You can throw off the checkered tablecloths and add a fresh coat of varnish, but you can't erase the spirit of a good old Italian restaurant. Gaetano's Restaurant has been ladling red and pouring white in North Denver since 1947, but a change of ownership in 2005 (when the venerable joint was purchased by what was then the Wynkoop group) lead to a controversial 2012 remodel. And at the end of 2013, the place was sold by Breckenridge-Wynkoop LLC to Ron Robinson. There's still a market for old-school Italian-American in Denver, and Gaetano's is hoping to prove it can swing with the old-timers and still attract the younger crowd. As part of that effort, happy hour appears here Tuesday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m and 10 to midnight, and all day Monday with specials on booze and appetizers. But it don't mean a thing if Gaetano's has lost that old-fashioned zing.
It looks the part, in any case. Any Denver history buff would love to see the place again in its mid-century glory, after it was built more than sixty years ago by what was then Denver's most notorious crime family. But after dark, the new joint has a bit of speakeasy-style elegance to accompany its historic charm. The black-and-white portrait murals on the wall evoke nostalgia for days gone by. The menu is nostalgic as well, with plates of meatballs, layered lasagna, chicken Marsala and the rest of the Italian food pyramid in attendance.
On a late weekday night, a few friends and I popped in to sample Gaetano's happy hour goods after most kitchens were closing up shop ."The Shakedown" offers discounts on red and white wine, a buck off of something from the well-thought draft list, or a $6 vodka martini. After the first round, we had the kitchen (which closes at 10 p.m. on weekdays) working furiously to pump out some heavy appetizers. Both late-night and afternoon happy hours bring a fleet of small plates for $5 each. Well, not "small," exactly — these half-price dishes are plenty big, meaning the meatball sliders bring two clementine-sized meatballs between hearty bread, slathered in an addictively briny pesto. Fried ravioli was a surprise hit at the table — hot, stuffed with fresh ricotta and far from a frozen Olive Garden nightmare. And the "tasty treats" ($7, not on happy hour) are back from the past in all their Euro-Colorado splendor: Strips of green chiles with cheese and a finely spiced and finely ground sausage proved a winning combination when wrapped in pizza dough.
Everything we ordered was accompanied by a ramekin of the house red sauce, and if it ain't like granny Smaldone used to make it, it was still the ideal accompaniment to all this dough and cheese. Factor in that pesto, and Gaetano's sauce game is on point. The only thing it couldn't save was an order of slightly rubbery and certainly bland calamari rings, which were eventually comped by our honest and unflagging server.
Even without the years of history behind it, Gaetano's has got the goods, and churning out dependable food later at night is a good sign. Add in a bit of the old Denver charm and some good liquor, and Gaetano's is an offer you can't... well, you know.
Perfect for: The barflies that used to haunt this place regularly might have moved to divier lairs, but ask around or interrogate the waitstaff for some juicy stories. The place is a crowdpleaser, so you can bring the extended family and wow them with tales of Denver's underworld.
Don't miss: Gaetano's offers a special deal for folks in the food service industry just getting off shift — or steeling themselves to go on. After 10 p.m. every day, order a drink and ask for the industry special and you'll get a Italian sandwich on the house. Consider it your new shift meal.
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