A restaurant doesn't have to be old to be old-school, but character and experience certainly add to the charm. Even if a red-sauce joint doesn't have the best Italian cuisine in the city, the combination of history, welcoming service (like being at mama's table for Sunday dinner), and good, hearty Italian-American pasta dishes can add up to something special. Here's a list of our ten favorite old-school Italian restaurants in the metro area.
10) Saucy Noodle 727 South University Boulevard 303-733-6977 The Saucy Noodle just celebrated 50 years in business under the same family ownership this year; owner Erin Markham took over in the 1990s from her grandfather Sam Badis. Our restaurant critic Gretchen Kurtz, in her recent review of the garlic-loving joint, noted that the "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." Don't expect anything fancy -- just the same meatballs, pastas, pizzas and family atmosphere that have been keeping Bonnie Brae neighbors coming back for decades.
9) Carl's Pizzeria 3800 West 38th Avenue 303-477-1694 From 38th Avenue, it's easy to drive right past Carl's; the facade and aging sign are welcoming more to those who know this part of town as North Denver than to trendsetters restaurant-hopping from LoHi to Sunnyside to Berkeley. An old-time neighborhood Italian joint serving good spaghetti and meatballs, manicotti and pizza, Carl's sits in a no-man's land between those hip 'hoods. Dinners come with bread and soup or salad. It's nothing fancy -- you can even buy spaghetti with meat sauce by the pint or quart.
8) Lechuga's 3609 Tejon Street 303-455-1502 Lechuga's got its start in the 1960s as Carbone's Bakery, and although Chuck Lechuga and Rachael Vigil, owners since 1989, just retired and sold the place, Lechuga's is still the place to go for the famous canolis, a mainstay of this northwest Italian eatery since the two took over. Glassed-in shelves house trays piled high with sausages and meatballs encased in sheaths of golden crust, handwritten labels distinguishing "hot" from "mild," "meatball" from "devil" and, though it hardly needs explanation, "mini" from the rest.
Keep reading for more of our favorite Italian-American eateries.
7) Patsy's 3651 Navajo Street 303-477-8910 Patsy's is another survivor in the neighborhood now called LoHi, but that has gone by many other names over the years, including Little Italy. After more than ninety years in northwest Denver, Patsy's continues to make history -- and great pasta. The traditions in this kitchen are strong. The spaghetti is thick, the red sauce mercifully free of unwarranted spiciness and the mussels in white wine and garlic an absolute must whenever you sit down at one of the house's wobbly old tables. If traditional, street-corner ristorante Italian has a champion in Denver, it's Patsy's.
6) Gennaro's 2598 South Broadway 303-722-1044 Gennaro's has been a low-key, red-sauce, neighborhood Italian joint for more than fifty years. Separated from its companion bar by a bank of windows (you can also order off the menu in the bar), the dining room has just a few tables with red-checked cloths, as well as a view of the kitchen cooking up pizza and pasta. Hand-tossed pizzas and calzones big enough for two highlight a menu long on red-sauce classics like lasagna, baked ziti, and sausage and peppers.
5) Gaetano's 3760 Tejon Street 303-455-9852 Gaetano's underworld history, when the place was run by the Smaldone crime family, is familiar to Denver natives, as is the 2012 overhaul from the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group. There's still plenty of history left in the place (not so much a joint anymore), and it's back in independent hands, since it was purchased by Ron Robinson late last year. Gaetano's is still a great neighborhood spot with a swank, Frank Sinatra vibe, and the sauce is a marked improvement from the days of the Smaldones.
4) Mama Sannino's 5800 West 38th Avenue, Wheat Ridge 303-420-4756 Mama Sannino's has only been around for nine years and is already on its second location (the original was displaced to make room for a Walmart). Still, family photos, vintage signs, and shelves full of knickknacks, the place has the feel of a vintage Italian-American joint serving up tangy, smooth red sauce and good cheer to regulars who have followed owners Karen and Jimmy Sannino to the new spot, which opened late last year.
3) Angelo's Taverna 620 East 6th Avenue 303-744-3366 Angelo's has been in the same spot for some 40 years, but was just purchased from the Laveo family and remodeled in the spring of 2013 by Eric Hyatt and Craig Jones. The new owners added an oyster bar serving raw and grilled oysters, but kept the proprietary meatball, sausage and red sauce recipes. The new vibe is fun and modern, but retains the neighborhood charm of the original. So suck down a few oysters if you want, but don't skip the amazing cheesy garlic bread with marinara sauce.
2) Romano's 5666 South Windermere Street, Littleton 303-798-4944 Romano's has been serving impressive plates of spaghetti -- and everything else covered with its dense, garlicky red sauce -- since 1967 just of Littleton Boulevard in a sleepy neighborhood a few blocks from the suburb's Old Town. All the old-school favorites are here: spaghetti with clams, eggplant Parmigiana, pizzas and calzones. Romano's is the real deal -- family, food and tradition come together the make this a city favorite, even for those outside the southern suburbs.
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SHOW ME HOW
1) Cafe Jordano 11068 West Jewell Avenue, Lakewood 303-988-6863 Jordano's is a classic Italian strip mall restaurant that doesn't take reservations -- because if it did, there'd never be an open table for the neighbors. Regulars arrive a half-hour before the start of dinner, jockeying for position and counting heads to make sure they'll get a seat. Nearly everything at the eatery, run by the Heitman family for more than two decades, is wonderful and well-considered -- from the smallest touch of service to the most labor-intensive entree.