While I nursed a glass of cheap house red at the Gaetano's bar, I watched neighbors cycle in to pick up their to-go orders. First came a couple in running gear, talking with a little too much enthusiasm about how great their workout was. They were replaced by a young guy in a wool coat who waited in silence, never glancing up from his BlackBerry. After he left, a mother and her high-school-aged son dropped in to get a carry-out feast.
The steady stream of customers was a good sign that the neighborhood is really behind this place, with people relying on the Gaetano's kitchen for their Sunday supper even if they didn't have time to sit in one of the plush, quilted booths in the dark, front dining room, which hummed with conversation all night long. But then, Gaetano's has always been a neighborhood joint -- even if the neighborhood has definitely changed from the days when this restaurant was owned by the Smaldone family, Denver's legendary organized-crime family that served up marinara sauce in the restaurant but specialized in far more illicit ventures behind closed doors. The bulletproof glass in the front door attests to those interesting times.
When the Wynkoop group added Gaetano's to its growing family of restaurants a half-dozen years ago, it tried to commodify this colorful history, employing the slogan "Italian to die for" and keeping some of the classic cheesiness, including the dark bar and the shrine to Frank Sinatra. But while the "to die for" catchphrase is just plain dumb, the Wynkoop crew also made some smart updates to the menu.
Disappointed by my meals at Carmine's, I'd stopped by for pasta in a basic marinara, hoping for a thick, garlicky, savory sauce that would wipe out my memories of the thin marinara at Carmine's (where the seafood in that sauce tasted like it really was "Italian to die for"). Instead, I got talked into Gaetano's diavola, that same marinara punched up with the heat of red chiles. The sauce was indeed thick and tangy, studded with chunks of tomatoes, laced with fire and given depth with plenty of basil and oregano; it smothered a nest of spaghetti noodles and a peppery meatball the size of a billiard ball. I haven't enjoyed a red sauce so much in years, and I ate it with singular focus, using a basket of mediocre bread to sop up every speck.
The dangerous thrill of the mob might be gone from Gaetano's, but today the restaurant has an offer this neighborhood truly can't refuse: great food.