Stories about mobsters have been documented and romanticized in books and on the big screen for decades. The most infamous mobsters resided in the New York and Chicago areas, but few people in Denver know that just west of LoDo, in the Highlands neighborhood, resided the Smaldone family. Three of the six brothers, (Eugene, Clyde and Clarence) were involved in illegal gambling and loan sharking activities for nearly four decades.
The newspapers turned the Smaldones into local celebrities. They were even given nicknames. Clyde was called “Flip Flop,” but never to his face. Eugene was nicknamed “Checkers,” and Clarence was known as Chauncey. During their rein, the Smaldones were in and out of jail for various tax evasion and gambling charges. They were also implicated, though never charged, in the murders of rival mobsters. Though they were hounded by the police and painted in a disreputable light by the newspapers, the one redeeming quality to the Smaldone brothers was their devotion to the community. They would help people in need and not expect any repayment. Their exploits have even been documented in a book called Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family.
All of the hearsay, news articles and police reports indicate that the Smaldones ran a majority of their business out of the basement of their family restaurant, Gaetano’s. The original restaurant was opened in 1934, and it was called The Tejon Street Café. The brothers’ father, who ran bootleg liquor during Prohibition, owned the café. In 1947, the brothers took over the business, renamed it Gaetano’s and moved it down the street to the corner of Tejon and 38th, where it stands today.
"You talk to the old timers; they'll tell you about all the Feds in cars, the cops sitting in unmarked cars taking pictures of everybody that walked in and walked out."
Gaetano’s looks a lot like one would expect of a mafia-owned establishment. The front door, with bullet proof glass, leads directly to a dimly lit bar that has booth seating along the walls. At the far end of the bar, furthest from the door and close to the kitchen, is a corner booth that was reserved for the brothers. An attached dining room is a sharp contrast to the bar. It has light colors on the walls, a chandelier and a large picture window, creating a well lit, cozy atmosphere. Above the restaurant are two apartments, “That’s where the hit…That’s where the muscle guy used to stay, back in the day,” Kurt, the general manager, says.
Classic beer taps stand rigidly at attention.
Below the restaurant is the infamous basement, a labyrinth of rooms whose brick and mortar walls may or may not provide access to secret underground passages. Each room is labeled in an overly ridiculous fashion. The walk-in cooler is labeled “Cooler;” the janitor’s closet has a sign that says “Janitor Room.” The dry storage room is labeled “Grocery Room,” and so forth. Kurt hypothesizes that these labels were to appease the overly curious. “If somebody asks, ‘What’s going on in there?’ ‘Oh, nothing. That’s the Janitor Room.’”
However, the curious might wonder why the “Grocery Room” door locks from the inside and has a peephole. The bartender, who has worked at the restaurant for 40 years, insists that the room needed a door and a friend of the brothers had an old entry door that happened to fit, nothing more. The other possibility is that the room was used for on-site gambling and book making, and a little extra security was a wise precaution. The basement also has a single-stall shower in it, which is a strange thing to find in the basement of a legitimate restaurant.
Today, Gaetano’s looks much as it did in the 1980s, when the Smaldones were still in operation. The only major changes are the addition of the outdoor dining section and the ownership. Gaetano’s is now a member of the Wynkoop family of restaurants. With the outdoor dining, Kurt hopes it will draw more customers during the fall and spring months, when the weather is cooler. Eventually, Kurt hopes to turn the upstairs apartments into private dining. Everything else is pretty much the same, including the devotion to the surrounding community.
Kurt does use some of his marketing budget to do print advertising and a few radio spots, but the majority of his marketing efforts are through donating to the Highlands and Sunnyside communities. Sure, Gaetano’s gets customers from all over, but, as Kurt puts it, “it’s the people within six blocks of us that are going to make or break us.” Therefore, any time the neighborhood associations need food for various events, Kurt and Gaetano’s are there with donations of spaghetti or pizza or whatever is needed.
Two women eating on the patio at Gaetano's.
