Fratelli's made its debut as a Colorado pizza kitchen more than twenty years ago, which puts it way ahead of the California Pizza Kitchen (see review) in terms of knowing what Denver wants in a pie. Still, it hasn't always been easy for this neighborhood joint, and when business started to flag late last year, original owner Jim Plummer sold the place to the Falsetto family -- parents Joe and Rose and their daughter Trish, along with her husband, Darren Patterson, who serves as the chef (he's a former corporate chef for Wild Oats, helped open Yia Yia's, and had his own radio show, The Everyday Gourmet, on KOA for a year). Since taking over, the Falsettos have dropped breakfast and expanded the pasta offerings at dinner, but otherwise, Fratelli's seems much as it did when I walked through the door seven years ago.
Certainly the regular pizzas are the same: medium-thick crust, plenty of toppings, a thin layer of Fratelli's supremely sweet and tomatoey sauce. Although we wished we had more of that red to counteract the saltiness of the four-cheese pie ($9.95 for a fourteen-inch), the pizza, covered with plenty of romano, parmesan, provolone and mozzarella, was fine without it. And the crunchy-shelled, slightly chewy crust just begged for a dip in the marinara accompanying the complimentary breadsticks, which were more mini bread loaves than sticks: fat, puffy wads of soft dough with a thick layer of oregano on top.
The super-thin, hand-rolled crust that comes with Fratelli's special pizza ($14.70 for a fourteen-inch) made for a completely different dining experience. This crust was much more like that of an authentic Italian pie, with a cracker-like crunch and enough heft to hold the artichoke hearts, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic that had been piled on top of more sweet red.
Once we branched out from the pies, though, we discerned some differences between the old and new Fratelli's. Under Plummer, the pasta dishes had deteriorated into caricatures of authentic Italian dishes; Patterson has a more scholarly approach. So the penne puttanesca ($9.95) came awash in a thick amalgam of tomatoes, kalamatas, garlic, capers and just enough anchovies cooked down in olive oil until the sauce resembled a thinned-out paste. A more modern Italian dish, the celestial vermicelli with portabellos ($12.95), featured nearly caramelized mushrooms tossed with fresh, wilted spinach and romas in a reduction of tomato and rosemary -- not enough rosemary, I'd say -- that clung to every strand of al dente pasta.
The new Fratelli's also ventures further from Italy, with such items as crisp gorgonzola potatoes ($5.95). An appetizer order brought two spuds' worth of extra-large Idahos cut into quarters and French-fried, then placed in a pagoda-like presentation and drenched with a to-die-for gorgonzola cream sauce. You'll be tempted to abandon the potatoes altogether and simply use a spoon to scarf up as much of that sauce as your stomach will tolerate. Unfortunately, it took way too long for that starter to arrive -- it shouldn't take a half-hour to prepare. On another occasion, when we were one of three tables in the place, we had to wait 45 minutes for a pizza.
And there's one more thing that's new at Fratelli's, an indisputably positive development: a patio. From here, diners get a tree-rimmed view of Hampden Avenue and all the goings-on in this bustling section of Englewood -- an area that should be glad it still has Fratelli's for a neighbor.I