Gaetano’s History

Gaetano's Logo

IT STARTED, QUITE SIMPLY, LIKE THIS… 

An Italian-culture institution, Gaetano’s was founded in 1947 by Denver’s legendary Smaldone mob family. Today Gaetano’s is a landmark establishment and one of the last throwback Italian eateries in town. Locally owned and operated by Ron Robinson (former longtime general manager of Denver’s famed Wynkoop Brewing Company), Gaetano’s specializes in exceptional made-from-scratch Italian cuisine built with locally sourced ingredients from premium purveyors. The Gaetano’s kitchen is helmed by executive chef Kevin Savoy (an acclaimed veteran of Denver’s culinary scene) and creates old-school classics and contemporary takes on Italian cooking.

Family Photo: Mamie Smaldone with her six sons outside of the family bar on Tejon Street. (Courtesy of the Smaldone Family)

The house fare is complemented by a top-shelf selection of wines, local beers, cocktails, desserts and more. Winner of three 2017 Westword Best of Denver awards – Best Italian Restaurant, Best Old-School Italian Restaurant, and Best Bloody Mary Bar. Gaetano’s delivers big thrills for those who feel amore for all things red, white and green. Now approaching its 70th year, Gaetano’s continues to pay homage to its deep roots while tastefully embracing new culinary touches for a changing neighborhood.

The Gaetano’s history is a rich one. In the 1930s the Highlands neighborhood was more wild west than trendy. Ralph and Mamie Smaldone opened their first café here in 1936. To boost business, the couple bootlegged moonshine during prohibition while their three sons — who would become charismatic mobsters — were in and out of jail for minor offenses. In the late 1940’s sales were down in the café, so son Clyde vowed to help his parents upon his latest release from jail. In 1947, Clyde moved the café to our present location at 3760 Tejon and renamed it Gaetano’s, an Italian nickname for Clyde.

The Gentleman Gangster, Clyde Smaldone – had a talent for making friends, whether it was with Mafia kings like Al Capone and Carlos Marcello, or Colorado Governor Ralph Carr. Colleagues and arresting officers alike described Clyde as a gentleman.

With the move, prosperity was restored to the family business. The notoriety of the three brothers grew as the local press portrayed them as debonair mobsters running a successful (and undercover) gambling ring above the booming restaurant. Access to that second floor and its illicit activities was granted only to those invited upstairs through a hidden door in the men’s room. The Gaetano’s basement also welcomed its share of vice, including poker games that once included Frank Sinatra. Today our restroom walls are graced with the faces of the characters who ran with the Smaldones and their extended crime family

Playin’ Checkers, Eugene ‘Checkers’ Smaldone – may have had a tough-guy reputation, but that never kept him from showing a playful side. (Courtesy of the Smaldone Family)

The history of the Smaldone family was artfully captured by longtime Denver Post columnist Dick Kreck in his book, Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family. It chronicles the early years of bootlegging, Denver’s coming of age and emergence into the classic cocktail era, and the evolution of a modern Mile High City. As the Smaldone family stepped out of the limelight and each brother was laid to rest, the Smaldone saga became the stuff of mobster legend.

Eventually the family sold Gaetano’s to a restaurant group led by John Hickenlooper (founder of the famed Wynkoop Brewing Company, former Denver mayor and now Colorado’s governor). Gaetano’s returned to independently owned & operated status in 2013 when Ron Robinson purchased the establishment. That’s our story. We hope you enjoying being a part of its latest chapter and we thank you very much for your patronage. Welcome to the family.