What's the difference? We could talk about style of service or creative interpretations of the cuisine or regional specialties or the roots of Italian-American dishes, but it really comes down to the chicken parm rule. If a restaurant has chicken parmesan on the menu, it falls into the red-sauce category.
While most of these spots are indeed old-school — as in decades-old — some joined the scene more recently. But they all offer hospitality as big as an Italian-American family's dining room table, and serve up stellar chicken parm and plenty of other classics. Garlic not optional.
Angelo's Taverna620 East Sixth Avenue
angelostaverna.comAngelo's Taverna bills itself as Denver's original pizza and oyster bar — and given that this joint has been serving central Denver since the Nixon administration, it's safe to say that it's the longest-running restaurant of its ilk, even though it’s now on its second owners (who opened a second outpost in Littleton). Even if you’re a half-shell lover, Angelo’s makes a compelling argument for a char-grilled preparation, with oysters dressed up with garlic butter, bacon and Gorgonzola or chipotle bourbon butter. Beyond bivalves and pizza, it's got a stacked lineup of Italian fare — some classic, like chicken parm and vodka penne, while other options have an Angelo's twist, like the chile relleno ravioli. Whatever you order, don't skip the housemade limoncello.
Cafe Jordano11068 West Jewell Avenue, Lakewood
cafejordano.comFor over three decades, this Italian eatery in a nondescript Lakewood strip mall has drawn a crowd of regulars. When it moved to a larger space next door to its original location in 2018, it didn't lose any of its charm — thanks in large part to owner and co-founder Elisa Heitman, who was born in Italy and opened the spot with her now ex-husband in the early ’90s. The menu is stuffed with authentic Italian dishes, many made with recipes from Heitman's hometown of Naples, alongside its now-signature buffalo dishes — an alternative to the veal that was used during Cafe Jordano's early days.
Carmine's on Penn92 South Pennsylvania Street
carminescolorado.comCarmine's on Penn has held down its corner of Pennsylvania and Bayaud since 1994. When the restaurant opened, it was intended as a place where large groups could converge and enjoy themselves without thinking too much about what they were eating — ordering big platters of Italian food served family-style, which is still the approach today under owner Brad Ritter, who purchased the restaurant in 2006. (You can opt for family-style or a size meant for two these days.) There's now a lighter, brighter sister restaurant, Carmine's at McGregor Square, but we prefer to eat giant heaps of dishes like carbonara (made — non- traditionally, but deliciously — with cream and butter) at the OG outpost.
Cranelli's Italian Restaurant10047 Park Meadows Drive, Lone Tree
One of the newer red-sauce joints in town, Cranelli's was opened by longtime industry pros Jimmy Crane and his wife, Lasinda, in 2013. It's tucked away in a housing development behind Park Meadows mall, but don't let its suburban facade fool you. This spot's got an old soul, with hospitality to match. The arancini rotates often, garlic knots are complimentary on your first visit, and the menu is loaded with hits, from eggplant rollatini to pasta pomodoro to linguine and clams — and many dishes are available in half or full sizes, depending on your appetite. The neighborhood is wise to the talent in the kitchen, so reservations are a good idea, even on a weeknight. Pro tip: Parking is super-limited, but the lot across the street is open — which explains the droves of hungry diners you might see crossing Park Meadows Drive any given evening.
Gaetano's3760 Tejon Street
gaetanositalian.comGaetano's underworld history, when the place was run by the Smaldone crime family and was a hub for illegal gambling and bootlegging, is familiar to Denver natives, as is the overhaul it got after the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group bought it. In 2013, it landed back in independent hands when one of that team's former employees, Ron Robinson, purchased the eatery. As of 2021, he now owns its historic brick building, too. Gaetano's is still a great neighborhood spot with a swank, Frank Sinatra vibe and a smattering of red-sauce classics done right.
Gennaro's Cafe Italiano2598 South Broadway
gennaroscafeitaliano.com There's nothing innovative about the seventy-year-old Gennaro's, and that's just the way we like it. From the black-and-white-checkered linoleum floor to the weathered wooden bar, every nook and cranny of this joint screams nostalgia. Naturally, that extends to the menu: You won't find "twists" or "takes" on anything here, just satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs Italian-American classics. Start with an enormous loaf of garlic bread and marinara or fried ravioli for the table, then chow down on the aptly named "Colossal calzone," Italian sandwiches, pizza or sausage and peppers. The neighborhood atmosphere is bolstered by regular trivia, live music, open mics and bingo nights.
