Here’s to updating a classic. I had a chance to visit and sample some of the offerings from the newly renovated Gaetano’s. The Denver classic has been around since 1947 and recently closed for a few months for a sprucing-up. The place had a physical change as well as a staff change to bring some new ideas and reinvigorate the 38th Ave stand-by.
The place is comfortable, and they were able to keep the classic Italian-restaurant-in-a-movie sort of charm, but it no longer feels aged. The designers did good work sticking to the goal of updating rather than changing. When we were there for the soft opening, the host, staff, and servers were all smiles and seemed genuinely excited and ready to go.
We made our way in and met some of the bar staff who would take us through the new ideas being fleshed out behind the bar. There is a sign on the back wall that states “Choice of Cocktail Is A Declaration Of Character.” That is a fair statement to be sure. Character… The place has it and seems to be full of them. On both sides of the bar. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the older fellows drinking and laughing at the end of the bar, supposedly the old guard of Gaetano’s. Word has it that they might be laughing about past skullduggery and antics the rest of us are better off not hearing about. True? I have no idea, but it adds to the vibe, for sure. The crew at the bar are not so secretive and are ready to go. The cocktail menu covers the bases, from old recipes dating back to the 1800s flowing through the tiki era. The bartenders have put together a good list of things you will recognize, but they really get into it showing off their personal drinking attitude.
We met four of the bar staff, and I think they have a really solid mix of approaches. Darci Armstrong was with us most of the time we were there, making introductions. She has a creative take on drinks, but she also impressed that whether you are drinking liquor, beer, or wine, she wants you to get something you like. She can take you a lot of directions with your choice, but wants to ensure you are aware that there is always a Beam and High Life for five bucks during happy hour if you can’t decide. That is something that I can live with.
There is a lot of exploration going on. The backbar is heavy with Leopold Brothers along with some Italian liqueurs. Derrick Mund was testing out some new ideas and put together a combination of Rittenhouse Rye, Amaro Montenegro, and 3-Pins Herbal Liqueur that hit me in the right places. This was followed up with a sampling of the house made syrups and additions. I generally wouldn’t mention these separately from a drink but Tony Giovanni is taking great care to mix these up himself. The grenadine, something I have not bothered to make myself, was fantastic: sweet with a strong pomegranate flavor and a nice tart finish. I want some of this at home. He is also taking on the weird variety of vintage drinks called shrubs. Shrubs are a mix of fruit and vinegar that are refreshing on their own but can really pop as an additive in a cocktail. This bodes well for the future of the bar program.
Kyle West, most recently of Euclid Hall, is the bar manager. He is packing a solid knowledge base and fills the rest in with jittery excitement. You can’t help but go along with him. He wants to show you what he and his staff have put their hearts into, and his take on the venerable mint julep (with peaches! Yum.) shows that he does have respect for drinking history while trying to leave his mark.
So the crew is pretty solid. Does Gaetano’s have what it takes to remake itself and compete with other bar-led restaurants around Denver? Time will tell. Of course, it is hard to judge based on a soft opening, but there are a few kinks the kitchen needs to iron out. The pasta was cooked beautifully, but as with a number of other dishes, the seasoning was iffy. The timing was a bit crammed as well which is always disconcerting. I am going to chalk this up to opening night butterflies and it won’t stop me from going back. The draft list is heavy on Wynkoop/Breckenridge products, which is understandable since they own the place, along with Moretti and a guest tap that I expect to rotate other Colorado beers. There is a more varied bottle selection as well as a wine list that represents Italy fairly well.
In all, my impressions are good. I think you should stop in and get a drink and some comfort food. You will feel nice.