Case Cloved

Half a block away, you catch the scent of garlic on the wind, powerful and ancient. Good news. There will be no duck on the pizza tonight, and no sleek escapee from culinary school will drop by in the candlelight trying to sell you a tablespoon of designer grappa for twenty bucks. That gorgeous garlic in the air tells you one thing: You're in red spaghetti country now. This is the old north Denver -- what's left of it, anyway -- and no one's gonna blink an eye when you tuck napkin into collar and start ripping into the antipasto like a paisan who's been stranded in Kansas for a year, then take down a gooey tower of lasagne with your wrecking ball of an appetite.

Vino tinto? Of course. The one-liter fiasco of Chianti will set you back exactly $19.

In other words, forget the carpaccio and the gourmet ceremonies. At Patsy's, they have been "Serving Traditional Italian Cuisine Since 1921," and if you don't bring a take-no-prisoners attitude to the table, you probably don't belong. For more than 75 years, owner Chubby Aiello (who named the place for his daughter) dished up huge platters of cable-thick homemade spaghetti with homemade red sauce, raviolis the size of throw pillows drenched in the same stuff, eggplant parmesan draped in molten mozzarella, and every other glorious cliche of the Southern Italian repertoire. Two years ago, newcomers Bill Taylor and Cindy Knippel bought the place, but the changes have been minimal. Adherents of the various Northern heresies can now get their noodles tossed with glistening green pesto, and one of the novo rigatoni dishes comes with chicken breast grilled with mushrooms, carmelized onions and trendy balsamic vinegar. The baby coho salmon is "herb-crusted," a sign that a little California kitchen lingo has slipped in Patsy's back door.

So what. The new owners' innovations have done nothing to diminish the experience (some might even gently applaud), and the old-line dishes proudly endure -- a big bowl of mussels sauteed in butter, garlic and white wine, a platter of plump gnocchi bathed in "Patsy's original spaghetti sauce," chicken cacciatore just like the Aiellos used to make. No wonder Chubby and Patsy still smile down from their big 1940s-vintage photo portrait over the lovely mirrored bar: The kitchen's still serving up timeless, robust fare at rock-bottom prices. The lasagne (with soup or salad) is still $8.95, the Italian New York strip steak top-priced at $12.95, a huge mound of spumoni (yes, spumoni) $2.75.

If you can blow fifty on dinner in here, you're working at it. Little matter that the ancient waitress neglects to recite the specials and forgets to refill your water glass.

Plenty has changed in the neighborhood since Patsy's opened its doors nearly eighty years ago, but the dining room -- much like the food -- remains as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Low light, wine-red tablecloths in dark blond booths, plastic fiores stuffed into Chianti bottles. And the usual well-meant mural teeming with guidebook favorites -- cartoonish gondoliers in the Venetian moonlight, Vesuvio violently agush, the Roman Colosseum looking as forlorn as a collapsed wedding cake. On Wednesdays, they say, Chubby himself still comes by for lunch, striking the perfect grace note for a place that remains absolutely splendido in every detail, from its proud bearing to its thrilling old aromas.