Grammy's Goodies4601 Harlan Street, Wheat Ridge
grammysitaliangoodies.comGrammy's started out as little more than a booth selling homemade cookies at Lakewood's annual Festival Italiano, but expanded to a counter-service restaurant and bakery in 2015. Somehow, though, it feels like it's been around a lot longer. Go here for pizza, towering slices of lasagna and savory sausage cannoli (spelled here with a double "n," like its sweet counterpart) with a Denver-inspired slice of green chile inside. But Grammy's also stands out for its vast selection of baked goods — especially around such holidays as Christmas and Easter. Like any good Italian nonna, the family behind this spot knows how to churn out an insane amount of sweet treats, including classic takes on pizzelle, honey cookies, struffoli, pignoli and much more.
Lechuga's3609 Tejon Street
lechugasitalian.com They don't make them like they used to — but Lechuga's marches on anyway, an old-school Italian joint where you can order pasta by the bucket and square pizzas (with green-chile strips, like a true Denverite!). Lechuga's is one of the last red-sauce joints left on Denver's Northside, in a section once known as "Little Italy." Newcomers to Denver, please understand that "canoli" means something different here; Lechuga's signature dish isn't a dessert, but rather your choice of a meatball, sausage or sausage-and-jalapeño combo wrapped in dough with a little bit of cheese in the mix, baked and then smothered, if that's how you like it. Make it a meal with the famous "spanoli" plate — two mini canolis and a side of spaghetti for under $10. With a $6.50 Tuesday night spaghetti special and lunch deals every weekday, Lechuga's is a tasty reminder that here in the Mile High City, we like our Italian food greasy and cheap, served up hot in a place that feels suspended in time.
Mama Sannino's5800 West 38th Avenue, Wheat Ridge
mamasanninos.com Family portraits line the front walls by the entrance to Mama Sannino's, sharing space with wall hangings, photos and other homey knickknacks. In the dining room beyond, vintage alcohol posters are tacked to the wood-paneled walls, along with more photos of Italy. Through a set of arched windows in the back, you can often see a lone cook in the kitchen, busy turning out meals and sending the scent of garlic wafting throughout the restaurant. It looks like Mama Sannino's has always been an integral part of the neighborhood, but it actually just opened in an Arvada strip mall in 2005. Still, when Jimmy Sannino decided to create Mama Sannino's, he brought decades of experience to the project: His family owned the legendary 3 Sons for forty years, and he's relying on the same red-sauce recipes and smart restaurant sensibilities here.
Odyssey Italian Restaurant603 East Sixth Avenue
odysseyitalian.comFor a decade, this restaurant housed in a Victorian home has served up classic Italian fare with a side of equally classic hospitality from chef/owner Ignazio Mulei and his son, general manager Michele. The cozy, charming setting makes this an ideal date-night destination. And on Monday nights, it offers an insanely good deal: Order any option on the pasta menu for just $8.95 (normally $20), and you also get a Caesar salad and garlic bread. With a price that low, you may as well throw in a bottle of wine, too.
Romano's5666 South Windermere Street, Littleton
romanospizzeria.com Romano's has been serving impressive plates of spaghetti — and everything else covered with its dense, garlicky red sauce — since 1967 in a sleepy neighborhood a few blocks from Littleton's Old Town. All the old-school favorites are here: spaghetti with clams, eggplant Parmigiana, pizzas and calzones. Romano's is the real deal: Family, food and tradition come together to make this a favorite, even with those outside the southern suburbs.
The Saucy Noodle727 South University Boulevard
saucynoodle.comIn 2014, the Saucy Noodle celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Over its decades in business, it's weathered a fire, a renovation, an expansion and the passing of ownership from founder Sam Badis to his granddaughter, Erin, and her husband, Nathan Markham. Still, in 2020, the future of the restaurant looked grim when the building's landlord filed for a certificate of demolition. But two years later, it's still open, offering the same friendly atmosphere alongside such menu favorites as Mamma's baked lasagna, old-style pizzas and those giant, hand-rolled, all-beef meatballs. The red-and-white canopy out front reads: "If you don't like garlic, go home." That's fair advice at a spot where garlic bread shows up alongside your meal.