Mulhall column: Il pezzo da novanta
Before the Durretts made The Italian Underground a local landmark, the restaurant with maybe the best ambiance around was a pizza joint called Lata Tomato — or so it seemed when I was a teenager.
Lata Tomato’s proprietors built a small stage at the bottom of the staircase and frequently hired Tom Toler, the older brother of a high school friend of mine, to sing and play guitar on weekends.
Usually after Saturday skiing, I would end up meeting friends there to listen to Tom and scrounge some deep-dish pizza. Tom was a skilled musician and vocalist who covered a lot of popular music from the late ’60s and ’70s. He even wore a harmonica harness for “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Late one night after dinner dishes were washed and put away, Tom announced he would finish his set “with a song by Neil Young.”
At this, a well-lubricated voice from the back slurred, “Neil Young is a junkie.”
Without missing a beat, Tom leaned into the microphone and in a hushed baritone said, “then here’s one by a junkie.”
Ordinarily, this might be a decent segue into some tedious Joe Rogan/Whoopi Goldberg contrast — but not today. Reading about the Underground’s new ownership sent me tripping down memory lane.
It was 1983 when Gregory Durrett opened the doors of the Underground. He got rid of the sound stage and brought in the late Liz Ibarra, the long-time hostess at the Buffalo Valley who, along with Roza Gallicchio of nearby Florindo’s, set Glenwood’s restaurant hospitality bar extremely high.
By then I was in graduate school, a bit closer to home, and the Underground had become my dad’s go-to.
Maybe it was some old-country tradition brought over by the first-generation Italian restaurateurs of his north Denver youth, but my dad always entered the Underground through the alley screen door.
That’s right. In summer the alley door was always open, and in my dad would walk as though he owned the place, down the back stairs and through the kitchen, nodding to Gregory behind the bar as he took a seat at the closest empty table.
More than a few times I followed him. Nobody batted an eye. It seemed like this was OK, though I could never figure out exactly where it fell on the spectrum between warm-hearted acceptance and grudging toleration.
I would have used the front door.
As if to allay my concern, a waitress would bring my dad an iced tea and a basket of sliced Italian bread with a side of the Underground’s garlic butter blend. She’d just appear out of nowhere with his preferred aperitif. Then she’d scribble something on her order pad and turn to me.
“And what would you like?”
Until that fateful rendezvous with the Gondolier’s all-you-can-eat extra garlic linguini in Boulder some years later, I was a diehard linguini with clam sauce guy. When I’d order, I’d sometimes catch the faintest hint of a furrowed brow across my dad’s forehead. He was all about marinara. By then I was a young man, however, so he kept whatever he may have thought about my choices to himself.
And so it went about like this for many a repast during the late 1980s.
Glenwood has a long history of Italian restaurants to complement its rich Italian heritage, as anyone lucky enough to have crashed the Italian picnic or dined at Peppo Nino’s or Florindo’s can attest. The Underground is a big part of that.
It’s fair to say that growing up in Glenwood develops a deep appreciation for Italian cuisine, even if your surname’s Irish. Snobbish or not, I now gauge any restaurant — especially an Italian one — not only on whether it uses anchovies in Caesar Salad, but how it uses them.
Among Glenwood’s Italian eateries, the Underground has always been more of a “leave the gun, take the cannoli” kind of place. No, you shouldn’t find a revolver taped to the wall of the men’s room, and you won’t see Peter Clemenza, sleeves rolled up in the Underground’s kitchen, opening a Chianti fiasco over a huge stock pot of minced garlic sautéing in olive oil.
You will, however, now see Glenwood natives Ben and Web Heyliger, and you will no doubt be welcome.
I, for one, plan to pay them a visit one day soon.
To be sure, I will enter through the front door, and I will order a Caesar Salad, for starters.
I’ll see how it goes from there.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at PostIndependent.com.
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