"We're a family-owned Italian restaurant," says Kim Miceli-Vela, one of the family members behind Mici Handcrafted Italian. "We're extremely family-friendly. But you can't have an Italian restaurant without wine."
And now, thanks to a new rule that Tom Downey, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, signed on August 30, you won't have to. That rule removes the hard-and-fast restriction against restaurant liquor licenses close to schools -- and the move couldn't have come at a better time for Kim Miceli-Vela's family, which is getting ready to open their third restaurant in the former home of An's Lemongrass at 2373 Central Park Boulevard -- right across from a Montessori school.
Under Colorado state law, retail liquor licenses may not be issued for businesses within 500 feet of a school - and the local licensing authority cannot permit waivers or case-by-case exceptions to the distance restrictions. But as the city's explanation of its recent maneuver notes, "The law provides, however, that the local authority may eliminate this distance restriction for an entire class of license, or may eliminate one or more type of schools or campuses from its applicability. For example, Denver previously eliminated the applicability of the 500-foot restriction to university campuses."
So this time, the city eliminated the 500-foot restriction for the entire class of hotel and restaurant liquor licenses -- which applies to "bona fide" restaurants that must derive a certain amount of their revenues from food, rather than taverns that don't need to serve food at all.
Miceli-Vela was at the hearing were the proposed rule change was discussed, and with a fifteen-year history with Denver Public Schools, she understands the concerns that some people voiced at the time. But she also knows how important wine is to an Italian family restaurant, because she comes from an Italian family -- one that got her into the restaurant business. (Mici is an abbreviated form of the family name, Miceli.)
"It was all my brother," she explains. "Right after college, he started a little pizza joint in Florida." And then he and another brother decided to follow Miceli-Vela out to Colorado, where she was working with homeless kids at Denver Public Schools. And after fifteen years of that, she was ready to join her brothers in a new venture, which involved "using our family recipes to create a quick-casual restaurant." At the time, she recalls, the concept was really new - but with fine-dining establishments closing down right and left, the time seemed right. And it was.
Eight years later, the original Mici Handcrafted Italian is still going strong at 1531 Stout Street, as a second location they opened four years ago at 3030 East Second Avenue. And next month, they'll open their third restaurant in Stapleton, where "the community is really embracing us," Miceli-Vela says. And why not? Assuming the spot gets its liquor license -- the new rule doesn't change the application procedure - this Mici will be offering the same pizza-and-bottle-of-wine deal for $25 that's been so popular at the first two.
That Stapleton store isn't the only change in store for Mici Handcrafted Italian. Starting Monday, the Cherry Creek location will offer breakfast (both in the restaurant and delivered) Monday through Friday - and depending on how that goes, it might add Saturday and Sunday. "We have our espresso machine," Kim Miceli-Vela says. "And we're working on breakfast pizzas, panini and frittata."
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A version of this story originally appeared in Cafe Bites, our weekly e-mail newsletter covering Denver's food and drink scene that's sent out every Wednesday. Find out how to sign up here.