Colorado Food Blog: The curtain closes on a quartet of Italian-American favorites

Mom said it best when she noted: "It's good, but it's expensive and the portions are small."

The contents of Pagliacci’s were auctioned off Sept. 11, 2012. (Photo by Kim Long/American Forecaster)

It’s been a bad month for fans of classic Italian-American eateries, the ones with the reed-wrapped chianti bottles and checkered tablecloths.  Chains and “authentic” Italian trattorias have pushed them out of the picture.

First, Pagliacci’s Italian Restaurant closed in August after 66 years of famous minestrone soup.

Then Gaetano’s – famed for its association with the Smaldone crime family, was closed for the dreaded refurbishment. It is a cleaner, well-lit place now, but it has lost its red sauce soul.

Meanwhile up in Boulder, The Gondolier closed after 52 years of serving pasta, in particular its famous all-you-can-eat spaghetti night beloved by four generations of CU students.

Finally, the news came today that Longo’s Subway Tavern in Denver (near Pagliacci’s) will close Sunday, Sept. 23, after 52 years of dishing pizza pies and cannoli, otherwise known as calzones.

Here’s the review I wrote of Pagliacci’s. It reminds me of my dear Mom who ate with me at Gaetano’s and Pagliacci’s. The review appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on Oct. 29, 2004:

Same old song hits the spot at Pagliacci’s

By John Lehndorff

Rocky Mountain News

If you haven’t been to Pagliacci’s in five or 10 years, have no fear: It’s the same as it ever was.

The walls are still done up stucco-style and painted with quaint Italian countryside scenes, and Frank Sinatra still croons in the background.

Opened in 1946, Pagliacci’s is one of the last of the family-run Italian-American eateries in Denver.

Generations of regulars still fill the booths in the warm, welcoming dining area, and there always seems to be a dressed-up table of 10 family members celebrating a birthday, anniversary or wedding.

The comforting meal ritual at this institution has also not changed a bit.

It always starts with sliced, soft Italian bread from Gargaro’s Bakery (except on Sundays, when it’s house-baked and crusty).

The signature steaming pot of Pagliacci’s famous minestrone is still served family-style.

The chopped vegetable soup has that dark, meaty, tomato-spiked broth with an herbal signature.

Sometimes it has red beans, sometimes not.

It’s especially good sprinkled with grated Romano.

You can polish off the pot, but house rules say you can’t order more or take the leftovers home.

Finally, you get a simple iceberg lettuce salad with mild vinaigrette or Gorgonzola dressing.

Maybe because of this series of warm-ups, the appetizer selection is fairly limited.

A favorite is the fried ravioli ($5): four hot pockets oozing cheese accompanied by a chunky, well-spiced red sauce.

We highly recommend the change-of- pace chicken livers ($8), cooked up neatly in a wine sauce with onions and mushrooms.

During a late-summer visit, we were distressed by the tasteless, rock-hard, pink tomato slices in a Caprese salad ($8) that included fresh mozzarella and sweet basil.

Other starters include pretty good calamari ($8) with olive oil and garlic.

Pagliacci’s is a red-sauce joint, albeit a classy one, so pasta in its boiled, baked and sauteed manifestations dominates the menu.

Oddly, the house marinara is so mild and unremarkable that it’s not worth ordering by itself.

Sauced spaghetti accompanies most meat entrees.

Much tastier options include angel hair with pesto ($15.50) and eggplant-enhanced penne Norma ($15.50).

In the creamy category, we were won over by the cheese-filled tortellini ($17.25) with peas, ham and mushrooms, and the supercreamy fettucine Alfredo ($15.50).

Restaurants botch lasagna so often that those of us who grew up on the Italian-American standard order it with a wary eye.

Pagliacci’s pleased us with its bubbly hot lasagna ($16.50), a large portion baked with layers of firm pasta, various cheeses and red sauce.

The lasagna and other pasta dishes include a choice of meatball or sausage; pick the well-seasoned Italian sausage.

Choose the satisfying peppers and sausage ($18) with onions for a more substantial sausage experience.

The meatballs are big but so blah that they made us wonder if anyone in the kitchen has tasted them in recent years.

For the indecisive, the Italian variety dinner ($18) provides the happy combination of chicken Parmesan, manicotti and a choice of eggplant Parmesan or spinach-and-ricotta ravioli, baked with sauce and mozzarella.

The perfectly fried rounds of moist eggplant Parmesan ($17.25) are worth ordering by themselves.

For a change of pace, I had to have the wonderful fall ravioli special ($17.50).

Bulging pasta purses overstuffed with a puree of sweet butternut, golden raisins and walnuts were arrayed in nutty browned butter and sage leaves.

The remainder of the menu concentrates on the expected beef, seafood, veal and chicken variations.

Entrees in the acceptable category include veal Marsala ($20.50) and shrimp scampi ($22.50), although the latter needed more garlic.

Skip the chicken picatta ($18.50) and poached salmon ($19.95) because they also need a flavor infusion, and avoid the chicken cacciatore ($18.50), a sad conglomeration of bland chicken breast, characterless tomato sauce, and undercooked vegetables.

The wine list delivers the usual Chiantis and Valpolicellas.

My traditional trepidation about Italian desserts was reinforced by Pagliacci’s anemic chocolate mousse ($5) and unappealing wine sundae ($5).

The mediocre cannoli ($5) just didn’t taste made-to- order.

We did enjoy the creamy tiramisu ($6) that my mom received free when we celebrated her birthday.

My top sweet was the classic spumoni ($4.50), with chocolate, rum, cherry and pistachio-flavored ice cream.

The waiters here are very experienced and congenial and know the menu inside and out.

However, we found our mood fouled by Pagliacci’s automatic 20 percent gratuity for tables of six or more on weekend nights.

I can understand 15 percent on a big table on a busy night, but 20 percent presumes that the service will be stellar.

In our case, the place was so crowded that the server couldn’t get to my end of the table.

I ended up helping him hand out food and clear dishes.

Also, Mom said it best when she noted: “It’s good, but it’s expensive and the portions are small.” Even with the bread, soup and salad, we felt overcharged at $16.50 plus tax and gratuity for lasagna and half a sausage link.

Pagliacci’s isn’t the best Italian restaurant in town.

But it is our favorite classy Italian-American eatery.

As I looked at the diverse clientele filling the tables, I saw lots of happy faces.

They didn’t come for an epiphany or extreme authenticity.

They came for pasta.

When folks tell us they need to get the family together for pasta and red wine, we send them to Pagliacci’s.

That hard-earned recommendation explains why the sign on Interstate 25 is still lighted and the booths are packed after all these years.

  • life-of-spice

    I stopped by the Gondolier today – their last day – for a bite to eat and talk to Nelson, the owner. He actually wants to get back to the “red-checked tablecloths and chianti bottles”…the soul of what the restaurant used to be. Right now it’s too large and trying to compete with all the expensive, upscale downtown Boulder restaurants. He’s looking for a new, smaller space. And when it reopens, I think the Gondolier will help fill the hole you are describing – at least in the northern territory.