Happy New year my friend! Sorry for the lack of post last week. Slept in on New Year’s day and enjoyed the holiday completely, as I hope you did too.
But this post is not about guilt. It’s about the thrill of eating at historic Gaetano’s Restaurant in the Highlands area of North Denver. What an experience!
First, a little back story. Sherry is a friend of mine who has been visiting and gardening with me for several years. While we work, we chat a lot, and part of her talk covers the work her dad used to do for the Smaldone Family.
I had no idea who the “Smaldone family” was, and thought they were just another wealthy Denver family. I thought that Sherry was perhaps playing with a little name-dropping. No, she said. You never heard of the Smaldones? They’re part of THE Family–connected to the Kansas City mob.
Who knew? Then Sherry mentioned there was a book on this family, so of course, I read it. Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family, by Dick Kreck made for some great reading, and gave me a new character for my second book, Sliced Vegetarian.
During prohibition the Smaldones were responsible for bootlegging, gambling, and other nefarious goings-on, all the while they made abundant donations to the local church and other worthy causes in Denver proper. It was a real Robin Hood kind of story, except there was no evil Sheriff of Nottingham in existence. As the family became more established, mama Smaldone and her sons set up Gaetano’s. It was just your average bar with bullet-proof glass at the front door, a speakeasy upstairs, and in the basement… well, we’ll get to that.
Not long ago I told my sweet man I’d like to eat at the restaurant sometime, just to see what it’s like. That very day we had reservations for eating at this deceptively simple place. And a good thing we had reservations! Before we left the place was packed. I saw a group come in and ask if there were any free tables. The manager, Greg Cheval, had to turn them away saying the next available seating would be at 10:00 p.m. This was at 6:00 p.m., when my good guy and I arrived.
The food was terrific, and the service was too. If you get a chance and want some great Italian food, be sure to give Gaetano’s a try. I had lobster ravioli (the special), and my guy had Gnochi. Both delicious.
During my visit, I couldn’t say the place was visibly impressive, as my family and I had recently stayed at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, but there was a ’50’s cool about the atmosphere, and I was taken by the wall-paper, which was photos of the Smaldones blown up to cover the entire surface. I kept thinking of people I’d like to share this place with. Very earthy and very Sinatra kind of cool.
About a year and a half ago, Gaetano’s was renovated. I had hoped the bullet proof glass would still have been there, but alas no. I asked Greg about it and he said they had tried to preserve the glass, but it shattered during the renovation process. I guess after eighty-years or so it must’ve become a little brittle. Thank goodness no one was stupid enough to shoot into the glass for all those years. Greg noticed my enthusiasm and generously offered to show my sweetie and me the basement, which hasn’t been renovated since the Smaldone days. The chills started and I enthusiastically accepted the invitation.
Before we went to the basement, though, there were a few things to point out on the main restaurant floor. The bar, built in the 1940’s remains from the original construction. After all, why ruin a great thing? It stretches almost the length of the building on the 32nd Street side and glows with red lights. “At one time,” said Greg, “there were two door bells hidden beneath the bar top. One bell would ring upstairs, where the gambling was going on, and one rang to the basement, where we’ll head next.”
We stepped through the restaurant kitchen, which looked even more crowded than the ones you see on television. Steam floated around like a light fog, and chefs stood inches from each other, working in a choreography that was nothing short of impressive. No wonder the food tasted so great. This is well-run organization with wonderful sounds, smells and tastes coming from it.
We stepped down narrow stairs to the basement below. With each step the atmosphere became just that much more creepy. Yes, everything was painted white, but the ceiling was no more than seven feet high, and the walls seemed to creep in from everywhere.
“As part of our lease agreement,” said Greg, “we agreed not to renovate the basement, but use it as it is. My guess is that there are some papers or something that the family would not care to have surface.” My mind, of course, went right to bodies. Creepy, creepy!
We stepped around a corner and there on a shelf was a portrait of the Smaldone clan with all six “boys” standing around mama and papa. Not sure what happened to the five girls of the family, but the eldest and most active of the boys were in the shot–Clyde, Eugene, and Chauncey, or as the Denver Post called them, the Brother Hoods. On the same shelf, almost like a forgotten step-child, stood a glamor shot of Frank Sinatra.
We stepped into a thin room of shelving. “Looks like just a storage room, right?” said Greg. I nodded. “Look at the floor.” It was red-colored cement. “Look at the walls behind the shelves.” They were tiled like old hospital tiles. “I figure the red hides things like blood perhaps and the walls of tile would be very easy to wash.” OMG! Talk about chills running down your spine! Then Greg pointed out the brass peephole in the door, and my tour was complete. “Now, I ask you, who puts peepholes into storage rooms,” said Greg.
He showed us more rooms that look like they stepped right out of mob movies, and a freezer with a door more than twelve inches thick.
Now I could tell you about the ghost stories Greg shared that evening, or about how Gaetano’s ended up with a parking lot across the street where obviously a house would have stood at one time, but we’ve run out of room and time today. Suffice to say, I’m really grateful to our wonderful host, and hope you enjoy the pretend “Joe” Smaldone, I pop into Sliced Vegetarian.
Do you have mob history in your part of the world? Check it out for a creepy great time!