.
It was more than okay. Papa J's is the quintessential red-sauce joint, the kind of place you should get to immediately when the craving for a big plate of spaghetti with meatballs hits. Because here, not only is the sauce homemade, the spaghetti itself is homemade, the meatballs are homemade and the soup base is homemade. If only they could figure out a way to mass-produce their servers and sell them to the rest of the city.
The food is good enough, though, that even bad service wouldn't keep me away.
I'd drive for two hours to pick up a batch of the minestrone, which along with a standard salad (good blue cheese dressing) and bread -- six slices to a table, divided into three pairs that were each individually wrapped in plastic -- came with the entrees. The soup was so full of cauliflower, several kinds of beans, celery, carrots, tomatoes and pasta (both macaroni and spaghetti noodles) that there was hardly any room left for the broth, which also tasted of many vegetables, all of which had been boiled down into one delicious elixir.
It's easy to bulk up on that stuff and be in trouble when the main course arrives. The lasagna ($7.95) was eight inches square, and slices of sausage and chunks of meatball -- surprise bites that were like periodic glimpses of heaven -- had been tucked into a grand mesa of noodles layered with so much ricotta cheese it defied the laws of physics. The glue that held it all together and smothered the whole plateau was Papa J's red. It's the smartest thing anyone's ever done with a tomato, all gravy-thick and tomato-pastey, with the intense Old World flavor of something that's been sitting on the stove reducing for decades. It also blanketed the ravioli ($3.25 for a kids' portion, $7.75 for a regular size), which featured more homemade pasta, this time stuffed with an exquisite herbed ricotta mixture that seemed as though it had been whipped with a little bit of cream to make it lighter and smoother, which made each bite a sensual experience. The sauce also graced the freshly made spaghetti, which was fatter than store-bought and in huge portions; a request for more sauce on the side was cheerfully accommodated and at no extra charge.
Each entree came with our choice of sausage or meatball, and it was a toss-up as to which was better. The thick sausage was more on the sweet side, with a tiny pepper bite to it and a minimum of greasy juices. The meatball was the kind that relied on beef rather than bread and herbs for texture and flavor. Both were large and filling.
On my second stop at Papa J's, I knew I had to try some non-red sauce items. That's how I discovered that the fettuccine Alfredo ($8.25) was an excellent choice -- heavier on the parmesan and cream than the butter, making it less rich and, thus, we were able to eat way more of it than we should have. The aglio e olio ($6.95) was fresh garlic that had been sautéed in olive oil until the raw bitterness had just cooked off but before the overcooked bitterness set in. It tasted exactly like that good garlic smell.
As good as those were, however, it was impossible to resist the lure of the red, and so we also savored the Papa J's house specialty, braciola ($9.75), the Italian classic of well-pounded steak rolled up around a stuffing of pepperoni, bacon, eggs and cheese, all well-seasoned before being browned and baked, plopped down on a bed of spaghetti and drenched in that sauce. The red was also a major component of the calzone ($8.95), Mama J's super version, a foot and a half long, with sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, green chile strips, mushrooms, mozzarella and ricotta, all wrapped up in the pizza dough and baked until everything fused. And although it had been a tough choice deciding which pizza to order, we were delighted with the Old Country ($11.25 for a 14-inch), Papa J's thick, chewy crust slicked with olive oil and topped with oregano, fresh basil and roma slices, all of which had been heavily sprinkled with Romano cheese.
If you have kids, there's no contest between the cakelike tiramisu ($2.75) or the pizza fretes ($1.50) for dessert. The tiramisu was espresso-heavy and rich, a wonderful finale to a fine Italian meal, but who can resist the idea of Italian sopaipillas, for that's what the fretes were, little pillows of pizza dough deep-fried, brushed with butter and dusted with cinnamon sugar, a big plateful for under two bucks, served with a squeeze bottle of honey. We wolfed those right down and ordered more, our enthusiasm and the egging-on of the servers inducing the table of six next to us to do the same.
I swear Ol' Blue Eyes, from the wall, was smilin' at us, too.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.