Remembrance of Things Pasta

"This is my last restaurant," says 61-year-old Roland "Papa" Canino. "Why does anyone open a restaurant anymore? I don't know how they do it. Too much competition with each other, and for employees. No, this is my last restaurant."
Roland opened Canino's Trattoria, allegedly his last restaurant, on South Downing four years ago--four long years ago. The only way he knows how to make sure everything is done to his exacting specifications is to arrive at the storefront spot by 4 a.m. five days a week and make all the sauces and breads by hand. He then spends the rest of the day shuffling back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, winding his way through the tables and calling out greetings peppered with "You like that?" and "Good, good."

It's like a scene from a classic Italian movie--or maybe a Disney cartoon. "Oh, he definitely reminds me of the Italian chef in Lady and the Tramp," says Deb, Roland's wife of three years. "If the neighborhood dogs knew they could just come to the back door and get a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, we wouldn't be able to get any people in here." As it is, the Caninos can barely fit their whole family in the restaurant, since Roland has nine children and seventeen grandchildren. His youngest daughter, Nicole, helped her father open this Canino's, and although she's almost finished earning her college degree, Roland thinks she'll stay in the restaurant business. "She's got it in her blood, I guess," he says.

The Canino veins must bleed marinara sauce. Like Nicole, Roland started working in the family business when he was nine or ten, starting in his father's American Beauty Bakery. For 35 years, that establishment kept north Denver supplied with bread. "My father was a rough, rough man," Roland remembers. "Every time I tried to cut a corner, he was there, and, boy, did he teach me not to do that." His dad had learned that from his own father, who ran Canino's Casino, "the first nightclub in Denver," at 43rd and Pecos in the Thirties. The philosophy was passed down to Roland's brother, Clyde, as well. "When we were little kids, we'd go into the bakery and watch our aunts," Roland says. "My Aunt Mary and Aunt Flo and Aunt Ange were all great cooks, and I started watching them make things, and then one day, I just took the bull by the horns and started cooking."

Roland's grandmother, Rose, worked in the bakery, too, and it was in her honor that Roland and his father opened Mama Rose's on South Federal in 1954. "Not fancy, but good pizza," he says. A decade later, he and his father and Clyde opened Canino's Pizzeria at University and Evans and, later, several locations of Tico's and Piccolo's, but eventually Roland bowed out of the family enterprise. "Let's just say that we decided we needed to be brothers more than we needed to be partners," he explains.

Roland started opening his own red-sauce spots, starting with Angie's at Leetsdale and Monaco, then Papa Canino's at Leetsdale and Mississippi, then Canino's in Cherry Creek, which he sold two years before opening Canino's Trattoria. Which, as he frequently reminds you, is his final restaurant. "I'm here to tell you, it's difficult," he says. "Nobody cares about quality anymore, especially not when there are more employers than employees."

But Roland clearly cares. That's evident before you even sit down--a nearly impossible feat on a weekend without a reservation, because the place is packed with regulars. And once we took our first bite of the warm, soft-crusted homemade rolls smeared with parsley-speckled gorgonzola butter, it was obvious why they keep coming back. Canino's commitment to quality shone throughout the meal. For starters, the appetizer anosta roma pepperoni ($6.25), a platter of fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and anchovies in olive oil, worked particularly well because of the low-salt-content, high-grade fishies. Another real catch was the frito misto calamari ($5.75), large rings of squid so evenly coated with oily breadcrumbs that they were more like onion rings. The calamari came with a side of homemade marinara--the kind that has to sit on the back burner for a while to get pasty--that was perfect for dipping. And while the dinner salad was pretty average under my choice of a rich, creamy gorgonzola dressing, the minestrone was a standout: oversized chunks of soft-cooked vegetables and big, torn hunks of beef, all crowded into a tomato-rich broth.

At first the broth in the cioppino ($13.75) seemed salty, but then it got addictive, and I finally resorted to using scraps of bread to get every drop into my mouth. The gently cooked shrimp, scallops and mussels in this fisherman's stew had been augmented with baby clams and the whole bowl strewn with shards of fresh basil. Another herb, this one fresh sage, gave depth to the veal saltimbocca ($12.50), which layered inconceivably tender veal "scallops" with prosciutto, provolone and fresh spinach. The veal came with a side of spaghetti coated with a simple, exquisite sauce made from fresh tomatoes. The sauces on the ravioli di spinaci tre formaggi ($8.75) and the spaghetti with meatball ($8.25) were more traditional, southern-Italian style: mixtures pumped full of herbs and so thick that they covered the noodles in crests.

The ravioli sauce did an encore appearance on lunch's lasagna di spinaci tre formaggi ($6.25), a dense package of noodles, cheese and spinach that was so large it defied finishing (see Mouthing Off for the recipe). Generous, too, was an order of pasta pesto ($6.25), with well-cooked fettuccine noodles tossed in a pine-nut-chunky garlic-and-basil blend. The antipasto misto panino ($5.50) packed all the important Italian sub ingredients--provolone, mozzarella, cappicola, salami, lettuce, tomato and onion, all saturated with a snappy vinaigrette--into one of Roland's just-baked rolls.

