This week's review of Locanda del Borgo got me thinking about other spots in town where the view of Italy stops at the door -- which exist wholly as Colorado restaurants that just happen to serve Italian food. What follows is a list of those places which most closely hew to that nativist line and leave a diner rooted firmly in the rich history of the Rockies.
Patsy's Inn, 3651 Navajo Street. 80 years of Colorado history in one place, from Michael Carmine Aiello's joint, Aiello's Italian Kitchen, to Chubby Aiello's name change (turning the place Irish overnight because of resentment against Italians during WWII) to it's sale in 1997 and re-sale last year to a second cousin of Chubby himself. Patsy's calls itself "Denver's oldest Italian restaurant," but age has served Patsy's well and given the place the kind of historic long-view that's sadly lacking in so many of Denver's dining institutions.
Gaetano's, 3760 Tejon Street. This is not my favorite restaurant. As a matter of fact, the food isn't very good at all. But that doesn't alter the fact that Gaetano's has got some serious history in Denver--a past played up for lightweight laughs by the new owners, the Wynkoop Group, but one that was heavy in its day. With it's bullet-proof front door and basement offices, the Smaldone family used Gaetano's as a base for a variety of criminal enterprises back in the days of the Denver mob. And while the top floor was always used as a restaurant (from 1947 straight through 'til today), it was downstairs where the real action was--gambling and loan-sharking and worse. And while I'm not crazy about what comes from the kitchen, Gaetano's still has a great bar for those who want to get a feel for what it might've been like sipping cocktails in Denver fifty years ago.
Barolo Grill, 3030 East 6th Avenue. While Barolo (which opened in 1992) might not have the fifty or eighty years of history of the above restaurants, it still has a past with a uniquely Denver slant. This is, after all, the restaurant run by Blair Taylor. And Blair Taylor (along with guys like Mel Master and Radek Cerny and Robert Tournier and others) helped to define Denver's fine dining scene decades before I finally made it to town.
Venice Ristorante, 1700 Wynkoop Street. History got made in two ways at Venice. One, it opened in the space vacated by what was formerly one of Denver's most well-known restaurants: Adega--and I would've bet the farm that no one would've been able to make a go in that space after Chef Moscatello and company cleared out. And two, it was brought to life by a guy who, previously, had nothing more than a strip mall space out in Greenwood Village. But that guy was Alessandro Carollo (born in Palermo, former chef at the Grand Hotel in Florence) and he made it work by crafting a beautiful restaurant around the bones of Adega and bringing in chef Christian Della Fave to cook some of the best high-tone Italian in the city.
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Luca d'Italia, 711 Grant Street. Owner and chef Frank Bonanno makes a new name for himself with every restaurant he opens. And while Luca may only be a few years old, it stands in my mind as a turning point for Denver Italian: one of the first places in the city to meld authentic and delicious Italian food with a modern atmosphere and a floor that was full every single night with people willing to pay a nice chunk of change for Italian food done as well as it could be done. The food at Luca may be Italian, but the vibe and the view is pure Colorado.