JoJo Pergola, owner of Vinnola's Italian Market at 7750 West 38th Avenue, has lived in north Denver long enough to remember a little deli called Frangie's at 38th and Shoshone, where you could stop in for fresh ricotta cheese or "the best ravioli you could get anywhere." Those memories of growing up in an area heavy with Italian neighbors and the smell of red sauce simmering are what guided Pergola's decision when he and his wife purchased Vinnola's from his parents last September.
Vinnola's has been a part of the West 38th Avenue corridor connecting Denver and Wheat Ridge for more than forty years. Pergola's parents bought the market from the original owners, Michael and Lorene Vinnola, in 2001. "The records aren't very clear, but the best we can guess is that [Vinnola's] opened in 1973," Pergola says. "So it's now in its 45th year."
The corner shop is more than just a market for Italian foods; it's also a bakery, restaurant and catering company where you can sit down for a sandwich, a slice of lasagna or a plate of pasta, then go home with fresh-made pizza dough, marinara sauce by the gallon (smaller sizes are available, too) or yeasty sausage rolls packed into aluminum trays that can be reheated for a celebration or family dinner.
The bakery turns out fresh bread every day, plus biscotti, cannoli, cookies and pastries. And then there are those sausage rolls (also available stuffed with meatballs), wrapped in bread dough and baked until they're fat and golden; the big ones ring in at $6.50 each, but you can get a mini for only $2.25. Pergola notes that the Vinnola family had been sourcing sausage from Denver's own Paisano Sausage Company long before his parents bought the market, so it's a tradition he's happy to continue. He also makes dry sausage in-house by aging spicy Paisano links until they're the consistency of pepperoni; customers buy several pounds at a time for camping trips and other outdoor activities.
North Denver and Wheat Ridge are barely recognizable from even a few years ago, much less going back several decades. Where Frangie's once sold cheese and pasta, the Leprino family built the corporate headquarters of its mozzarella company (which also started out as a north Denver deli) that's now a global dairy producer. Right next to Vinnola's, construction is under way on a vast apartment project that Pergola hopes will bring new business. The shop's base of older customers has slowly dwindled over the years, but their children and now grandchildren come in for sandwiches or groceries. And the owner says that he talks to East Coast transplants every day who are looking for good red sauce and imported Italian products. He tries to meet the requests of the community, though he points out that some imported foods are tough to get here, because bigger coastal cities snag them first. Still, sardines, baccala and other specialty items keep customers coming back, especially during the holiday season.
"I wouldn't call myself a foodie; we just do the good, old-fashioned home-style Italian food of north Denver," Pergola adds.
Before buying Vinnola's, Pergola was in sales, but he worked for his parents briefly when they took over the shop. The idea of one day owning his own business, especially an Italian food business, stuck with him, though, and when it became clear that his dad was getting ready to retire, he started working weekends at SliceWorks under owner Lou Scileppi to learn the restaurant side of the business. For five years, he worked weekdays as a salesmen and weekends as a pizzaiolo before taking over Vinnola's from his parents.
While the grocery store and deli have been spruced up a number of times over the years, not much about the food has changed. Pergola says that he still has the original recipe books from the 1970s, so the sauce, the meatballs, the pans of shells and lasagna are exactly the way that Mike or Lorene Vinnola would have served them years ago. The red sauce is still thick, tangy and sweet, with notes of garlic and oregano. The deep flavor lets you know that the sauce isn't rushed; it doesn't separate or run when it's ladled over meats and pasta. The meatballs have that toothsome texture that invites the next bite, and the next.
Pergola knows that old-school Italian cuisine is getting harder and harder to find in Denver, with so many places closing as the owners retire. One of his childhood favorites, Valente's, hasn't served a plate of spaghetti since 2008. "Growing up, I didn't even know there were any other Italian restaurants than Valente's," he recalls.
As a sign of changing times in Denver, the building that once held Valente's is now Colorado Plus Brew Pub and Taphouse, just a few blocks from Vinnola's. Pergola's other favorites, all still open, include Mama Sannino's, Pietra's and Tony Rigatoni's in Morrison.
Piles of dirt, the continuous beep-beep-beep of construction vehicles backing onto roadways from freshly scraped properties around Highland, Sunnyside and Wheat Ridge, and imposing monstrosities blocking views and diminishing the architectural appeal of Denver's northwest neighborhoods all contribute to the sense of loss and change. But Pergola is fighting that loss, one sandwich or pasta plate at a time, building layers of lasagna noodles, ricotta and homemade sauce to wall off the encroachment of the modern world.
"It's more than just the food," Pergola concludes. "It's the ability to preserve something I was looking to hold on to — that north Denver history and tradition."
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