All in the family: Breckenridge-Wynkoop sells Gaetano's to Ron Robinson
Ron Robinson was in Gaetano's all day yesterday. He's spent plenty of time there before -- when the Wynkoop group bought the iconic restaurant from the Smaldone family eight years ago, Robinson was the one who went in to handle the transition before returning to other Wynkoop mainstays like the Wazee Supper Club and the Wynkoop Brewing Company. But that was before CEO Lee Driscoll made Robinson an offer he couldn't refuse: to buy Gaetano's.
Robinson had started out with the Wynkoop back when John Hickenlooper was still running the restaurants, rather than running for mayor and then governor; he stayed on when Driscoll took over and added Gaetano's to a lineup of restaurants that already included the flagship Wynkoop, the Wazee and the Cherry Cricket, among others. And he stayed on when the Wynkoop entered into a venture with the Breckenridge Brewery, adding Ale House at Amato's and then Session Kitchen. But he always thought he wanted his own place, and last year Robinson left the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group in order to find it.
Driscoll was so supportive of Robinson's move that he was looking for potential places for him, too. And then he realized he had the perfect spot: One of his own restaurants.
Driscoll, a former district attorney in Manhattan, says he bought Gaetano's "on a whim" when the Smaldone family put it on the market; it reminded him of John Gotti's place, and even came with its own mob back story, since the Smaldones were Denver's crime family back in the day.
But the restaurant "never fit our portfolio," Driscoll admits. "It's cool and iconic, but so far out of our genre." And while the Breckenridge-Wynkoop group didn't really want to sell it, he says, selling it to Robinson kind of kept it in the family.
"It makes sense for both of us," Driscoll says. "Gaetano's is really crying out for an owner to be at the door."
And that owner was at the door yesterday. "I love this place," Robinson says. "I opened this place when we took it over from the Smaldones. That was a challenge in itself."
The Smaldones had opened the restaurant six decades before, and although gang members no longer gambled in the basement, there were traditions you didn't fool with. The red sauce, for example. "It was fucking horrible, but the people loved it," Robinson remembers. So he brought in an Italian chef who introduced his grandmother's marinara recipe, and Gaetano's would serve up both, to acclimate customers to the changes ahead. "We were educating the people and they finally got it," Robinson remembers.
There were physical changes, too. The restaurant was remodeled, and then remodeled again, to get its current, swank, Frank Sinatra feel. (A Frank Sinatra clone even sings there twice a month.)
Since all the physical improvements have been made, Robinson is going to take his time, welcoming the neighbors to his place, "getting my feet wet" and building the business before he makes changes, he says. After the first of the year, he might bring back some of the classics -- the pizzas, the calzones. But the place will definitely keep its old-time flavor.
"It's almost like Little Italy," Robinson says. "It's family."