Happy Place: Gaetano's, 3760 Tejon Street, 303-477-6096
The Hours: Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m.
The Deals: $1 off Wynkoop draft beers; $3 cocktails, including homemade limoncello; $3 truffle fries; $2 mini paninis and mini caprese salads
Were we happy? Flip the page to find out.
The Digs: The door to Gaetano's is bulletproof, which isn't surprising, considering that Gaetano's used to be the headquarters of the Smaldone family -- the closest thing to a mafia Denver has ever seen. The Smaldone brothers ("Chauncey," "Checkers" and "Flip Flop") had impressive criminal records and reportedly loaned upwards of $30,000 a day out of the basement of Gaetano's. In 1953, the former Denver manager of Public Safety refused to renew the joint's liquor license while the brothers were being investigated in multiple murder cases.
The days of the Smaldones and their mob mischief are long gone, but Gaetano's still resembles the kind seedy joint you'd expect from former mafia digs. Dark but not dingy, the room is blanketed in black vinyl and plastic shades of bold red. The bar is long and narrow, making those without claim to a stool feel slightly out of place. Liquor bottles are stacked on low-rising shelves, and the bartenders dance among each other as they pour drinks and yak it up with the neighborhood folk.
The Verdict: It had been a shit day -- the kind of day where the only thing carrying you through is the vision of a cocktail. The type of day that only gets worse once you realize that your driver's license is still tucked into the jeans you wore the night before and the bartender is carding you.
The reality of a sober happy hour had sunk in, and the barkeep introduced herself as Buzzard. She was the token lifer bartender: an old soul with a face that tells a million stories -- the type of woman you don't want to fuck with. Ever.
"What do you call the patch of hair between your grandmother's tits?" Buzzard asked, while we silently thanked the heavens that this wasn't a first date. We braced ourselves for the punch line.
It was at this moment that I decided, lack of viable identification aside, that I really needed a gulp of the cocktail my boyfriend had just choked on. A big, long, illegal swig while Buzzard was looking the other way. He was sipping a rickey mixed with Gaetano's homemade lime limoncello -- one of several flavors featured at any given time, and expertly crafted by one of Gaetano's other bartenders. It was absolutely divine -- refreshing, complex and heavily spiked. Maybe it was the trauma of the day, maybe it was the fact that it was against the rules, or maybe it was the distraction it provided from Buzzard's next quip about walking on her sagging nipples -- but that drag of tart perfection made everything okay. Fantastic, even, and made even better by the hand-cut truffle fries, dredged in grease and accompanied by a ramekin overflowing with roasted chunks of garlic swimming in mayonnaise. And the bitty paninis are fun to nibble on while you take in the crowd around you. All bets aside, the homemade limoncello cocktails win the biggest points in our book, and while Gaetano's isn't a destination happy hour, it's the place you go when you long to be surrounded by real people, delicious booze, the kind of Italian grub your grandmother used to make and bartenders called Buzzard armed with bad jokes.
Overall Grade: B
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