While legislatures debate whether the Ten Commandments should be posted in public schools or if Good Friday ought to be an official holiday, food remains comfortingly nondenominational. Everyone prays for a good meal now and then -- and Angelo's delivers.
Actually, you'll want to eat inside the 26-year-old Italian eatery, because the setting is eminently suitable for worshiping at the red-sauce altar. Angelo Laveo took over this central Denver space back in 1974 from Jim Plummer, the original owner of Fratelli's (he sold the restaurant to a new owner last year). Plummer was moving his restaurant down south on Downing Street, but he left behind his church-style decor -- stained-glass windows brought in from Chicago, high-backed, pew-like booths and Mission-style wooden tables and chairs. The result was so convincing that diners kept asking if the building was actually a church in a previous incarnation; Angelo's finally answered the call by printing the answer -- that would be no -- on the back of the menu. Over the years, the restaurant has added two more dining spaces (the original is the first room to the left of the front door) and a very appealing patio that just opened for the summer this past week. But even so, on weekends this cozy, casual place can get very crowded with the faithful -- an urban crowd that includes all races, creeds and body piercings.
At one point, the Laveo family had several Angelo's operating simultaneously, including one in Wyoming, but the others never took off like the original, and one by one they closed. Then Angelo died in 1979, and his wife, Grace, carried on the tradition aided by the three Laveo daughters -- Jennifer Holohan, Roxanne Luch and Angela Culley, who have all worked in the restaurant since their early teens. Although three years ago Grace decided to take more time off, she still shows up almost daily to check on things, and she still makes Angelo's wonderful minestrone and the gazpacho. And Jennifer's husband, Tom, has stepped in to help with the day-to-day operations.
There have been other changes since Angelo founded his namesake restaurant; the family has updated a few recipes and added other items (chocolate suicide cake just wasn't hip in the '70s). But for the most part, Angelo's dishes up the same marinara and cooks the same pizza crust it did in the beginning. These are the kind of Italian-American recipes that only recently regained respectability, as diners realized that while it was fine to enjoy a plate of farfalle in a wild-mushroom demi-glace made with sun-dried cherries, there's really nothing like a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. "I changed the meatball recipe a little bit," Tom confesses. "And we maybe tweaked a few of the dressings here and there, as fresh herbs became more readily available. But it's essentially the same Angelo's it always was."
They did good work on the dressings. The thin but richly flavored blue cheese and the Italian, made with good-quality vinegar and olive oil and packed with fresh herbs, were the best we tasted, but there was also a standard but solid ranch and a tart, creamy Thousand Island. They came on excellent salads, too: fresh, crisp romaine mixed with carrots, red onion, black olives, tomatoes and croutons. The salads and garlic bread -- which can be dry, depending on how busy the place is and how evenly the kitchen coats the inside of the sliced baguette -- are included with any full meals.
But they're both just preludes to the pasta plates, which could hold their own against anything served up in Little Italy. Angelo's red sauce has a thick, heavy texture, a quality that indicates the addition of tomato paste -- but the sauce lacks the bitterness that comes from having a can of tomato goo stand in for long, slow cooking. The kitchen adds plenty of ingredients to bolster this solid foundation -- garlic, basil and oregano primary among them. We sampled this congenial red in the sausage-filled lasagne ($9.50), an order that requires a 25-minute wait but is worth every second, and the homemade spinach manicotti ($9.75), the only pasta that's made on the premises. Although it worked well there, it was particularly good on the skinny vermicelli with homemade meatballs ($7.50), big, fat, meaty balls that Tom says the kitchen spent a few years perfecting. The sauce was also good on the thick noodles with fresh mushrooms ($7.50), although the dish would have been even better if the 'shrooms had been cooked longer.
And then, of course, there's Angelo's heavenly pizza. Not thick, not thin, the dusty-bottomed crust proved ideal for Angelo's thick layering of toppings, which includes the usual roster of meats and vegetables and varies in price from $7.75 for a ten-inch cheese version to $16 for the sixteen-inch Kitchen Sink Combo, a meat-oriented mess that makes for some heavy eating. Angelo's also does one of my favorite white pizzas ($7.75 for a ten-inch), with a slick of olive oil with garlic and fresh basil on top of the soft-centered, crunchy-edged crust.
The sandwiches aren't bad, either. The meatball ($6) splits an eight-inch roll and fills it with meatballs smothered in red sauce and, for an extra fifty cents, provolone cheese. The roll was key: It was thick enough to keep the sandwich from turning into a soggy mess, but not so chewy that eating was painful. And the "poor boy" sandwich ($6) was anything but, with its abbondanza of pepperoni, salami and ham, provolone, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, lettuce, tomato, red onion and a tangy oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Then there's Grace's minestrone ($2.25 a cup), the kind of tasty, hearty soup that warms the soul, with plenty of cooked-down fresh-not-frozen vegetables and pasta, all packed into a tomato broth with just enough salt to bring the flavors up. Combine that with a blob of the homemade tiramisu ($4.75) -- all thick and creamy, with way too much mascarpone (really, no complaints there) and a heavy dusting of cocoa powder -- and you have the ultimate comfort meal.
Sure, eating this much is sinful. But in the comfortable, inviting church of Angelo's, you'll find forgiveness.