Patsy's Italian Restaurant has been around since 1921, which means this neighborhood joint has survived the Great Depression, World War II, the Red Scare, the Vietnam War, disco, the Reagan era and the emergence of the Olive Garden. Decades of history have unfolded around its linen tablecloths, and as other local institutions turn off the stove — nearby Pagliacci's is slated to close two weeks from now — Patsy's keeps cooking. But is this restaurant a worn-out, ricotta-stuffed relic, or a nostalgia-filled, red sauce-slinging spot deserving of its newly hip status?
More than eight decades ago, Michael Carmine Aiello opened Aiello's Italian Kitchen in the northwest Denver neighborhood that was then known as Denver's "Little Italy." His son Pat joined him in the business, and when Pat left to serve in WWII, George "Chubby" Aiello came on board. According to legend, it was Chubby who changed the name of the restaurant to Patsy's, because anti-Italian sentiment was riding high — thanks to Mussolini. Like the new name, Chubby was in for the long haul; he didn't leave until 1997, when he was 92 years old. (He passed away in 2002.) After that, the place changed hands, adding and dropping menu items while still maintaining its swing-era charm. The current owners are Denver natives Ron Cito — a cousin of the Aiello family — and Kim DeLancey, who took over on October 15, 2007.
When I set up shop in Denver in 2010, I asked everyone I met where to find the best local eats. Patsy's was a frequent answer, recommended for its solid, no-frills, recession-priced lasagna, chicken Parmesan and handmade spaghetti noodles topped with homemade red sauce. It didn't take me long to search out the place — you couldn't miss the big, glaring yellow, vintage block letter sign on top of the building — and after several visits in the intervening years, I was back for lunch last week, arriving precisely at the 11 a.m. opening time. Since the staff hadn't gotten around to unlocking the doors, I got to spend some time bonding with a plump, female calico cat with rather engaging social skills.
Patsy-Cat is the Garfield of the restaurant, having shown up one day two years ago — all Les Misérables-esque — with her hungry kitten in tow (the staff named him Monster). When some customers offered to take the waifish pair to their home in the country, Monster went willingly, but Patsy-Cat violently resisted all attempts at relocation. She is a city cat, and she enjoys the three hots and a cot she gets here, as well as the excess of public adulation. Patsy-Cat is just as possessive of the store as the Patsy's clan is of her.
Adorableness helps me work up an appetite.
I was seated in a tall wooden booth with a blush wine-colored tablecloth, a basket of fresh bread already on the table. You can definitely tell this restaurant has been here for a long time; the room has the aroma of old wood and plaster, punctuated by tomato and basil. And the dining room quickly filled up with elderly patrons who were obviously regulars: no menus were needed, and the staff knew them by name. That staff was impeccably friendly and helpful, and had excellent manners — I'm used to and actually expect intellectual snobbery and multiple lip-piercings in servers — so that I never went wanting for bread or beverage. I did need a menu, though, and once I received one I perused the list of such unpretentious Italian staples as linguini with white clam sauce, puttanesca and chicken cacciatore, and a housemade spaghetti with homemade meat sauce. The wine list can be summed up with the first red offering: Riunite Lambrusco. This cheap, sweet, fruity, slightly effervescent wine has definite sentimental value; it was the first alcohol I sipped as a kid in the '80s, over ice cubes, in a plastic cup.
I ordered the chicken Parmesan with a side of homemade spaghetti and red sauce, and the half & half — cheese ravioli and rigatoni, with an added housemade meatball. Since each order came with soup or salad, I went for both the salad and a cup of Patsy's fresh minestrone. My server brought out the soup and salad in less than two minutes. The small salad plate held an iceberg lettuce-heavy, shredded carrot-garnished serving topped with a tangy, housemade bleu cheese dressing that was weighty on the salty, vein-y crumbles. The minestrone tasted like squeaky-fresh vegetables — with thick hunks of peeled carrots, celery and onion in a light tomato broth that was sweet with basil — but the shell pasta was overcooked to the point of dissolving.
The staff does not screw around here; my food came — on monogrammed plates — almost exactly at the fifteen-minute mark after the starters. The cheese ravioli were large and stuffed like throw pillows with ricotta cheese, but they had a cookie-cutter, manufactured look about them. The rigatoni pasta was nothing special — just regular old noodles that you can get anywhere, including King Soopers. The meatball, on the other hand, was very special: all meat, with no bread filler, full of juice and basil. Sadly, it was smaller than I would have liked. There is no such thing as a meatball that is too big.
As I looked around to see if there was a spare meatball, my eye caught the gleam of a glass jar. No! Not the shaky cheese!!!
The jar was full of processed, mostly-not-actual-cheese granules. Why wouldn't a kitchen buy real Parmesan and grate it? The cost differential is not significant, and actual Parm has complex, fruit-forward flavors that greatly enhance pasta dishes. Which these gum-and-filler sprinkles were not going to do. I threw a cloth napkin over the jar so I wouldn't have to look at it.
I should have saved that napkin for the chicken Parmesan, which was a massive let-down. A searing-hot ceramic boat held a thick blanket of half-melted mozzarella cheese over two soggy, gummy-breaded, seasoning-free chicken breasts that tasted like nothing but old, musky fryer oil. All that was swimming in red sauce, but no amount of even Patsy's good sauce — medium-thick, and well balanced between sweet and tangy — could make these birds fly. Fortunately, Patsy's homemade spaghetti was good enough to make me almost forget the earlier disappointments. The fat, squiggly, chewy noodles were the size of drinking straws, swimming in that sauce; they were fun to spear with my fork.
The menu included a "wine sundae," and although mixing wine with ice cream seemed like something that should be attempted with extreme caution — kinda like mixing gasoline with lasers, or Kanye West with other people — I couldn't resist ordering it. My server brought out a beautiful — and tall — footed glass layered with scoops of hard-serve vanilla ice cream, whipped topping and a fruity, sugary red-wine reduction syrup. This tantalizing, warm syrup tasted grapey, but it wasn't a phony, candied grapey-ness; rather, it was like simmered grapeskins and real sugar. I ate every bite and wished Patsy's offered the wine sundae in a Big Gulp-sized serving.
On my way out of the restaurant, I stopped to pet Patsy-Cat. There was only one other person fawning over her — a scruffy man who was either indigent or just dressed like someone who was — and we had a good convo about Garfield. I told him the annoying little striped cat, Nermal, was a boy.
"Huh," he exclaimed. "I didn't ever know that."
"I know, right?" I replied. "It's his big eyelashes that throw you off."
It's these small, seemingly insignificant interactions and exchanges that really flavor a meal at Patsy's. While the Italian food isn't the best in town, the rich, colorful history is unbeatable. As it turns out, Patsy's is neither a relic nor a retro-hip restaurant, but more like a cozy neighbor's kitchen, complete with its own resident feline. I hope it will be around 91 years from now, with a robotic cat outside and people cruising over by jet-pack, stopping in for a taste of yesterday.