Sunday Profile: Sale of Italian Underground all in the ‘family’
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Ashton Durrett couldn’t help himself when the phone rang during a recent sit-down to talk about the sale of his family’s iconic downtown Glenwood Springs eatery, the Italian Underground, to new owner Jeanie Lucas.
That ring means there’s work to be done. So, with the kitchen crew busy doing the morning prep work to get ready for that evening’s dinner crowd and Lucas engaged in conversation with a reporter, he promptly got up to answer the call.
It’s been pretty much the same routine for the past 32 years since Durrett’s older brother, Gregory, and Wesley Burke took over the former Lata Tomato space in the downstairs of the 715 Grand building in 1983.
It’s also a good sign for loyal patrons and regular visitors that little will change at their favorite dining place. The final deal for Lucas to take over the business was in the works for more than two months, with Durrett at her side teaching the ropes, before becoming official in September.
Durrett said his patrons are like family, same as the restaurant staff.
“It is like a large family here … you have your highs and your lows just like with your own family,” he said. “People walk in the door and you never know what kind of day they had or what they brought with them. You have to sense that and know how to deal with it.
“This place has just always been a good touchstone for people in the community,” Durrett added. “It’s where people come to get caught up on the comings and goings.”
Lucas relates to that. She has been part of that loyal “family” of patrons since she and husband Tim moved to Glenwood Springs with their young family in 1993.
“We’ve always enjoyed eating here,” she said. “It’s the place to be to catch up with everybody.”
Lucas had worked in her sister’s restaurant and did some catering in Michigan where she grew up and where the family lived before coming to Colorado.
In Glenwood, she ran a cleaning business for 18 years but always thought about owning and running a restaurant someday.
“I’ve always loved this place since we moved here, and thought I might want to take it over someday,” Lucas said.
When Durrett’s son, Raine, decided a couple of years ago not to assume the family business and instead took a job with Sage Hospitality in Denver, Lucas put a bug in his ear to tell his dad that she might be interested.
“It’s such an iconic restaurant, and I really wanted to keep it going,” said Lucas, who comes from a German-Irish background.
“I like to say we all have a little Italian in us somewhere, and certainly I love pasta,” she said of her commitment to the culinary traditions handed down by the Durrett family.
Restaurants and hotels have been part of the Durrett family tradition for four generations.
Ashton, Greg and younger brother Anthony Durrett’s great-grandparents on their mother’s side came to the United States from northern Italy in the 1880s. Their great-grandfather, Salvadore Persano, worked in the silver mines in Leadville.
Their grandparents then came to the Glenwood Springs area, where they first ran the Merchant Cafe in New Castle before managing the Glenwood Hotel on the corner of Eighth and Grand before it burned down in December 1945. The family also had an eatery on Seventh Street where the Eagles Lodge is today.
“It was kind of a given that this was what we were supposed to do,” Ashton Durrett said. He and Greg worked as teenagers at the Buffalo Valley Inn restaurant, and some cousins had the Red Steer before it burned down in 1979.
“It’s a little like the priesthood,” he said. “Many are called, but few are chosen.
“We’ve been able to carve out a pretty good living in the area that we have loved so much, and have had a blessed life here,” he said.
“A lot of the contemporaries we grew up with who moved away come back for visits, and they always come in to eat,” Durrett said. “As Jeanie will find out, people always come back to someplace they like. You always remember the face, even if you don’t remember the name.”
Ashton and Greg ran the restaurant together for several years before Greg had to back away from the day-to-day about 15 years ago. He continued to keep the stone floor in the dining area exquisitely polished, but even that got to be a bit too much work in recent years, Ashton, who will be 71 next month, said.
“It was just time,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with the way things have gone (involving the sale).”
Ashton also served on the Glenwood Springs City Council for eight years from 1973 to 1981, including two years as mayor.
Lucas said she doesn’t intend to change too much about the look, feel and tastes of the Italian Underground. Most of the historic old Glenwood Springs photos still hang on the dining room walls, and she has begun to add a few of her own to replace the family photos Durrett will hang onto.
“I don’t see any reason to change anything, though I might enhance a few things, make it my own,” she said.
The kitchen and wait staff will also remain the same, including newly named kitchen manager Jose Bustillos, who has been at the Italian Underground for 18 years. Lucas’s daughter, Nicole, is also working full time at the restaurant now.
“Ashton really helped make it such an easy transition,” Lucas said. “And I’ll still probably call him up for some advice every now and then.”
For now, Ashton is off to join brother Greg in Italy for an extended visit with some of their family that’s still in the home land.
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