While going back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth...) from Gemelli's for this week's review, I noticed that one of Denver's longtime Italian restaurants, 3 Sons, at 2915 West 44th Avenue, was sporting some new exterior decor: a huge FOR SALE sign. A couple of them, actually. And while the restaurant was open for business (and doing a nice bit of trade late on a Sunday evening, when I first spotted the signs), clearly something was up.
To find out exactly what, I figured I should call owner (since March 2004) Mike Scarafiotti. But first I called Ken Griffin, one of the owners of Gemelli's, because I'd heard that the original owners of 3 Sons could often be found at Griffin's restaurant.
Jim Sannino founded the 3 Sons at 44th and Lowell in 1965, and he and his three sons — Anthony, Jimmy and Johnny — ran it for twenty years, then moved the restaurant to 2915 West 44th, the former home of Ernie Capolupo's joint, Ernie's Supper Club. Three Sons did another nineteen years there before the Sannino family finally decided they wanted out — but not before they collected one of the most scathing and contentious reviews I've written in this town. So when Scarafiotti and his wife, Susan, showed up in 2004 with a bunch of cash and a yen for a big house to call their own, the Sanninos went for it — selling off the name, the concept, the recipes and the fixtures, but not the actual property. The building itself they leased to Scarafiotti.
Now that lease was running out, Griffin told me, and the Scarafiottis had figured out that to be a real restaurant owner (read: one who makes money), you have to own your own building. When I got Mike Scarafiotti on the phone last week, he confirmed that the 3 Sons building was for sale and that he had about eleven months left on his lease. "We're gonna relocate," he said. "Wheat Ridge, Lakewood, Arvada, Golden."
They'd been looking into the old Olinger's property at 29th and Wadsworth but ran into opposition from the Wheat Ridge Historical Society, which doesn't want developers knocking down two buildings there. "The historical society just seems to rear its ugly head and prevent any progress," he huffed. There will be a May 14 hearing on the proposal.
And in the meantime? "It's still 44th and Eliot, dude," he said of 3 Sons. "We're a destination restaurant. People will come here for prom, for Mother's Day. But one day a year? That's not enough."
Leftovers: Good news! Pizzeria Mundo — the globe-trotting gourmet pizza joint at 1312 17th Street where computer-guy-turned-restaurateur John Pool offered such globe-trotting treats as New England lobster-bake pizzas and Jamaican pizzas with jerk sauce and sweet potatoes — has reopened. Closed without notice in February, it's now under the command of Patrick Pool, John's brother, who helped with the opening of the original Mundo and is a veteran of Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco, owned and operated by pizza savant Chris Bianco.
"John used to own this place," Patrick Pool told me, "and coming into it, I don't think he understood that if you want to run a restaurant, you gotta be there every day. That's not really his bag, you know?"
But Patrick saw problems the minute he walked through the door. First off, there was this huge menu — twenty or thirty pizzas, all of them bizarre, all of them very niche-specific. Patrick kept the top five sellers (and the Pizzeria Mundo name) and dumped the rest.
Another problem: the employees. People walking by Mundo used to see maybe one person inside — some kid working the counter, watching TV or listening to his iPod. "Passion," Patrick told me. "That's the one thing that this place was missing. No one had any passion in here." Solution: Fire everybody. Which is exactly what Patrick did, re-staffing with people he knew and trusted.
Third problem? A 70 percent food cost — a ridiculous number that would make most chefs and all serious owners choke on their P&Ls. Patrick immediately cut it by dumping the pizza buffet (too much waste) and many of those weird ingredients. He put in a fountain machine for drinks because "people don't want a pear-and-lychee soda for three dollars," he said.
He pulled down the confusing, huge menu board and replaced it with a chalkboard so that the lineup could be changed daily. He added salads, simple pastas and sandwiches — sandwiches made fresh, on focaccia bread that's baked to order. He made deals with local suppliers like Marczyk and Oliver's. And since he was already involved with Denver Urban Gardens, he decided to take most of his produce from there. He installed an in-house composting system that makes fertilizer for his DUG garden, sends his leftover sauce, dough and fresh produce to Brad and Libby Birky at SAME Cafe. "We wanted to be a bit more responsible," Patrick told me. "We wanted to give back as much as we take."
And in the process, he turned an utterly failed restaurant into a successful one. His biggest stroke of genius? A sandwich-board sign he made himself, set out in front of the restaurant, that announces "75-CENT PBR."
"That's my marketing background right there," he concluded. "Cheap beer."
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