Local Haunts and Tourist Traps – Denver, CO

Pietra’s in Wheat Ridge, CO – a small, no frills Italian restaurant right off a main road – exists in stark contrast to the huge, gimmicky BeauJo’s chain of pizza restaurants.

It seems that whenever my family and I head to Denver, CO for a long weekend of visiting family and skiing, we eat a ridiculous amount of Italian food.  I’m not precisely sure why that’s the case, but I think it has something to do with the fact that my dad grew up in a proudly Italian household, and the restaurants we choose tend to be those he frequented as a kid and young adult. As it turns out, his proud Italian father was actually German – but that’s a much longer story for another post.  The bottom line is that – in an homage to his non-existent distant relatives – he grew up eating tons of Italian food, both in his house and at all sorts of restaurants in the Denver suburbs, so, those places became the Friday night dinner spots of his childhood and are still the neighborhood joints we visit today. Plus, there’s something about a big bowl of pasta and garlic bread that just feels right after a long day on the mountain, regardless of whether your ancestors were actually Italian.

I’ve raved about the Colorado-style pizza pies at BeauJo’s in Idaho Springs before, and that place is definitely one of my must-visit places whenever I’m in Colorado.  That being said, it’s gained so much popularity – partly due to it’s amazing food, partly due to it’s prime location in Idaho Springs right off I-70 between several popular ski resorts and the city, and partly due to the fact that the folks at BeauJo’s take full advantage of the gold-rush history in Idaho Springs and chock their restaurant full of gimmicky signs, wagon wheels and sifting pans.  In that way, BeauJo’s is a bit of a tourist trap.

In stark contrast to the “gold-rush chic” aesthetic at BeauJo’s in Idaho Springs (which is an actual design choice in Colorado, trust me) is Pietra’s in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.  I was born in Wheat Ridge, and lived across the street from the house my dad grew up in (and ate all that pasta in) until we moved away when I was about seven years old. Wheat Ridge is a blue collar town – their high school mascot is “The Farmers,” for God’s sake – and there really aren’t any fancy or flashy places anywhere around that part of the suburbs.  Pietra’s – which is neither flashy nor fancy – is an old-style Italian restaurant tucked into a small strip mall of sorts.  The table “cloths” are those old, red plastic things you come across every now and then, and my parents tell me the place hasn’t changed in about 30 years. I love that about Pietra’s.

This past week, we headed there for a family meal with my papa, one of my uncles and a good family friend.  We sat at a big table in the main dining room, which has predictably low-ceilings and brown wood paneling, and ate and drank for several hours, until my papa announced (loudly) that he was ready to go, despite the rest of us being not quite done with our last bites of food or sips of wine (but, hey, when you’re 90, you get to throw in the towel whenever you feel like it, bites of food and sips of wine notwithstanding).  The food was very, very good – everything looked and tasted homemade, and my parents say the Italian salad dressing and meatballs haven’t changed a bit since they were kids.

I love going to places that are basically little samples of my mom and dad’s days as teenagers and young adults.  They both grew up a stone’s throw from Pietra’s, and listening to them talk about how the neighborhood used to be, or about how Pietra’s hasn’t changed a bit, is always a fun, strangely sentimental experience for me, and I love that we can still get together at the places they used to bring their dates in high school (so my dad says – he and my uncle wore matching white overalls around the time they’d have brought dates to Pietra’s, so the jury’s still out on whether that actually took place or went the way of his “Italian” ancestors).  Wheat Ridge may be a blue collar place, and Pietra’s might not be anything to write home about, but I’m more than happy to sit in their dark dining room, at a table with a red plastic covering, drinking a red wine I’ve never heard of before with my family any day of the week, until papa loudly announces that it’s time to go home.

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