A handwritten sign in the front alcove at Mama Sanninos asks diners to wait to be seated, and since just two servers were tending to a large, lingering lunch crowd, wait I did. While I waited, I studied my surroundings — and there was a lot to look at. Family portraits lined the front walls by the entrance, sharing space with wall hangings, photos and other homey tchotchkes. In the dining room beyond, vintage alcohol posters along with more photos of Italy were tacked to the wood-paneled walls, and strands of fake leaves and glittering Christmas lights hung from low-hanging beams above the booths and tables. Through a set of arched windows in the back, I could see a lone cook in the kitchen, busy turning out lunches. And lingering above it all was the scent of garlic.
After a few minutes, one of the two servers led me to a booth, gave me a broad grin and asked for my drink order before I'd even sat down. Forgoing a look at the wine list or even a cheap beer, I went with a Coke, then grabbed a seat and started perusing the lengthy menu, which featured a number of red-sauce Italian dishes, a big list of pizzas and a dozen or so Italian sandwiches. Slightly overwhelmed, I asked the second server for help when she arrived with my Coke. She raved about the Cara Mia, a sandwich stuffed with sausage and peppers, with an optional topping of provolone; she recommended I get it with a side of spaghetti rather than the bagged potato chips. And while the cook got to work on my lunch, I turned my attention to my fellow diners, since I'd already inventoried the grandma-worthy decor.
I spent a few minutes listening to three generations of men talking business, but when their topics turned to trucks and golf, I shifted my focus to a pair of retired women trading tips for hosting big family gatherings. And then I watched as an older couple trudged across the dining room, stopping by almost every table to say hello to old friends and neighbors.It looked like Mama Sanninos had always been an integral part of the neighborhood — but it's actually been in this Arvada strip mall for just six years.
Even so, when Jimmy Sannino opened Mama Sanninos, he did it with decades of experience behind him; he jokes that he's been in the restaurant business since he was six years old. Jimmy's father, Jim Sanno, immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, bringing with him a cache of recipes from his mother in Naples. He met his future wife, Caroline, in New York City — he fell in love with her instantly, Sannino says, because she was speaking Italian — and they decided to move to Denver when he randomly pointed out the city on a map in her mother's kitchen.
After they arrived here in the mid-1950s, Sanno opened a series of now-defunct pizzerias, including Jim's Pizzeria on Tejon, Paisan's Pizzeria on Colfax and Jim Sanno's Pizzeria on University. Young Jimmy got his first taste of the restaurant business at Jim Sanno's, but his father soon sold the spot in order to start another venture. In 1964, the Sanno family opened 3 Sons, an Italian restaurant in north Denver that was named for Jimmy and his two brothers, Tony and John, who also use the last name Sannino.
The family ran that restaurant for forty years, then finally sold the by-now-iconic 3 Sons in 2004. 3 Sons didn't last long under the new owners in its original location, which today is home to Ernie's; instead, they moved both the 3 Sons name and concept to Arvada. Meanwhile, Tony and John got out of the business for good, pursuing careers in real estate and antiques.
But Jimmy Sannino decided to keep the legacy alive, taking the original Sanno family recipes — "my brothers tweaked them in the later years at 3 Sons," he explains — and using them when he opened his own restaurant with his wife, Karen. From the start, they set out to create a neighborhood restaurant. "We've become a community gathering place," he says. "I like to call it an Italian Cheers!"
It certainly qualified the first day I stopped in. Soon Jimmy and Karen Sannino themselves appeared, and I would have followed their progress around the dining room, but I was too distracted by the arrival of my meal. I forked into the satisfying tangle of noodles, doused with a thick red sauce spiked with garlic and just a smattering of red chiles for extra kick, then turned my attention to the massive sandwich. Fat, fennel-flecked sausages had been loaded onto both sides of a split Italian roll, then topped by slick, sautéed peppers, a thin layer of melted provolone, and some of the spaghetti's spicy-tangy tomato sauce. A cup of that same marinara came on the side, ideal for dipping and, finally, slurping.
By the time I cleaned my plate, it was mid-afternoon and I was ready for a siesta. The dining room was still packed — I wondered if my fellow diners had so stuffed themselves that they simply couldn't move. Or perhaps they planned to hang out, Cheers-style, until the dinner hour arrived and they could just start again.
If the regulars do hang out, though, the crowd apparently thins by 8 p.m., which is when I returned with some friends a few days later. By then, there was just one other table in the dining room, and those diners were already spooning ice cream out of tall glasses. But we were ready to drink cheap Chianti and eat platters of family-style pasta until we exploded — and the staff at Mama Sanninos was happy to oblige. They greeted us with the same enthusiasm displayed by the lunchtime servers, bringing the wine and an order of the garlic-encrusted bread I'd asked for before I realized that dinner at Mama Sanninos comes with a basket full of rolls. Dinner also comes with your choice of salad or minestrone, neither of which was impressive. I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that the thin, bland minestrone had a chicken-and-star soup base; the salad was an equally uninspiring bed of iceberg lettuce drowned in dressing.
We had higher hopes for the pasta, and ordered an entree each — then threw in a mini-calzone, thinking it would provide a couple of bites per person. But instead, the calzone was the size of a small dinner plate. It came with a steak knife, so that I could dole out slices of the doughy pocket, which had been stuffed to capacity with spicy sausage, green-chile strips and stretchy mozzarella. Two of us could have split the thing and called it a meal. If this was "mini," the standard calzone must be the size of a tire.
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The entree portions were just as generous; the three of us could easily have shared one dish — but then we would have missed out on some delightful eating. Although the shrimp in the pasta fra diavolo, which we'd ordered with penne, was slightly overcooked, it featured a version of the marinara that had been infused with still more chiles, which made it particularly addictive. The lasagna was another success, the sheets of fresh pasta layered with sweet ricotta, ground beef and spinach, then coated with a layer of that marinara and topped with melted mozzarella that was still bubbling when it came to the table. My favorite entree, though, was the simplest: homemade egg noodles. The pencil-thick strands came covered with that incredible marinara (we'd requested the chile-heavy variation) as well as a couple of meatballs, the beef pungent with garlic, basil and oregano.
By the time we'd finished a bottle of wine and eaten all we could, it looked like we'd hardly made a dent in the dishes. We asked for the leftovers to be packaged, then braced ourselves...and ordered the cannoli, which is made in-house. And miraculously, my appetite came back when it arrived: The crunchy, deep-fried shell had been injected with chocolate-chip-studded sweet cream and dusted with powdered sugar. It was the perfect finish to a very good meal.
When we paid our check, Cheers reruns were already showing on TV and staffers were finishing their closing duties in the empty dining room. But the Sanninos were still there to wave us goodbye, urging us to return soon.