Seventy years ago, north Denver was a very different place — a much more Italian place. And in that version of north Denver, the Smaldone family ran the show.
To the eye of a Denver newcomer, not much is left of that family legacy. Italians left long ago, replaced by Latinos who are these days being replaced by Anglo Americans. North Denver, now better known as the Highlands, is completely different from the neighborhood it was even five years ago.
What’s left is mostly old-timers’ stories and, at 38th and Tejon, Gaetano’s.
“They could scrape this and make it a drug store and all this history is gone,” said Ron Robinson, who was working with Wynkoop Holdings when it bought Gaetano’s from the Smaldones in 2004. “We’re the only ones around. I mean, it’s us and Lechuga’s because Patsy’s is closed. You used to have Little Pepina’s, you used to have Pagliacci’s. It’s nice to have this because Gaetano’s is an icon.
“A full circle, full me is when I came to Denver, I got out of the airport, got in a taxi and said, ‘Take me to the best Italian restaurant in Denver,’ and they brought me here. That was in ’81, and now here I am running the place.”
Robinson helped now-Gov. John Hickenlooper build Wynkoop Brewing Co. In the 13 years since Wynkoop took over, there have been a few changes. At one point, Robinson said, the restaurant underwent major renovations and the menu went down from about 60 items to 10, driving away some of the old-timers and regulars. When he left Wynkoop and bought Gaetano’s from them in 2013, he started to bring things back to normal.
The neighborhood has changed, but as Gaetano’s has learned and shown, that doesn’t mean old north Denver is forgotten.
“They certainly hung out there a lot.”
If you ate at Gaetano’s in the early decades of its life, you dined amongst bootleggers, gamblers and, once in a while, the Rat Pack.
The Smaldones were the only crime family in Denver, said Dick Kreck, a former Denver Post columnist who wrote the book on the Smaldone family. They got into bootlegging in 1917 and when Prohibition was lifted they got into gambling. The nearest possibility for competition and confrontation was all the way down in Pueblo, but the families there had no problem with the Smaldones running things up north, which they did until sometime in the 1970s. That was the last time a Smaldone was arrested, anyway.
The only thing they had to worry about was the feds, who often raided Gaetano’s, and the local cops who would stake out taking pictures of people walking into the restaurant, partly to see who was going in there and partly to scare people off.
Gaetano’s as a business was above-board, but it served as a meeting place for the family and its associates.
“There’s a little office downstairs, it’s about 10 feet square, and they used to meet down there, and the FBI tapped their phones down there one time and caught them in conversations,” Kreck said. “I think it was Pauly Villano and maybe Checkers, they were discussing a silencer for guns, and it’s the funniest conversations you’ve heard. It’s like Abbot and Costello. These guys don’t know anything about silencers or how they work.”
And that was the thing about the Smaldones, Kreck said. They were “B-level mobsters.” There was certainly crime and violence. Some murders were pinned to their name, but only by word of mouth and never by a conviction. They were hauled in for just about any crime, though they also had cops bribed, “on the pad,” but officers remember the family as polite family guys.
“I still meet people who knew them, and you won’t find anybody to talk bad about them because they did a lot of favors in the neighborhood,” Kreck said. “If you needed food, they’d get it delivered to you. They’d collect coats for kids. If your son or daughter got arrested, they’d go down and bail them out. The people in the neighborhood remembered them for the good deeds they did.”
And, for what it’s worth, the people Kreck has spoken with told him the FBI chart mapping the hierarchy is “crap.” There was no structure.
Seventy years on, Gaetano’s is balancing the past and present.
In the year since he came on board, chef Kevin Savoy has been carefully tending to the menu — once again a 60-item menu — making sure Gaetano’s keeps with tradition while also staying fresh. He’s sticking with specialties like lasagna, chicken parmesean, and caprese, while adding more modern touches like flatbread and bottomless mimosa brunch.
“We’re obviously more of an Italian old-school supper club, so we’re never gonna get rid of the marsalas, never gonna get rid of the piccatas — that type of stuff. We’ll always have caprese, we’ll always have a pesto and cream of some type, have a variety of pasta and all the ravioli and stuff,” he said. “I mean, the combination has worked for this place forever …. We’re not really changing the formula, we’re just injecting some new, modern Italian things into the old-school.”
There are some challenges, of course. Like many restaurants in Denver, Gaetano’s is struggling with labor. No one wants to work in a kitchen washing dishes when they can make $20 an hour cutting plants in a marijuana grow. The constant turnover and the struggle to hire in the first place means they put off improvements they want, like making their own mozzarella in-house.
They’re also contending with an old reputation for being a greasy spoon kind of restaurant.
“We are not that,” Savoy said. “We never want to be that. We are all quality ingredients, we’re making everything from scratch. We’re building food the right way.”
And in the end, it’s the history that brings people in the door before the food brings them back.
“You’re always gonna have the old-school people come in here because everybody knows the Smaldones, and they all have a story,” Robinson said. “…We have to hold onto and preserve that history. We feel grateful for what this place is.”
In honor of 70 years, Gaetano’s is throwing a weeklong party.
Tuesday: Anniversary kickoff with Speakeasy Night and Tapping the Hooch at 5 p.m., with a special barrel of White Dog Whiskey from Spirit Hound Distillers, plus Spirit Hound’s Aged Whiskey and special retro whiskey cocktails.
Wednesday: “History of the Smaldone Family” with Dick Kreck at 3 p.m. Throwback cocktails, starting with happy hour, showcasing gin cocktails made with Spirit Hound gin.
Thursday: Lunchtime Mob Tours of the neighborhood, $30, reservations required. Buses leave at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Release of a special anniversary beer made by Spangalang Brewery at 5 p.m.
Friday: Mob Night with mobster and vintage dress suggested, prizes for best male and female costumes, a live band at 8:30 p.m., throwback cocktails and anniversary beer all night. Special appearances by legendary gun molls courtesy of the Clocktower Clockettes.
Saturday: Special Mobster Brunch and Bloody Mary bar from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Evening gala at 6 p.m. (formal attire is suggested), with birthday cake and complimentary slices for dinner guests.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect timeline of ownership. Wynkoop Holdings, which Ron Robinson worked for, bought Gaetano’s in 2004. Robinson left Wynkoop and bought Gaetano’s from them in 2013.