Love, Italian Style

Pino’s Place is a friendly, modern twist on the traditional red-sauce joint.

Photo by Annette Slade

When I was a juvenile, my parents, like most procreators, had rituals. Quite a few, actually, one of which was a weekly jaunt to an Italian restaurant in North Denver, or Little Italy, as my parents called it. It was a white tablecloth affair, the starch of the crisp linens illuminated by elegant chandeliers. Waiters, their shoes polished like diamonds, clicked their heels and bowed their heads at the table; there was an air of formality and they dressed in black and white, like penguins. Red sauce—on everything— was ceremonial. As ritualistic, really, as life and death.

Not to be morbid, but that kind of throwback Italian restaurant is all but dead in Denver. North Side classics like Little Pepina’s, Pagliacci’s, Patsy’s and the original Carbone’s—they’ve all disappeared into the afterlife, and so, by and large, has the lust for sauce-slicked spaghetti and meatballs. Instead, we’re obsessed with things like squid-ink pasta tangling with braised octopus and bone marrow, beef cheek ravioli with black truffles and lamb neck with fancy chanterelles and what chefs like to call “bruised” mint.

There is, thankfully, nothing marked as “bruised” on the menu at Pino’s Place, a classic, albeit updated, Italian restaurant in Cherry Hills Village that, just a few months ago, expanded into the space next door, which is a good thing, because when celebrities like Joe Sakic, the executive vice president of the Colorado Avalanche (and the team’s former captain), show up, they probably want to sit down sooner rather than later. To be fair, I had no idea that Mr. Sakic was sitting at the table adjacent to me until a fan pointed him out. I suppose his face looked vaguely familiar. “He comes here all the time,” I was told. To be honest, I was far more intrigued by Pino Saverino, for whom the restaurant is named.

Saverino is, among other things, hilarious. I don’t know his DNA, but I do know that he has more funny bones in his small frame than the Jolly Green Giant. Before opening the original Pino’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Wine Bar in 2011, he was a chef and restaurateur in Miami, cooking for A-listers like Madonna, so it stands to reason that Saverino knows how to work a crowd. And he does so beautifully, bouncing from table to table. He knows, I suspect, the name of every regular, of which there are dozens. He knows, too, how to make each guest feel special. The guy’s love of life, of people, of food, wine and cooking is beyond infectious.

And that vivacious temperament comes in handy when there are mishaps in the kitchen and on the floor: a server delivering the wrong glass of wine; a runner dropping off a dish we hadn’t ordered; a disappointingly dull heap of under-fried calamari tinged a few shades lighter than Barbie’s blond locks; and zucchini that had lost any modicum of crispness by the time it reached our table. These were all minor annoyances that were quickly fixed by Saverino, who handles calamities like a pro—and with a sense of humor. That’s not to excuse any of the collapses, but when there is a setback, Saverino must channel some sort of superhero, because he’s exceptionally skillful at combating debacles.

On a recent weeknight, though, everything went relatively smoothly. A skyscraping bundle of mussels, their flesh plump and sweet, is a really lovely dish that, while not groundbreaking, is profoundly delicious, especially the intensely fragrant white wine broth weeping with garlic and onions. The orb of smooth burrata, matched with sheets of prosciutto, thin spears of asparagus, pine nuts and raisins, is delightful, though I could do without the waterlogged leaves of romaine that cradle the cheese. A Caesar salad, judiciously dressed— and consummated, if you wish, with anchovies—is pretty much the textbook version, and because I have a well-documented love affair with cheese (and cheese and bread), I’d probably pay double for the panino grigliato, a fuse of melted Fontina, Provolone and Gorgonzola and fresh herbs smeared on thick slices of house-baked focaccia. If you want to add a bit of pancetta for texture, you can do that. In fact, I recommend it.

Photo by Annette Slade

Saverino likely wouldn’t call his place a traditional red-sauce joint—I think he’s too cool for that—but his board of pastas might play devil’s advocate. Lasagna. Ravioli. Spaghetti and meatballs. Jumbo shells. Bolognese. They’re all there, and so is the vibrant red sauce: savory, bright, long-cooked and zapped with spices. The ravioli, plump with ricotta and Parmigiano, more than satisfies a longing for nostalgia, as do the supple lasagna and the shells, the latter swelled with cheese and spinach; these are the kinds of dishes that are as comfortable as a well-worn pair of boots.

A starter and pasta would make a gratifying meal, but the menu offers veal, chicken and fish as well. I’m probably most infatuated with Saverino’s cioppino, a basin of scallops, calamari, shrimp, clams and mussels bobbing in a sensational broth flecked with garlic and a fistful of herbs. No one would blame you if you drank the bowl dry, which, I confess, I did. No shame.

You fancy pizza? There are plenty of them, mostly of the thin, crisp-bottomed, chewy and risen-rim persuasion; a Diavola number stained with tomato sauce punctuated with basil, stamped with coins of salami and showered with crushed red pepper, or the Calabrese, which brandishes a cracker-thin crust paved with a white sauce topped with soppressata, red onions and blots of Gorgonzola.

The welcoming space, enhanced with an open kitchen, a chef ’s counter and separate bar area where everyone seems to know one another, is the kind of place, too, where you can simply stop in for a glass of Chianti or Barbaresco. Or maybe a Negroni or Manhattan. It’s a happy, warm-hearted place that could become a ritual, especially when there is Nutella pizza lying in wait for dessert.

Pino’s Place
1400 E. Hampden Ave., Englewood