Cafe Society


Three weeks ago, I had the worst shrimp scampi of my life.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about it when I reviewed Grand Lux Cafe. The shrimp scampi there was so bad that even though I ate only a few bites before pushing it away, the horror of it (and the stink) stayed with me for days. All it took was the barest flutter of a thought, and all of a sudden I could taste it all over again — this terrible, over-jacked, greasy-creamy mess of lemon and garlic and mealy battered shrimp slicking my tongue like the memory of vomit long after the sickness has passed.

A week ago, I decided that the only solution — the only way to shake that nasty-scampi nickel loose in my head and make it drop — was to find another scampi whose memory might overlay the first. And not just any scampi would do. I needed to find a great one. And I needed to find it, like, now.

I have a theory to explain the evils of places like Grand Lux. I call it the Olive Garden Conjecture, and it goes something like this:

The reason that restaurants like Grand Lux and Olive Garden are so evil is the very real possibility that people who don't know any better (civilians, casual diners, my parents) might walk away from them thinking that this is what a plate of shrimp scampi/fettuccine Alfredo/spaghetti Bolognese is supposed to taste like. After having eaten their fill of starchy pasta, bagged sauce, limp vegetables and proteins that have as much flavor as chewing on a hunk of rubber, customers' brains begin making a connection: the words "shrimp scampi" equaling this terrible, unforgivable Frankenstein thing. Go back to the trough often enough and that link will become permanent. And then, when these civilians go to a real restaurant and order a plate of real shrimp scampi, they will be disappointed because it doesn't taste like the Olive Garden version — which is now all that they know. I fear for the children who are brought to such chain restaurants by their parents, who are reared on gooey noodles and sauces full of chemicals, shelf-stabilizers and flavor-enhancers, sauces that use lemon analogs and concentrated garlic flavoring rather than an actual lemon, an actual clove of garlic. I fear for adults who, through carelessness or stupidity, have allowed themselves to fall into this trap.

But there is a corollary to the Olive Garden Conjecture, which holds that all the malevolent wickedness of these culinary clip joints can be thwarted by just one plate, just one bite of a corresponding dish done extraordinarily well somewhere else. The trick of the chain restaurants is to keep you coming back, keep you convinced that there's nothing better for you out there. Low prices, huge portions, food that is harmless and consistently comforting (if never actually good): That's how they do it. But like an instant lobotomy worked through the mouth, one bite of the real thing can completely burn out those Pavlovian circuits.

I found my redemptive scampi at Gemelli's Italian Restaurant in northwest Denver, the quarter from which comes all good sausage, all good red sauce, all good memories of Italian food done right. I wasn't going in blind (though I certainly could have, since I could walk blindfolded through that neighborhood and still be reasonably sure of finding myself a fine plate of spaghetti and meatballs), but rather depending on a known quantity: Gemelli's, which partners Jeff Young and Ken Griffin (a former owner of Poggio's and current owner of Sushi Hai) opened in a small house on Tennyson Street in January. The restaurant is named for Griffin's twin grandchildren; its menu is designed around classic, East Coast immigrant preparations that the owners picked up while researching in New York and New Jersey; and it's staffed with chefs and cooks of perfect pedigree: white-jackets who came to Denver from Italy by way of Chicago and New Jersey.

I'd been to Gemelli's before, and had decent (though not spectacular) margherita pizza and interesting (though, again, not spectacular) pizza cipollata with three kinds of cheese, two colors of onions and enough garlic to guarantee my safety against bites from vampires and kisses from my wife. I'd been there for a takeout order of fantastic gnocchi Bolognese in an addictive meat gravy, mounted with heavy cream and spiked with a splash of cheap wine, and then for another to-go of the same dish that didn't nearly measure up to the first but gave me an excuse to have the kitchen make a simple, off-menu order of penne in a three-cheese sauce garnished with nothing more than a sprig of parsley that was so good I would've gladly chewed the Styrofoam if Gemelli's hadn't included half a loaf of good, squishy bread with which to capture every drop of the sauce.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan