During weekday lunch at Lechuga's, the sliver of space connecting the restaurant to the lounge is packed. In that narrow hallway, cops bump into tattooed misanthropes and old men from the neighborhood go head to head with packs of teenagers, all eyes on the display case at the counter. White lights in those glassed-in shelves shine down on trays piled high with sheaths of golden crust encasing sausages and meatballs, with hand-written labels distinguishing "hot" from "mild," "meatball" from "devil" and, though it hardly needs explanation, "mini" from the rest.
These are the famous Lechuga's canolis, a mainstay of this northwest Denver eatery since Chuck Lechuga and Rachael Vigil bought the place 22 years ago from Richard Carbone and changed the name from Carbone's to Lechuga's. (Richard Carbone is no relation to Dominic Carbone, who once owned the nearby Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli.) While the savory, stuffed pastries look somewhat like fist-sized calzones, they are much, much better.
Know what you want before you reach the front of the line, or you risk being crushed by the masses during a moment of indecision. "Mild" gets you a juicy, fennel-packed link of sausage from Clyde's Sausage and Ground Beef enshrined in crisp, yeasty dough; "meatball" packs a dense, golf-ball-sized serving of ground pork, also made at Clyde's, into the same casing. The "devil" stuffs a taut sausage flecked with bits of red pepper and fennel inside a shell of bread lined with strips of lightly roasted, biting jalapeño. This canoli comes in "mini" form, too, a two-bite "Little Devil" that's ideal for a mid-afternoon snack — or for setting out by the dozen at a party.
If you do make it past the canoli-craving crowd, you'll reach the wood-paneled dining room, which is adorned haphazardly with clowns, paintings and other Italian kitsch and just as jammed with a constantly turning mass of people who fill tables as soon as they empty. The room is shabby, though homey, and the food tastes a little tired, too: salads made from iceberg lettuce and bottled dressing, limp spaghetti noodles in thin tomato sauce that's lightly sweet — like ketchup or canned tomatoes — but otherwise unspiced.
You can order the canolis in the dining room, too, and even ask for them to be smothered — though you'll get that same mediocre marinara completely obliterating the thin sheet of provolone over the hearty pockets. Still, eating them here will give you ample opportunity to listen to longtime residents of this once heavily Italian neighborhood swapping stories about the good old days.
You'll still have to fight the lines to reach the counter to pay your tab. But at least while you're there, you can pick up a couple (or a couple dozen) canolis to go, saving them or snacking on them while you saunter down the streets of northwest Denver.