As far as the food goes, Gaetano’s has a wide selection of traditional Italian fare including: calzones, pizza and sandwiches. All of the menu items have been tested and refined over the restaurant’s lifetime and stay as close to traditional recipes as possible. Kurt mentions that his favorite menu item and the most popular menu item is the sausage sandwich. “The sausage sandwich is really good,” he says. “Personally, I have to limit myself to one a week because I’ll eat them every day.”
Pizza is another popular menu item. Kurt admits that he is not a big pizza eater but says he likes the crust a lot. As far as toppings go, there is only one thing Kurt will not put on a pizza; pineapple. “We’ll make pretty much anything you want. I’m not putting pineapple on a pizza,” Kurt says. He says this is because it’s not authentic.
Gaetano’s still sees a wide array of customers, some want to remember the past; others want to learn the history of Denver’s mafia restaurant. Those that want to hold on to the history have stories of their own. Either they knew someone who knew someone that was connected to the Smaldones or the cops that brought them down, or they were around themselves. “You talk to the old timers; they’ll tell you about all the Feds in cars, the cops sitting in unmarked cars across the street taking pictures of everybody that walked in and walked out,” Kurt says.
Then there are those that want to learn about the history. Pretty much on a daily basis, Kurt has customers that have heard about the history and want to get a firsthand glimpse of the restaurant where “it all went down.” When he first started managing Gaetano’s, in 2006, Kurt did not understand why people wanted to see the basement. “People stopped in asking, ‘Can we see the basement?’ No. It’s a damn restaurant basement…but then I got it.” Now, Kurt takes curious customers into the basement and paints a picture in their minds of what it might have been like when the Smaldones still owned the place.
Another class of people that Kurt has seen pass through the door are the hangers-on. The wannabes that always wanted to and think they were “connected,” but never were. Before the book came out, there was a signing at Gaetano’s which drew the attention of the local news. Five or six hangers-on came out of the woodwork, too, and they all signed each others books, like they were high school year books. Kurt remembers one wannabe. His name was Johnny. “He kept walking up to my waiters and saying, ‘Do you know who I am!?’” None of them did.
"We throw parties, basically. That's kind of the mentality you have to have. Every day you're throwing a party. Hopefully, you throw a good one."
Wise guys, wannabes and book signings aside, Gaetano’s runs like any other restaurant. Kurt, who started his food service career as a bartender in college, has to deal with the occasional upset customer and unruly employee. For the upset customer, Kurt does what he can to make them happy. “I have a talent for making people happy,” Kurt says. When a customer is upset, he likes to bring them back. “Guest recovery, we call it.” By the end of his interaction, the customers are happy and he is only out the price of an appetizer, drink or dessert, as opposed to losing a customer.
Appeasing angry customers with free food does have its pitfalls. Kurt gave the hypothetical example of eight businessmen that were dissatisfied with something. An unwitting manager might simply come up and offer to buy them dessert. If you do that, you’re going to buy eight separate desserts. Kurt advises, “Instead you’d say, ‘Let me choose a couple of desserts for you all.’ So we’ll put three desserts out, and I’ve just saved five desserts by taking the decision of what they want for dessert out of their hands.” Restaurants that have six or seven desserts on the menu can put together a dessert sampler and offer that to a group of upset customers, too.
A Table for four at Gaetano's
As far as handling unruly employees goes, Kurt suggests that you handle any situation immediately. “It’s easy to talk yourself out of it, to say: ‘I was going to talk to Joe, but Joe came in and we were getting busy and he had to stock. I’m just going to catch up with him tomorrow.’ Tomorrow comes and you’ve had to leave, because you’re tired. Three days later, there’s no reason to talk to Joe anymore, because it’s all water under the bridge.” The longer you wait, the less impactful the conversation will be.
A final piece of advice Kurt offered up is in regards to those who want to open their own restaurant. “We throw parties, basically,” Kurt says. “That’s kind of the mentality you have to have. Every day you’re throwing a party. Hopefully, you throw a good one.” However, you have to be able to work while everyone else is having fun. If his employees are working holidays, so is Kurt. “In our business, you work long hours; you work weird hours, and if you can get your brain around that, it’s not a big deal.” However, if you cannot handle the long and weird hours, Kurt suggests, “Go back to college.”