I don’t normally review restaurants where placemats are decorated with pictures of what I’m eating. But there I was, sitting in a red trolley at The Old Spaghetti Factory, a plate of Spaghetti Vesuvius before me. “WARNING,” the placemat cautioned in all capital letters ringed by a red box. “This is spaghetti with a KICK!”
I gave my plate a once-over, then glanced again at the picture. On paper, the spaghetti was smothered with a shiny brown sauce that seemed like a cross between chicken marsala and the oily, cornstarch-thickened stuff at bad Chinese joints. Assorted lumps and bumps were presumably meats and vegetables, but they looked drab and chunky, like food that’s come up the wrong way. How this picture made it past the marketing team is beyond me.
If my pasta had come out looking like that, in order to eat it I would have had to muster up the same determination I used the first time I swallowed tripe. But in a 180 from the Photoshopping norm, reality looked far better than the picture. Green peppers, onions and tomatoes commingled in a sauce that wasn’t brown or oily, and if it seemed thick at all, it was only because of the hefty amounts of chicken, Italian sausage and meatballs it contained, which had all been simmered to tenderness. But relief turned to surprise as I twirled a few bites. These noodles weren’t about to erupt with heat. Indeed, if the cayenne and Tabasco vaunted on the placemat had been added at all, they only raised the heat to the level of cracked black pepper. Spaghetti with a KICK? More like a gentle pat on the head. And this, it turns out, is by design. “We want people to be satisfied with what they get, but not so far out there,” says Chris Hein, who started at Denver’s Old Spaghetti Factory forty years ago as a dishwasher and now works in the Portland headquarters as vice-president of food and beverage. “Our regular sauces are flavorful, but as far as the spice profile goes, we keep it middle-of-the-road.”
Why bother with middle of the road when I could be drinking craft beer and eating house-pickled something-or-other sourced from a local farm? Why review a 12,000-square-foot, 42-year-old Italian restaurant that, while family owned, is one of 44 worldwide? Because I needed to solve a mystery: How is the Old Spaghetti Factory able to survive in a juiced-up food scene that sees hundreds of new restaurants a year, a scene so competitive that it recently gobbled up the acclaimed Lower48 Kitchen and Trillium, both just a few blocks from this prime LoDo location? And not just survive, mind you, but do volume that would make any restaurateur happy? On Saturdays alone, OSF serves nearly 1,000 meals.
So I did as regulars do at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I sat in the trolley. I sang along as servers belted out “Happy Birthday” to little kids. I said yes when my daughter asked for cotton-candy limeade, a bright-blue drink with an equally blue puff of cotton candy dangling from the straw. I ate enough pasta to feed a football team and still found room for spumoni. And among my discoveries: Value counts here. Most entrees are priced at $15 or below, and come, as they have for decades, with warm bread, your choice of soup or salad, and dessert.
While that loaf of sourdough may have the flimsy crust of a roll, it’s warm enough to melt the butter and served before kids grow restless.
Gorgonzola dip, an appetizer you don’t really need with so much food coming, is still a crowd-pleaser, the cheese’s assertiveness quieted with plenty of warm cream cheese. Salads are refreshing, with crisp greens that stay that way thanks to refrigerated bowls, even if the flecks of red cabbage and carrot in the bagged blend of iceberg and romaine offer more color than taste. The minestrone available in place of salad is straight out of central casting. And a side of broccoli pleases parents and kids alike — parents because the kids are eating something green, kids because the florets are drizzled (or, in my case, flooded) with brown butter and sprinkled with mizithra, a Greek cheese that kids probably assume is parmesan.
In a world where trends dictate the format and content of menus — small plates, kale salads, sliders, etc. — the offerings here are reassuringly standard. Though two or three dishes are added with every menu update, which Hein says happens twice a year, the core rarely changes. These are dishes that fit every stereotype about red-sauce Italian food as we experienced it growing up, which is to say it’s less Italian than it is Italian-American — not that anyone back then talked about the difference. More than that, it’s comfort food twice over: easy to eat (hence that mild Vesuvius) and full of nostalgia, whether it conjures memories of your own early trips to the Old Spaghetti Factory or cans of Chef Boyardee in your lunchbox.
And while I’m on the subject of Chef Boyardee, let me note that real cooking is occurring in this kitchen, even if bland results suggest otherwise. Scratch marinara is chunky, with carrots and onions and a mainstream sweetness in line with jarred sauces of the supermarket variety. Mushroom sauce offers more of the same, with marinara topped by sautéed mushrooms. Meat sauce has a smoother tomato base, but twice ours had so little meat that it tasted mostly like red sauce, a far cry from the wine-splashed, meat-heavy Bolognese widely served today. Lasagna is more robust, perked up with a mixture of sausage and beef, but spinach-cheese ravioli tasted like the stuff of school cafeterias. A new dish called “gourmet sausage ravioli” looked striking, the large stuffed triangles streaked with red. But the blanket of garlic Alfredo was overly rich, and the filling was so wet I had to check to make sure the sausage was fully cooked. Sauce on chicken marsala had the cornstarchy texture of the sauce from the Vesuvius picture. Meatballs were dried out, as if they’d been added to the sauce upon plating. They hadn’t been, but we still never finished ours. Then again, we never finished any of our entrees, coming as they did on the heels of so much food.
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And that’s the secret of the Old Spaghetti Factory. Kids love the trolley and dessert-like drinks. Parents like the fact that they can go out to eat as a family without worrying about the noise level. And above all, whoever is paying the bill likes the fact that three courses come for the price of an appetizer elsewhere. As far as whodunits go, this is no mystery: The Old Spaghetti Factory may not serve food with a KICK!, but its vintage decor, low prices and mild-mannered food have inspired generations to foot the bill.
The Old Spaghetti Factory
1215 18th Street
Gorgonzola dip $7.75
Marinara sauce $8.99
Rich meat sauce $11.25
Mushroom sauce $9.99
Sausage ravioli $13.99
Chicken marsala $12.50
The Old Spaghetti Factory is open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at osf.com.