Cafe Society

Cash Landing

When I was young, Christmas in the Sheehan household was a fairly predictable event. It began about 4 a.m., or whatever godawful hour my brother Brendan and I would drag our parents out of bed for our annual living-room reenactment of the battle of Thermopylae, with Mom and Dad playing the 300 Spartans trying to hold the pass against Bren and me, standing in for tens of thousands of Persians. The Christmas tree, of course, was Greece, and Mom and Dad never managed to hold out more than twenty minutes, let alone the historic seven days the Spartans lasted.

After that, we had a huge farmhouse breakfast -- eggs and toast and coffee cake and slices of ham and potatoes in multitudinous variety -- followed immediately by lunch with more coffee cake and whatever we could scrounge from the dinner preparations, then a second lunch maybe two hours later of appetizers and snacks, cold sausage, cheese and crackers. A couple of hours after that came dinner, for between four and a dozen family members, and traditionally featuring baked ham, German spinach, Irish champ, and cream of broccoli soup of no particular provenance. After our proper dinner was done, there'd always be another meal of cold leftovers a few hours down the line.

For years, this was my Christmas. It wasn't until I fled the nest that I realized some people marked the holiday much differently. Once out in the wide, weird world, I ate Christmas tamales with my dishwashers, standing on the loading dock behind a French restaurant while thirty stuffed geese roasted in the ovens inside; celebrated Christmas on a hotel line full of Indians and Tamils, eating rogan josh and naan and almond butter cookies packed by the cooks' wives; celebrated Christmas at a sushi bar in Buffalo, where I drank too much sake and ended up decorating the men's room in festive red flying-fish roe and green seaweed.

My favorite commemoration, though, was the Christmas dinner at the home of a girl I knew whose Polish Jew father celebrated the Christian holiday by watching all three Godfather films back-to-back, then cooking a huge mutt-Italian dinner of pastas and lasagnas and baked fish and turkey with stuffing. He was nuts, this guy. I liked him a lot -- the world's only Jewish-Italian part-time culinary gangster. And he was a helluva cook, too.

There aren't enough mob hit men living in Denver. Because if there were, Maggiano's Little Italy would have been run out of the Denver Tech Center a long time ago, with every cook, all the managers and most of the servers getting two in the back of the head, a rolled-carpet coffin and a midnight trip off the banks of the Platte.

But if that were to happen, I have to wonder where every office in the DTC would have its holiday party. Without Maggiano's, the suburban streets would be choked with wine-drunk executive secretaries in knee-highs and sneakers going door-to-door begging for giant meatballs and an extra slice of tiramisu; with copier techs and department managers in their best casual-Friday party duds wandering the office parks, looking for someone to spill their drinks on and sexually harass.

Two Fridays before Christmas Eve, the scene at Maggiano's is a horrifying descent into one of Hell's side rooms, an antechamber that Dante missed while taking his grand tour of the lower galleries. As I walk in, I'm immediately greeted by the sight of twenty or thirty servers rolling silver, counting tips, sucking cowishly at their beverages and staring google-eyed at the Gordian knot of parties -- ten-tops, twelve-tops, twenty-tops -- all tangling at the hostess stand. The main dining room is full, the balcony dining room is full, and drop-leaf tables are being cleared, reset and turned as fast as the swarming, silent busers can move. At the bar, one of the tenders looks ready to murder a floor manager (they're arguing about an overdue break, I think), and Bing is on the Muzak dreaming of a white Christmas. Still, I know that somewhere, the owners of Maggiano's -- a concept that came oozing out of Chicago thirteen years ago and now claims something like nine zillion locations across nineteen states, including another massive restaurant in the Denver Pavilions -- are seeing nothing but green.

According to the Maggiano's home office, every link in this Eye-Tie-for-Dummies chain is meant to evoke the spirit of pre-war Little Italy. Little Italy in the '30s as envisioned by Spielberg, maybe. Bankrolled by Disney. And set-dressed by whatever yutz did the scenery for A Bronx Tale. Every flat surface that can't be used to set chairs in front of is covered with Christmas trees and bows and ribbons and fake presents and garlands and wreaths and lights. Every wall is hung with more Christmas paraphernalia, alongside thousands of less seasonal, grainy black-and-white prints of long-gone Italian relatives that carry all the true historic resonance of those ghost-town tourist snaps you get while on vacation in the American West: Here's Granny in jail for bank-robbing, here are the kids in plastic hats and sheriff's stars...

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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