Cafe Society

Hot Dog!

One of the reasons I'm staying married to Laura for the rest of my life: She's got a real good eye for hot dogs.

And it's not just hot dogs, either. She can suss out a decent Mexican spot from a block away, will know -- with just a glance and a sniff -- whether an Italian joint is the real deal. She's my go-to authority on Indonesian food, Vegas hotels, Tijuana donkey shows, cheesesteaks, TastyKakes and all things Philadelphian, and can read, judge and dismiss a menu as shlock in the space of five seconds with all the viciousness and precision that is the hallmark of her sex.

On top of all this is her uncanny ability to find good hot dogs in the unlikeliest places. Like Littleton. Like in the corner of an unreconstructed, dirt-lot strip mall full of Asian restaurants, carnicerías and Mexican check-cashing outlets. Ours is not the most stable of partnerships, given that a large part of it is based on unhealthy, psychotic and combative obsessions with food. I don't know too many other couples that will come nearly to blows over Food Network programming, withhold sex at the mere mention of certain restaurants, threaten divorce over a burnt chicken breast, and mend connubial fences with gifts of fancy chopsticks or midnight tacos. But the hot dog thing holds this marriage together. And when she calls me at work, almost breathless, to tell me she's just driven by a spot claiming to offer authentic Buffalo-style Sahlen's hot dogs and horseradish-spiked Weber mustard, a tumbledown joint halfway to nowhere serving Irish bacon sandwiches (cardiovascular bane of my people) and laughably inappropriate, bastardized and thoroughly spaghetti-Western cheese-steaks made with three cheeses, peppers and red sauce (psychological bane of hers) -- that's how she tells me she loves me.

That she picks it out among all the chain restaurants, the mom-and-pops, the forgettable neighborhood bistros and the sandwich shacks she's driven by on her way to wherever she's going is no surprise. She could no more fail to notice such a thing than I could a sushi restaurant offering free tuna to Irishmen. But that she calls and tells me about it -- knowing full well that I'll get all twitchy and lathered up, then drag her there two or ten or a dozen times until we've both become so sick of the place that it becomes yet another of those restaurants whose mere mention causes hissing, spitting marital discord and the breaking of crockery -- is true dedication.

Without Laura and her infallible hot dog radar, I would never have found the Old Fashioned Italian Deli. The next time I marry the woman, I'm mentioning her hot-dog-finding skills in our vows without the slightest hint of blushing sexual innuendo.

The Old Fashioned has held down its corner of West Littleton Boulevard through two generations, beginning with Tom Panzarella -- a born-and-bred Buffalo native who came to Denver in 1976 as an air-traffic controller and ended up a sandwich man -- and continuing today with Tom and his boy Dave working the counter side by side. It was the controllers' strike in the '80s that sent Tom looking for a new way to make a living, his blackballing by the government that forced him into a drastic re-evaluation of his career path. Having a deli like this -- a neighborhood joint, packed from cracked floor to old ceiling with the smells, tastes and memories of his Upstate boyhood -- was something he'd wanted his whole life. So he spent a few years working at other delis in his downtime in order to learn the business, then took the leap in '86. Never before have I been so happy with the fallout from the cruel economics of the Reagan era. If not for that addlebrained TV cowboy and his vengeful union-busting antics, we wouldn't have the Old Fashioned today. Which, I supposed, just goes to prove that things trickle down in strange ways sometimes, and that even the most wrongheaded policies can bear unexpected fruit.

The Old Fashioned will turn twenty next St. Paddy's Day, and as you step inside, you can feel every day of those two decades folding around you like a blanket of history. The place does not hide its years, has no luster but for that patina of age and hard use that comes from long service to the community. On the outside, the silvered windows are covered with hand-painted advertisements for Sahlen's hot dogs, calzones, deli sandwiches and cold drinks. Inside, the sun floods a cluttered room with dusty shelves, with dry Italian import pastas for sale, with Marilyn Monroe and Sopranos memorabilia -- every piece a gift from a customer, a regular, a friend of the house, each one presented freely, without so much as a demand for a free sandwich in return. The booths are patched and gut-sprung, the tables worn from a million swipes of the rag. Specials and menu favorites are written on construction paper taped to the front of the deli cases and the walls. A collection of baseball hats hangs over the register with its large sign explaining house policy: Cash or check, no credit, no plastic, no exceptions. The whole joint smells like tomatoes that have given their life for a good cause and of pizza dough blistered in the oven that warps the air over the far end of the counter. There's nothing false about the Old Fashioned. You walk in and it just feels right -- comfortable as an old pair of sneakers and like home, no matter where your home might have been.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan