I grew up on the far west side of town, a culinary black hole -- at least in the '70s and '80s -- that forced me and my family to drive what I believed were impossibly long distances to dinner. We went out to eat -- a lot -- and from as far back as I can remember, we graced Gaetano's at least once a week. We loved the classic margherita pizza (even when the tomatoes were wan) and the brothel-red color scheme, my mom was enamored by the whole mystique of the Mafia, and my stepfather, who has the bushiest eyebrows on the planet, a pronounced nose and a New York accent, seemed to think that he was Mafia; he certainly tried to play the stereotypical part, never leaving the house without a "Godfather" hat, a long black trench coat and a cigar.
Gaetano's has a long history, beginning in 1947, when Eugene, Clyde and Clarence Smaldone opened the Italian restaurant -- the name is Italian for Clyde - and began slinging pizzas and pastas slicked with red sauce, but the brothers were conducting "family business," as well, and after decades of gambling, bootlegging booze, loan sharking, tax evasion and other gangster crimes, they were convicted.
But Gaetano's prevailed, continuing its tradition of serving red sauce American-Italian food, and little changed, except for the clientele. In 2005, it was purchased by Wynkoop Holdings, the same company (which has since merged with Breckenridge Brewery) that owns Wynkoop Brewing, Ghost Plate & Tap, Wazee Supper Club, Cherry Cricket, the former Pearl Street Grill, and more.
And up until a few months ago, Gaetano's had ambled along, staying true to its roots, but when chef Chris Cina was hired by BW Holdings (Wynkoop/Breckenridge) several months ago to spearhead the kitchen at Ghost Plate & Tap (he's now overseeing the kitchen at the Wynkoop Brewery), he also turned his focus to modernizing the menu at Gaetano's, a move that would coincide with another change at Gaetano's: a major interior overhaul.
The makeover was meant to start next week, but a pipe burst at the restaurant last Friday night, and rather than fixing the pipe, reopening for a few days only to close a few days later, the clan figured that the plumbing issue was as good a reason as any to start the demolition process sooner rather than later. "We're getting ready to start construction. We have the plans and we've got everything laid out, but we're waiting on permits," says Cina, who estimates that Gaetano's will be closed for a minimum of six weeks.
"We're opening up the dining room, putting in new tables, booths and banquettes, and the color palette will be natural earth tones to reflect a more contemporary look," explains Cina. In other words, say goodbye to the nostalgic black-and-red hues of the past. The bar, however, which has been a neighborhood watering hole in its own right, will most likely be preserved. "We're going to try and save the feel of the bar, but like the dining rooms, it's going to get a facelift," he says.
And Cina knows that the changes may not sit well with those who are creatures of habit, those who have been going to Gaetano's for years and prefer that things stay the same. "We're expecting some backlash," he conceeds, "but the fact of the matter is that we have to compete with everything else in Highland and Sunnyside, and there's a lot of new restaurants. We have to take that into consideration."
The menu, which Cina has trimmed down and changed considerably, will continue to evolve (he's working on adding a collection of small plates), and while he's kept some of the old favorites, this is no longer a spaghetti and meatballs joint. "We still have pasta, red sauce and meatballs, but not all in one dish," he notes. And while pizzas and calzones are still available -- and the "Tasty Treats," which make me swoon, can be ordered off the menu -- Cina reveals that the board "now reflects cleaner, simpler preparations, more local ingredients and more of a trattoria-style focus." The old Gaetano's, he says, was "Italian-American comfort food. What I'm doing is Italian comfort food."
The wine list, he adds, will also lean more toward Italy once the restaurant reopens, and bartending consultant Matty Durgin, who was most recently behind the stick at Z Cuisine A Cote, is developing a new cocktail syllabus.
"When we open in September, it's going to look like a much different restaurant," says Cina, adding that he's "really looking forward to it."
And while some will undoubtedly cry "There goes the neighborhood," plenty of others will welcome the change.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.