If you are craving Italian food in Denver most people will point you to one place, Gaetano’s. The restaurant has a somewhat sordid and infamous history. It was established in 1947 by none other than the Smaldone family. Famous in Denver for gambling, loansharking and bootlegging, the three Smaldone brothers, Clyde, Eugene (Checkers) and Clarence (Chauncey), were the face of the mob in this western city. The brothers ran the restaurant after taking it over from their parents but it was more of a front for years to the illegal gambling that happened upstairs on the second floor above. In the true fashion of the times, there was even a secret and hidden stairway in the men’s restroom that was invite only. From Gaetano’s, the Smaldones ruled north Denver from the 1930s through the 1970s. The brothers have since passed on and the family sold the restaurant in 2006 but there is still a rich and opulent history that oozes from every nook and cranny.
This past weekend the restaurant celebrated its 70th birthday in true Italian form. I was lucky enough to be invited to the festivities on Friday. I walk through the doors and the place is packed. A three-piece band, starts in with Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” as the door shuts behind me. The steady din of conversation creates a comforting white noise as I shake off the chill from outside. Every stool at the bar and every table and booth is filled with people. Suits, vests, dresses, hats, many patrons are dressed in attire that is a throwback to the heyday of the joint. Servers weave through the throngs of people, some dancing in the aisles between tables, delivering delicious, steaming plates loaded with traditional Italian cuisine. Bartenders work furiously to fill drink orders but still take the time to make every person saddled up to the bar feel like they are the prime concern. The band breaks and an announcement is made that the show is about to start. The music starts back up as the entire restaurant watches Fannie Spankings and Tatianna Tatas from the The Clocktower Cabaret perform their burlesque numbers. Conversation has stopped, just hoops and hollers, encouraged by the dancers, echo off the walls of the restaurant.
The party continues late into the evening and more festivities are planned for Saturday as well. More food, more music and even a birthday cake. I think the celebration would make the Smaldone brothers smile.