Cafe Society

THAT'S ITALIAN

By now, even Americans raised on Spaghetti-Os know the infamous differences between Italy's northern and southern cuisine--but that's just the tip of the boot. In fact, anyone who's been to fewer than half of the country's twenty or so major regions can't claim to be an expert on Italian food. Unless you've sampled the semolina-based gnocchi of Rome, the cornmeal gnocchi of Valle d'Aosta, the potato gnocchi of Verona and the spinach gnocchi of Liguria, you haven't really experienced gnocchi, much less the full array of Italian pastabilities.

In an attempt to replicate some of the old country's more obscure offerings, Italian restaurants in this country often ignore equally authentic dishes. Old standbys such as eggplant parmesan and lasagne have been stereotyped into American cliches for Italian food, but their pedigree is actually as pure as anything cooked up in a remote Tuscan hamlet: The eggplant dish is a native of Napoli, and lasagne originated in Bologna. Food snobs may sneer at restaurants that offer these standards, but done right they can be as warm and comforting as grappa drunk in front of a fire.

Unfortunately, they're rarely done right.
One recent snowy night, we were delighted to find ourselves near Geppetto's, a homey spot in the 'burbs that feels like someone's grandmother's house, even if it is tucked inside a stripped-bare former church. I had dropped by at lunchtime six months ago to test the pasta e fagioli, a Best of Denver winner, so I knew the place had potential. And a full meal there confirmed my suspicions: Geppetto's is a mom-and-pop restaurant that serves up some fine examples of la cucina casalinga, or Italian home cooking.

Only you won't find a mom and pop (much less a grandmother) in the kitchen--just brothers Maurizio and Massimo Gigli. All things are relative, however. These two traveled from Napoli to New York ten years ago in search of a business to call their own. After a few years of working in Big Apple pizzerias, the duo came to Denver to visit an aunt and realized the area had potential for new ventures. "At that time there was nothing happening here," says Maurizio, who handles all of the cooking at Geppetto's except for desserts, which Massimo makes when he isn't taking care of the front of the house. "It wasn't a good time to open a restaurant then, but we felt like it could happen. So we did other things." Those "other things" included stints at the Rattlesnake Club and Strings.

By 1990, though, the possibility of opening their own place was looking more likely. So Maurizio took his family back to Napoli and spent a year watching his parents cook, reacquainting himself with all of his childhood favorites, and then returned to open Geppetto's with his brother in 1993.

Among the family secrets Maurizio brought back with him was his mother's 45-year-old recipe for bucatini all'Amatriciana ($7.75). When we'd ordered this well-known dish in Rome, it arrived at our table covered with another plate so the pasta would continue to soak up the essence of hot pepper. But Geppetto's open-faced presentation worked just as well: The pancetta-studded tomato mixture covering the "spaghetti with a hole" carried just the right touch of crushed red pepper flakes and a liberal application of freshly grated romano.

That cheese, presented tableside by Massimo, appeared during every course but dessert. There was already romano in our appetizer of bruschetta ($6.95), an expensive but worthwhile trio of toasted bread slices thatched with grilled eggplant dripping with a mouth-puckering red wine vinegar marinade, but more made it merrier. We also added cheese to the minestrone (included in the price of the entrees), which already overflowed with crushed, peeled tomatoes and simple garden vegetables that hadn't been stewed into mushiness. The soup arrived hot enough that the romano melted on contact. Bella!

Good as the minestrone was, it couldn't obliterate memories of that pasta e fagioli. Although it's normally offered only at lunch, Maurizio serves the soup at dinner on request. We ordered a big bowl ($4) that went overboard on the rigatoni, but the beautiful bean stew below all the pasta made excavation worthwhile. The name of this traditional Venetian dish lists pasta first, but beans are really supposed to star. Geppetto's recipe came from Papa Gigli, who dictated that both cannellini and kidney beans must be used; pancetta provided the intense flavor. Of course, fresh tomatoes cooked down with garlic and celery didn't hurt, either, nor did a sprinkling of red-pepper flakes and another shake of that heavenly romano.

The brothers Gigli seem to prefer their dishes on the spicy side and offered further proof with the rigatoni alla cacciatore ($7.95). A hunter-style stew of a sauce, the cacciatore came packed with mushrooms, garlic and parsley, which had been finished with white wine and then sparked by hot pepper. Several oversized hunks of Italian sausage made this dish a bargain (as were most of Geppetto's meals): They could back off on the rigatoni here, too, and still offer a knockout product. In contrast, Maurizio went surprisingly--and successfully--light with the layers of noodles in the lasagne ($8.50), which also contained ground beef seasoned with wine, a rousing dousing of romano and a deceptively simple ragu toned down with sugar (to cut the acidity) and further sweetened with fresh basil. The proportion of cheese to meat to noodle was perfect, as was the taste. This lasagne was a world away from the tired, casserole version extolled on the backs of pasta boxes.

With such sound renditions of Italian favorites, it's a shame that Geppetto's has a lousy wine list. The prices are right, but who wants to pay a little for a lot of cheap vino? (We weren't happy with the weak espresso, either.) Given their inadequate wine list, it seemed a bit incongruous that the brothers had taken the time to track down Averno Amaro, a Sicilian digestive made from partly dried grapes and fermented in cherry-wood casks, so that it tastes like one of the better cough syrups mixed with wine (and I mean that in a good way). Still, a complimentary swig of Amaro--which Massimo presented with a flourish--was just what the doctor ordered after we tried his tiramisu ($3.50). This straightforward interpretation of the traditional dessert involved little more than imported ladyfingers, Italian espresso and mascarpone cheese; these few ingredients added up to a light, rich finish that was hard to ignore despite our protestations that we were full. And in fact, we had already finished off an order of zuccotto ($3.50), a slightly smaller portion of an equally solid, liqueur-dipped sponge cake wrapped around vanilla ice cream. Both desserts were sincere endings to a pure and simple meal. "I keep trying to put on some specials that would be more adventurous," Maurizio says. "But then I get everyone who wants to know where all their favorites are. I don't care what some people say; I have to make what the people who support my restaurant want. They keep coming back, and they say, `Maurizio, where is my eggplant parmigiana? Where is my lasagne?' So, I give it to them."

And then some.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner