Before you ask: No, the mob does not still run Gaetano’s. Though, truth be told, their eerily captivating presence still lingers in the renovated space well-known to Denver at the corner of 38th and Tejon St.
That is to say, their mug shots cover the bathroom walls in a pre-war faded black; the stalls of the bathrooms resemble deadbolt-locked jail cells; and in the speakeasy-tinted dining room, high-back vinyl booths stretch wall to wall underneath faint light – the kind of light a don’s furrowed brow might catch.
But the Gaetano’s of 2012 is nothing to be afraid of. Quite the opposite, in fact. It bustles with family and couples, businessman slouching at the bar over a lowball of rye whiskey, and servers letting loose with guttural laughs as jokes unravel before appetizers arrive.
Before appetizers arrived late one Thursday night for my boyfriend and I, our cheerful server gushed giddily over the spirits on the menu – the likes of Leopold Whiskey, smooth and full-bodied like a dynamite ’20s dame; and Stranahan’s liquid gold, suited to the cigar-puffing, trilby hat-wearing gents of the same era. Inextricably tied to its past, the fresh face of Gaetano’s does justice to history, showcasing cocktails and wines by the decade, stretching back to the wistful days of the Smaldone mob.
But there was just as much glee to be had over the flowing dishes that emanated from the kitchen, a deliciously rich tribute to American-Italian heritage. There was hardly a pause to the procession – simple Whipped Bean Dip coyly hiding a treasure trove of garlic; powerfully irresistible Minestrone layered with the fresh, complex flavors of fall vegetables and a kick of garlicky, herbaceous pesto; mounding Rigatoni Bolognese, touched with luscious cream and spiked with just enough spice; and a beautifully unique medley of Mussels and Swordfish, the likes of which my palate has before never known. Or loved.
But no Italian meal – at least, no American-Italian meal – is complete without a classic Tiramisù and a wrapped Cannoli. Ours were decadent beyond compare, the Tiramisù boasting a pillowy interior with a chocolatey chaser, while the Cannoli was piped through with a pistachio cream that I would have eaten by itself, licking the plate clean to the absolute embarrassment of my long-suffering boyfriend.
If it needs be said, our meal was eminently satisfying. And while I have to go back for the Chicken Parmigiana that everyone has been raving about, and the Carbonara, and the Pork Chops with their black olive-wine purée, and the Brown Butter Gnocchi, and the Fritto Misto, let it be said that what was enjoyed was a seamless experience of good food, warm service, and a curious ambience that encouraged a look back into Denver’s past.
Now, when I first set up reservations at Gaetano’s, I asked myself how much of the draw for this age-old restaurant was the food, and how much was history. Personal experience tells me it’s a bit of both, but where many history-laden establishments lean on an enticing story to draw guests in, investing little effort or energy in food, Gaetano’s proudly invests in both. This isn’t a cheap tourist trap or a quick money-maker living off its notoriety. It has personality. It has flair. And it has a menu I would come back for. But when I do, they’d best not be out of Cannoli. That would just be criminal.
Gaetano’s is located at 3760 Tejon Street. Online at GaetanosItalian.com.
The Smaldone family – otherwise known as Denver’s crime family – was active in Colorado from the 1920s to the early 21st century.
Originated by Giuseppe Roma, the newly formed mob spent much of its early years focused on bootlegging. A competing mob, however, headed by Pete Carlino (the “Al Capone of southern Colorado”), led to some vicious assassinations – bloody mob hunts even the Godfather wouldn’t condone. Legal stumbling blocks for gambling and continued bootlegging operations eventually led into more serious convictions and investigations surrounding mysterious mob murders late in the 20th century. As of 2006, however, the last Denver Smaldone mob boss – Clarence “Chauncey” Smaldone – passed away, leaving no surviving members of the family.