"You're talking to a dinosaur," says Judy Duren, the 66-year-old owner of Dino's Italian Food, a restaurant that has served homemade everything — noodles, meatballs, sausage, red sauce, pizza and even ice cream — since 1961.
"I think we're a dying breed. Independent restaurant owners are a dying breed," she elaborates. "You can't afford to do it anymore."
Duren's father, Dino DiPaolo, opened the family restaurant in 1961, when his daughter was nine years old. She worked for her dad until going away to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she took a job at a Mr. Steak, mostly because classes and studying didn't fill enough of her time. "Other than Mr. Steak, I've never worked another job," she says. "I've never had to fill out applications or sit through job interviews."
Though she's reached an age that most Americans would consider the start of retirement, Duren is still active and prowling the dining room — greeting regular customers, clearing plates, giving direction to staff, many of whom have been employed by Dino's for decades.
When Duren returned to Denver after college, she started working at her dad's then-new Mexican restaurant, Ramone's, right next door to Dino's. (You don't have to be a Denver longtimer to remember Ramone's; it stayed open until 2003.) That was in 1970; the DiPaolo family also ran a second Italian restaurant from 1977 to 1996 and, briefly, a yogurt and sub shop.
But Dino's has been the family's mainstay, even if Duren is the last of the clan to still call the restaurant business a career. Her parents retired years ago, and her father passed away just months after Dino's celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2011. Black-and-white photos of the family and the early days of the business grace the sprawling restaurant's lobby; they were meant as temporary decorations for the anniversary, but Duren didn't have the heart to take them down after Dino died. If she had, she says, customers would have rioted.
She recalls a time when both of her parents, her grandmother and various uncles and cousins lent a hand at Dino's. Even her husband and kids gave it a go at one point. "They could probably keep it running if I got hit by a bus," she jokes, though she adds that the general manager and tight core of employees keep things on track on a day-to-day basis.
Duren recalls the first time she ever worked a shift waiting tables at Dino's: "I made $4 in change — nickels, dimes and quarters. It was the easiest thing I ever had to do: You bring people their food and they give you money.
"But things aren't as easy now in the restaurant business," she adds.
Dino's has more than 45 employees and stays open seven days a week, closing only for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Duren points out that her father was smart to buy the property where the restaurant sits, as well as the lot next door, where Ramone's once stood. That building was scraped in 2008 to make room for a McDonald's, which pays rent back to the family. "If we had to pay rent ourselves, we wouldn't be able to still do this," she notes, pointing out other Italian restaurants in Denver that have been forced to close because of rising rents.
A work day starts early at Dino's; bakers come in at 5 a.m., and other prep cooks arrive soon after to start making sauce and grinding pork and beef for the sausage and meatballs. Pasta is rolled out and dried for the next day's lunch and dinner service. Several flavors of ice cream are churned, too. "We have the best spumoni in Denver," Duren claims.
Among the team members are a bookkeeper who started in 1988 (and uses the only computer in the restaurant), servers who recall working at the other restaurants when they were open, and a 77-year-old prep cook who comes in every day and works forty hours a week. She was hired by the family patriarch more than thirty years ago.
Meatballs at Dino's are made using a machine that Dino DiPaolo invented himself and that was built by a local machinist based on DiPaolo's descriptions. The meatballs are soft and savory, making you regret not ordering extra for the $9 plate of homemade noodles, which comes with only one (but you also get bread and an iceberg salad for that price).
The pizza crust has a slight rise to it, putting it somewhere between traditional Neapolitan and Sicilian pies in a style that doesn't really have its own classification but will be familiar to those who frequent Denver's dwindling number of other vintage Italian joints. Dessert pies have a crimped edge that might make you think the crusts are pre-made, but Duren says the dough is handmade daily and the design is pressed into the edge of each pie with a special tool.
Italian restaurant owners in the ’60s and ’70s encouraged their kids to go to college and start other careers; Duren says that was her experience, too, but she couldn't envision any other life. Such advice has resulted in the closing of many Denver favorites over the past decade: Owners retire and there's no one left to take over the business, or the modern costs of maintaining a restaurant while still serving quality food forces families out of business.
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For now, Dino's is safe. Even during weekday lunches, the many separate dining rooms (there have been seven additions since the place opened) are mostly full, and the sound of customers calling out hellos to each other from table to table keeps the place lively. Duren says the last expansion was in 2008, when some of the prep work was moved from a side building to a new room in the kitchen to make space for the McDonald's next door. The last dining room addition happened in 1996; customers still call that west wing "the new room."
Even on days when there are few guests, Duren is constantly busy, finding that one last busser or dishwasher to fill out the team, dealing with phone calls from vendors trying to get her to sign up for online delivery apps (the answer is always no), keeping an eye on the pie dough to makes sure each batch is just the right amount of flaky.
She's contemplated retirement, but only as an abstract possibility. "They call it an exit strategy these days," she says. "Do I have an exit strategy? I probably should, but, no, because I wouldn't know what else to do."
Dino's Italian Food is located at 10040 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood and is open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Call 303-238-7393 for takeout orders or visit the restaurant's website for more details.