Among the very few things Canino's doesn't make in-house are the sorbets, which Roland imports from Italy. These flavor-concentrated concoctions are more like ice cream in texture and taste than a typical sorbet, and each one arrived in a fruit shell. We sampled the peach and the lemon ($3.50), then applied ourselves to a cannoli ($3.25) that offered two dining choices within its five-inch-long shell. One side contained a sweet cheese compound studded with chocolate chips, while the other side was plain.

That cannoli pretty much summed up the philosophy of the final restaurant in Roland Canino's fifty-year career. At Canino's, you can sit in a bustling area if you like your Italian noisy and family-like, or you can sit at a secluded corner table under woven grapevines and flickering lights. You can order your food plain, or you can order it fancy. Either way, you're guaranteed a good meal.

Just when you thought Denver dining was going to the dogs, Roland Canino saved his best for last.

While Canino's serves up the real thing, the massive new Maggiano's Little Italy in the Denver Pavilions is mock Italian, down to the red-and-white-checked tablecloths and the all-Frank, all-the-time soundtrack. (In the way-fancy ladies' room, one server confessed that she doesn't know how much more Sinatra she can take.) With its huge portions of fair-to-middlin' fare, Maggiano's is Il Fornaio meets the Cheesecake Factory, and since we already have one of each of those downtown, it's hard to imagine why Denver needs 450 more seats. (The concept comes by way of Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You, but four years ago Maggiano's merged with Brinker International, the folks that also brought you Chili's; Denver's is the ninth Maggiano's.) Still, the size of the meals explains some of the place's draw: Maggiano's wants to make sure you walk out of the place carrying more little bags with handles than the average credit-card-toting grandmother leaving a department-store cosmetics counter.

At lunch we began lining the ledge next to our table with doggie bags almost immediately. First to be set aside was the floury calamari ($7.95), the same limp, rubbery pieces that keep popping up all over town, here helped not at all by a too-tangy marinara sauce. We then added to our collection the hefty remains of two so-called small salads, one an oily but tasty spinach ($5.95) with gorgonzola, bacon and pine nuts, the other a jumble of iceberg and romaine lettuces topped with prosciutto that was supposed to be "crispy" but came out looking like canned bacon bits.

A heavy hand with the salt spoiled the mushroom ravioli al forno ($10.95), several extra-large noodle cases stuffed with criminis and suspended in a thick sauce that tasted like cream of saline solution. The sauce was better on the gnocchi ($10.95), thinly flavored with tomatoes and vodka but not sturdy enough to stand up to the chewy, doughy ricotta pasta.

By now we'd racked up two more bags, but we still decided to take on the obscenely sized chocolate zuccotto cake ($4.95), a luscious bombe of a chocolate cake tiered with sambuca-spiked mousse. The Roman-style tartufo ($5.50), an enormous truffle-shaped, ice cream-filled ball, might have proved just as delicious had we been able to pierce its overly chilled self; as it was, the thing was impenetrable. We couldn't take it home--it would have melted. And the stuff we were taking home was already the gustatorial equivalent of all wet.

On a second visit, we tried to order more modestly--and wisely. But the bowl of minestrone ($3.95) was more salty soup than you'd ever want to eat, and the small Caesar salad ($5.95) was bitterly garlicky, a big pile of watery romaine buried in gooey dressing. More garlic did in the four-cheese ravioli with pesto Alfredo sauce ($6.95), which probably would have been wonderful if the pesky pesto hadn't overpowered everything else on the plate. And the asparagus ($6.95) with parmesan and vinaigrette was greasy and stringy, as though it had been cooked ahead and reconstituted in oil.

This time, though, our entrees were acceptable, if not inspired. The spaghetti in meat sauce ($12.95) stained plenty of noodles with a thin but serviceable red sauce; the chicken scallopine ($13.95) in marsala smothered chicken breasts with a straightforward sauce. By far the best of the batch was the veal chop contadina-style ($26.95), a nicely broiled, prehistoric-sized curve of veal buried in an avalanche of sauteed bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and sausage, all of which gave the meat a rustic flavor and kept it moist.

Although our doggie bags were full and so were we, we ordered the tiramisu ($5.95), another monster portion. This version was somewhat light, but the espresso-soggy ladyfingers offered enough Kahlua and mascarpone to inject the dessert with some of its traditional richness.

Through both our meals, the staff was efficient--at times, too much so. I know most people don't eat all their food here, but being asked every four minutes if I'm done is enough to make me want to call up the Godfather and order a hit.

Instead, the next time I want to eat real Italian, I'll call Canino's and beg. Like a dog.

Canino's Trattoria, 2390 South Downing Street, 303-778-1994. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Friday; 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday.

Maggiano's Little Italy, 500 16th Street, 303-260-7707. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday.


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