“If these walls could talk” read plaques on the restroom stalls inside this 70-year-old North Denver Italian restaurant. No longer does bulletproof glass protect its front entrance, nor do the cops set up stakeouts from across the street. These days, the most criminal action Gaetano’s gets is from runaway traffic onto the corner lot at 38th Avenue and Tejon Street. It’s been 13 years since Wynkoop Holdings purchased the restaurant from the storied Smaldone crime family and four years since Ron Robinson, a Rhode Island-native turned Denverite, bought the business for himself. Last year, the last pane of bulletproof glass in the entryway was replaced.
“This was my go-to place on Friday nights,” Robinson says while sitting at a candlelit table in the noisy dining room during Gaetano’s 70th birthday celebration. “It always had good food and great stories.” From Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra shooting Craps in the basement, to neighborhood kids scanning for police cruisers from upstairs, the Smaldone family was known for running gambling in the region long before it was legal, but the last Mafia member died in 2006. When Wynkoop bought Gaetano’s from them, it invested around $500,000 into renovations on the restaurant, according to Robinson. Now, aside from the basement “catacombs” and other character touches, few traces of the Mafia exist.
“I’ve been here three years, and I met my first Smaldone last night,” says Caitlyn Smith, a weekend bartender. During her shift, she has seen regulars come in for the same drink five nights a week, but never before a member of the founding family, who have, for the most part, died off. For the big birthday party Friday and Saturday nights, a mix of the last Smaldones and those who had never heard of them, old and young, regulars and newcomers alike. A live band covered Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” and burlesque dancers worked a standing-room-only crowd.
“I will always have the old, but I want to inject a little of the new,” Robinson, a classically trained chef, says of his place. While some fans complained of Gaetano’s changes during the Wynkoop run, Robinson says he has tried to restore the best of the restaurant’s first 70 years — a 60-item menu with daily made lasagna, tiramisu, and minestrone, an in-house chef, a new and improved marinara — while also keeping it fresh. Seventy years ago, Gaetano’s offerings wouldn’t have included burrata, a chef’s board, and weekend brunch. Robinson is worried about competition, but he holds onto memories of favorite red sauce restaurants back East, as well as now-closed classic Italian spots of Denver’s past. And he is unapologetic about Gaetano’s at 70 years, explaining: “We tell people it’s gonna take a little time here.”