Recipes from Denver restaurants that reigned when epaulettes and pesto were all the rage

It was the early 1980s and Denver had money to spend. The penny stock market had led to a modern day gold rush. The chic new restaurants were more than happy to cater to the padded-shoulder clientele with exotic new menu items like parchment paper snails, pesto, and breakfast pans.

Longtime Denver restaurateur turned restaurant promoter Jean Imbergamo had just opened Cafe Giovanni in the lower town center. Its chef and business partner Jack Leoni put pesto on the menu.

“No one really in Denver had ever heard of pesto,” Imbergamo said. “Jack decided the pesto was going to be too hot, too hot for diners in Denver at the time. So he made it into a cream sauce with pasta.

It was a miscalculation.

Popular food critic had great things to say about the new Italian restaurant, but, Imbergamo said, “the only thing he didn’t like about our menu was the creamy pesto sauce because he couldn’t understand why we would have made that to pesto – adding cream to it.

Courtesy of John Imbergamo
Longtime Denver restaurateur-turned-restaurant promoter John Imbergamo and the cookbook he shared with Colorado Matter’s series: The Kitchen Shelf.

We asked Imbergamo to walk a culinary memory trail with us because we are all a bit locked up at home. Social distancing could let the Coloradans cook more right now, but it also means restaurants are closing left and right due to the coronavirus pandemic. In all its decades, Imbergamo has never seen anything like it.

“We have never been universally closed for as long as we have been,” he noted. “And opening restaurants at 50% capacity was the start of a comeback, but restaurants basically can’t operate profitably at 50% capacity.”

Imbergamo released a 1982 gem from a cookbook titled “Colorado’s Best Gourmet Gold: Recipes from Colorado’s Best Restaurants”. Most of the sacred restaurants within this dining room manual, including Imbergamo’s own Café Giovanni, are now closed.

“There are 71 Denver restaurants listed in this book and 10 of them are still here.”

Pesto makes another appearance in Imbergamo’s reflections with a chicken and pesto frittata from The Egg Shell. The all-breakfast restaurant was a revolutionary concept at the time, something beyond a greasy spoon. The eggshell grew to include multiple locations and paved the way for places like Snooze, Jelly, and Toast. (One of the founders of The Egg Shell then launched Le Peep.)

“They brought the stoves to the market,” he said. “You know, a pot with potatoes on the bottom and eggs on top. ”

At the other end of the day, for dessert, Imbergamo highlights a fortune cookie recipe from a Chinese restaurant in Denver that was in a VFW room. The Lotus Hall had opened its doors several years earlier in 1948. One day, Imbergamo remembered coming with a big party. They had a massive and complicated order. Their aged server didn’t write any of this.

Courtesy of John Imbergamo
The cover of “The Best of Colorado’s Gourmet Gold,” an ’80s cookbook that featured dishes from some of Denver’s most popular restaurants at the time.

“In the restaurant business, my rule would be that you can only do this if you take an order for two. We had no hope of getting the food we ordered. And yet, the server delivered each item to the right person with the right changes.

“It was beyond imaginable.”

As the list of culinary victims of the coronavirus grows, Imbergamo is particularly worried about autumn and winter when the outdoor terraces can no longer be used. Converting streets and parking lots to out-of-the-box, summer-oriented, socially remote outdoor dining rooms has been a boon in these times.

“We are terrified of what will happen in October, November, December. ”

He also has confidence in the resilience and capacity for innovation of restaurateurs. Look no further than the pesto, breakfast pans and “The Best of Colorado’s Gourmet Gold” recipes.

House Snails

From Cafe Giovanni, which was located at 1515 Market Street in Denver.

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