The Secret's in the Sauce

Papa J's Italian Restaurant and Lounge (see review) isn't the only Big Daddy of red sauce north of Denver -- there's also Papa Frank's Restaurant and Lounge at 6570 West 120th Avenue in Broomfield, in the Villager Square Shopping Center. And Papa Frank's has a history, too: owner Tom Rizzi was encouraged in the Seventies by his grandfather, Frank Rizzi, to cook for 375 people at Gary Hart's campaign fundraiser, which turned out to be a huge success. Tom Rizzi then went on to further fame when, in 1989, he and his wife, Sally, opened Papa Frank's in honor of his grandfather.

Papa Frank's boasts a packed front room that includes a deli case and carryout counter, booths for smokers, a lounge and a more spread-out and austerely decorated back room for non-smokers. The most popular night is Sunday. That's when all-you-can-eat spaghetti, featuring homemade noodles and a somewhat thin, herb-packed sauce, costs $5.95, including salad and garlic bread. But like Papa J's, it's not just the food that makes Papa Frank's: The staff here is exceptional, on-the-ball and friendly, especially our server, Claudia.

She made her first big points with us when, about a half hour before the big rush began, she gave us a choice table in the nearly empty dining room, a table that she could have saved for a party four times larger than the two of us. "You want something cozy and private, don't you?" she said, and she was right. The table was near the window and well away from what would turn out to be a horde of families who had made Papa Frank's their Sunday-night supper spot. Claudia then confided to me that the food at Papa Frank's was "all homemade, and it's delicious!" I can't remember the last time an employee has enthused so much over the restaurant they worked for. She also mentioned that they make their own pies, too, and when we asked her what kind, she listed them, pointing out her favorites. She was so complimentary that we asked her to set aside four slices for the two of us, and she barely batted an eye.

We didn't get to see her as much as we would have liked because the place quickly filled up, but I swear that every time we wondered if she'd be back to check on us, she appeared about a half-second later. We had planned to start with a round of jalapeño poppers ($5.95) -- which turned out to be two more than the usual six and were pretty standard. Better were the calamari ($5.95) -- rings of beautifully deep-fried squid -- but Claudia knew we'd just come off a bike ride and were starving, so she sent the salads out first. They were also standard, with iceberg and a cherry pepper, but the housemade blue cheese dressing -- the Italian is also housemade -- was above-average, as was the cocktail sauce we'd requested with the calamari.

The first round of spaghetti, which came with two pieces of meat, was so big that I never had to bother Claudia for more, and I loved the presentation: The noodles were jammed into a bowl so tight that when I pulled a few out, the rest of them expanded to the top, like a bottomless bowl. The sauce was brought in a pitcher on the side, so I was in charge, and the meats were wonderful in it, too (the sausage chub was spicy and juicy, and the meatballs contained just the right amount of breading for a soft texture). The lasagna ($8.95) contained a little bit of both, and while the menu claimed it would be a four-inch-square piece, it seemed more like six inches to us. Although we'd passed on the baked version, which would have included more cheese and taken longer to cook, this slice had been heated until the sauce thickened a bit and the cheese had melded into the noodles.

After all of that, you'd think four slices of pie would be a bit much, but we finished three of them and made a good run at the fourth -- that's how good they were. And Claudia knows pie: The one she'd been the most enthusiastic about, the peanut-butter ($2.25), turned out to be stunning, so delectable and richly flavored that it tested all of our manners to keep from snatching more than our share. The coconut cream ($2.25) was stellar, and the pear ($1.75), which had fresh fruit flavored with cinnamon in the style of an apple pie, was interesting and appealing. The only one we didn't fall for was the lemonade ($2.25), which needed something we couldn't quite put our finger on.

The rest of you restaurants need a Claudia.

Meat your maker: What good is spaghetti without meatballs? And making them is so easy. The most intense flavor can be had by mixing meats -- a combo of beef, veal and pork is where it's at -- but plain beef is good, too. Don't use any of that fancy Boulder bread with nuts and lots of grain in it, because then you'll get weird textures; the spongiest Italian bread you can find works best. If you have some meatballs left over -- hard to believe, but it happens -- line a top-quality roll with provolone cheese, throw in a few meatballs and spoon some sauce down the center. Throw it under the broiler for a few minutes and grab some extra napkins.

Meatballs My Way
1 slice 1-inch-thick white bread
1/2 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup minced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound of ground beef, veal or pork, in any combination
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)
4 tablespoons parsley, dried, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon oregano
pinch of nutmeg
4 tablespoons parmesan, grated
1 egg
2-4 cups red sauce of your choosing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak the bread in the milk and set aside. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a pan and add onions and garlic; sauté until golden. Place meat in a large bowl; squeeze liquid from bread and add to meat along with onions and garlic, salt, pepper, herbs, parmesan and egg. Mix well. Using about a tablespoon's worth of meat mixture at a time, form into balls. Heat oil and remaining butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add meatballs and gently move then around with a wooden spoon until they're lightly browned all over. Place in a casserole dish and cover with your favorite sauce. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Pour over cooked pasta. Serves 2-4.