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Review: At Fifty, Saucy Noodle Ristorante Feels Like an Old Friend

Saucy Noodle Ristorante 727 South University Boulevard 303-733-6977

In August, just days after the owners of Lechuga's, one of Denver's oldtime Italian restaurants, sold their spot and retired, Saucy Noodle Ristorante celebrated a different kind of milestone: its fiftieth anniversary. Curious to see why the Noodle has survived when so many other red-sauce joints -- including Pagliacci's, Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli and Longo's Subway Tavern -- have gone dark, I went in search of some hot, hard facts to twirl around my fork.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Saucy Noodle Ristorante

I walked in under Saucy Noodle's red-and-white-striped canopy, which cautions, "If you don't like garlic, go home!" -- and found the same red walls, vintage photographs and big-band music that have been hallmarks of this family-run business for decades. But rather than making it feel like a relic, as at restaurants that embody a past nobody remembers, Saucy Noodle's decor contributes to a space -- enlarged over the years to seat 150, up from the original 48 -- that feels fully alive. More than that, the restaurant feels friendly, equally eager to welcome newcomers and regulars to its big black booths, which isn't always evident in places that have been feeding members of the same family for generations. Many of those habitués were around to celebrate at last month's bash. "People came back and said, 'You waited on me when you were eight,'" recalls owner Erin Markham, who grew up in the restaurant and took it over from her grandfather, Sam Badis, in the '90s.

The server got our night off to a good start, greeting us with a big "Hi!" and putting down his plastic pitcher of water in order to point out his favorites on the five-page menu. Guests were just as enthusiastic. A young dad at the booth across the aisle extended his basket of popcorn, which we hadn't known to request. "You guys want some?" he asked, holding it out so we could grab a handful. "They make it at the bar." In fact, it's made by Erin's husband, Nathan, a onetime Saucy Noodle cook (that's how the couple met) and popcorn-loving Chicago transplant. On subsequent visits, we felt like regulars in disguise, ordering popcorn with our Chianti while we debated the merits of pizza versus pasta. But that first night, we didn't need our own basket of garlic-parmesan kernels: We were about to order a feast, and we knew it.

Unlike at newer, trendier spots, Saucy Noodle doesn't divide its dishes into categories such as small and large plates or "for me" and "for the table." Instead, the menu has headings that tell it like it is -- appetizers, entree salads, baked pasta and so forth -- and everything ends up for the table anyway, given the ample portions. We gravitated toward items with house-specialty symbols next to them or "famous" in the description. One such appetizer, mozzarella cheese bread, resembled cheese-slathered Texas toast, and I left it alone. But I did pop my share of cornmeal-crusted olives stuffed with Asiago, dipped in a side of marinara so full of garlic and herbs it nearly had the color and texture of meat sauce. If the olives had been briny green instead of waxy black, I would've finished them off. Instead, they got pushed aside for the next course: an Italian dinner salad.

The salad, with basic antipasto over iceberg and romaine, used to come free with entrees. Last spring, however, a $2 charge was added, which hasn't gone over well with regulars, judging from comments overheard at nearby tables. Maybe those folks wouldn't complain if other prices didn't already seem on the steep end, such as $17.95 for ravioli that aren't made in-house. Or maybe those folks were the kind who'd walked two miles to school, uphill both ways, in the snow. Either way, food costs are high, and in 2014, nothing is free -- not even pretzels on airplanes.

Other signs of the times are a gluten-free menu; healthier, whole-grain penne; and an occasional foray into more sophisticated fare, such as Gorgonzola-stuffed gnocchi over wilted spinach. But Erin, who has memories of falling asleep on chairs in the restaurant with her grandfather's overcoat as a blanket, is careful to balance the Noodle she remembers with its 21st-century persona. More than the food, it is that balance, clearly appreciated by the neighborhood's family crowd, that has given the restaurant its staying power. "Our food is consistent," says Erin. "It's not always the best, but people like consistency; people like coming in for the old familiar thing."

Keep reading for the rest of our review of Saucy Noodle Ristorante.

Topping that list is Mamma's baked lasagna, a fat stack of noodles, herb-laden ricotta, sausage and ground beef that arrived in a scalding-hot dish covered in cheese that had bubbled over and crisped. It was eclipsed in size only by the combination plate, with a hand-rolled, all-beef meatball, a link of spicy Italian sausage, and piles of rigatoni, cheese ravioli and linguini (described on the menu as homemade, but actually sourced elsewhere). An identical, unbaked combo plate is available for $2 less, but we opted for the baked version, with brown, oven-crisped noodles that reminded us of large childhood gatherings where pasta was the economical entree of choice. Our platter could have used more sauce, though. The Maiale Cleopatra, a pork cutlet layered with ricotta, baked eggplant parmigiana and melted mozzarella, also needed another ladleful of sauce.

About that sauce: Saucy Noodle makes all the classics and then some, including nut-free pesto and red sauce with canned clams. The house red on our pasta combo plate was sweet and smooth (if scant), strained to remove all chunks, garlic and herbs. Those same ingredients, however, were front and center in the marinara, the sauce behind the canopy's warning. I found it not overly garlicky, but too full of herbs, so I was glad we encountered it only as an accent to the fried olives. One night the meat sauce, a variation of the house red, could have used more meat, but on every occasion the arrabbiata was spot-on, with no sugar or tomato paste but plenty of crushed red pepper, giving the sauce a lighter, fresher profile.

When Erin's grandfather bought the business in 1964, the restaurant was a pizzeria that served a few pasta dishes. The Markhams expanded the pizza selection in the late '90s; today the list of specialty and custom pies includes clever names (Chèvre Lait, Ferrari, etc.) and toppings from green chiles to pineapple. But under those toppings are dense, heavy crusts that can't compare with the chewy, air-bubble-filled versions made by today's competition.

Still, we were assuaged by the nutty, fruity spumoni, sourced from a creamery in Chicago, that ended our meal. We ate that spumoni with remnants of every course that had preceded it still on the table; service here can be a bit casual. In fact, our server had a tableside manner so low-key, I felt like he was welcoming me to a performance of his garage band. "Oops, a little spillage," he commented as water sloshed from his pitcher. But his attitude, like the food itself, was nothing if not friendly, a personification of the family that has run the Saucy Noodle for all these years.

Select menu items at Saucy Noodle: Mozzarella cheese bread $5.95 Stuffed olives $8.95 Baked combination plate $21.95 Mamma's baked lasagna $16.95 Gorgonzola-stuffed gnocchi $15.95 Maiale Cleopatra $15.95 Lancia pizza, 10" $14 Side of spaghetti and meat sauce $4.95 Spumoni $2.95

Saucy Noodle Ristorante is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday. Find out more at saucynoodle.com

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