Exclusive first look: The new Gaetano's reopens on Saturday

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For the past several weeks, whenever I've driven down 38th Avenue, passing my beloved Gaetano's on my way to somewhere else, I've experienced that pit in my stomach, the pit that comes with the fear of the unknown -- the dread that something you've come to know so well won't ever be the same.

See also: Demolition begins on the iconic Gaetano's

It's that sappy thing called nostalgia, and when BW Holdings (Wynkoop/Breckenridge), the entrepreneurial group that owns Gaetano's (and several more iconic Denver restaurants and watering holes), announced in early July that Gaetano's -- the Gaetano's that I grew up in -- would be undergoing a demolition, my heart sank. And mine wasn't the only one. Many of our Cafe Society commenters cried out in anguished unison, pleading with the owners to, at the very least, "keep that old Italian charm that kept people going back for all of these years."

Did they listen?

When I walked inside the doors of Gaetano's earlier this week, hesitating on the sidewalk before pulling the handle, I was determined to smile through the shock and disappointment; I was prepared for the worst.

Instead, I gazed at the new decor and nearly wept -- and not because I was disheartened but because much to my amazement, it impossibly mimicked everything I'd come to love about Gaetano's...only it was -- dare I say it? -- stunningly better.

That "old Italian charm" was evident everywhere I looked, on the walls muraled with life-size black-and-white photos of personalities who, in one way or another, were involved with the Smaldone family back in their heyday; in the crescent-shaped, tufted, burgundy channel-back booths and club chairs that, while new, definitely mirror the old days; and at the bar, where I've spent countless nights with the people I love, drinking classic cocktails and plowing through plates of spaghetti. The bar, thank the Madonna, has been pristinely preserved, the rosewood top, stained glass and ebony-and-chrome stools, proof that the People in Charge are saints, rather than sinners.

Speaking of which, the bathrooms are bedecked with "confessional" stalls, and the floor-to-ceiling painting of the "woman in paradise," which graced the wall in the then-separate private room, now poses squarely between the two bathrooms -- and she still looks as ravishing now as she did four decades ago. Preservation endures.

"I'm not going to lie: Gaetano's was tired," says Lisa Ruskaup, VP of operations, "and we felt like we could be doing a better job for the community if we gave it a little lift." There are a lot of North Denver Italian families, she adds, "who are either getting old, retiring or losing their jobs, and we wanted to give them a neighborhood place to get together -- we wanted to show them that we believe in this neighborhood, and that meant putting some love into a building that, quite frankly, was eroding."

And Ruskaup insists that she and the crew wanted to be "respectful of the past," so they identified what she calls the "three untouchables": the bar, the family history and the painted lady, all of which endure.

This isn't to say that nothing has changed: Booths, the hue of chartreuse, have been added; the former private room now flows into one; the once-weathered (and rotting) hardwoods have been replaced with new hickory that still shines a little too much; and chef Chris Cina's menu has retired the Tasty Treats.

Nonetheless, you'll still find meatballs, lasagna, pasta with red sauce, Italian sausage from Clyde's, pasta Carbonara and alfredo and veal Parmigiana, and while it's a pared down menu from the past, Cina deftly succeeded in preserving it roots, while simultaneously giving those wanting pork chops or swordfish, or wild mushroom ravioli (which is splendid, by the way) bobbing in a Parmesan broth fragranced with porcini dust, those options, too. It's a judicious balance between now and then, and for all you -- me included -- worried that he'd turn the menu into a contemporary Italian shit-show, take heart: He didn't.

And the cocktail syllabus has retained its classic charm, too, although even that has been given a shake and a stir. Now, there's a "little black book" independent of the standard list that focuses on what head bartender Kyle West, otherwise known as the "Underground Gin Smuggler," calls "bartender skills." It's a "hush-hush collection," he says, of eight cocktails (and recipes) that's reminiscent of the Prohibition era. "You have to ask for it," he warns, "but we hope that it will organically take hold over time."

The cocktails will change, he says, but you'll always be able to order the Old-Fashioned, which, in a twist, you make yourself. The components, including a glass with block ice and a tube with Jim Beam, are brought to the table on a tray, and your server will offer the recommended measurements, but the final outcome is really up to you. "The correct recipe is whatever the guest wants it to be," stresses West, whose bar repertoire also includes a barrel aging program that's a collaboration of five Colorado producers, as well as a Negroni cocktail that's available on tap.

Gaetano's will reopen this Saturday, following a series of friends and family dinners, and my prediction is that most of you will like what's inside, including the fact that nearly every single seat faces the door, just in case, you know, there's a shootout, in which case, Gaetano's has your back.

Here's an exclusive first look of what you'll see.

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