Recipes From The Denver Restaurants That Ruled When Shoulder Pads And Pesto Were All The Rage

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17min 29sec
Coutesy of John Imbergamo
Dining, and fashion, were a little different in Denver back in the 1980s.

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

Longtime Denver restaurateur-turned-restaurant-promoter John Imbergamo had just opened Cafe Giovanni in Lower Downtown. His 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 that pesto was going to be too pungent, too strong for Denver diners at the time. So he made it into a cream sauce with pasta.”

It was a miscalculation.

A popular food critic had nice things to say about the new Italian eatery, but, said Imbergamo, “the only thing he didn’t like on our menu was the pesto cream sauce, because he couldn’t understand why we would have done that to pesto — adding cream to it.”

Courtesy 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 down a culinary memory lane with us as we’re all a bit cooped up at home. Social distancing might leave Coloradans cooking more right now but that also means eateries are closing left and right because of the coronavirus pandemic. In all his decades, Imbergamo has never seen anything like it.

“We have never been universally closed for as long as we were closed,” he noted. “And the opening of restaurants at 50 percent capacity has been the beginnings of a comeback, but essentially restaurants can't operate profitably at 50 percent capacity.”

Imbergamo brought out a 1982 jewel of a cookbook called “The Best of Colorado’s Gourmet Gold: Recipes From Colorado’s Best Restaurants.” Most of the hallowed restaurants inside this manual of mess halls, including Imbergamo’s own Cafe Giovanni, are now closed.

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

Pesto makes another appearance in Imbergamo’s musings 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 Egg Shell grew to include several locations and paved the way for places like Snooze, Jelly, and Toast. (One of The Egg Shell’s founders went on to start Le Peep.)

“They introduced skillets to the market,” he said. “You know, a pan with potatoes on the bottom and eggs on top.” 

At the opposite end of the day, for dessert, Imbergamo highlights a fortune cookie recipe from a Denver Chinese restaurant that was inside a V.F.W hall. The Lotus Room had opened many years prior in 1948. One day, Imbergamo remembered coming in with a large party. They had a massive and complicated order. Their aged server wrote none of it down. 

Coutesy of John Imbergamo
The cover of "The Best of Colorado's Gourmet Gold," a recipe book from the 80s that had dishes from some of Denver's most popular restaurants at the time.

“In the world of restaurants, my rule would be that you can only do that if you’re taking down an order for two. We had no hope that we were going to get the food that we had ordered.” And yet, the server delivered every item to the right person with the right modifications. 

“It was beyond imaginable.”

As the list of culinary casualties of the coronavirus grows, Imbergamo is especially worried about fall and winter when outdoor patios can no longer be used. The conversion of streets and parking lots into ready-made, summer-focused and socially-distanced outdoor dining rooms has been a boon in these times.

“We are scared to death about what’s going to happen in October, November, December.” 

He also has faith in restaurateurs’ resilience and ability to innovate. Look no further than pesto, breakfast skillets and the recipes in “The Best of Colorado’s Gourmet Gold.”

Escargots Maison

From Cafe Giovanni, which used to be at 1515 Market Street in Denver.

24 (72-count) French snails
2 tbsp. butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
2 tbsp. cognac

2 egg yolks
2 cups heavy cream
1 tbsp. fresh parsley, minced
salt to taste
white pepper to taste

Place snails, butter, garlic and shallot in a saute pan and saute over medium heat for two minutes. Add cognac to the pan and allow to flame. Add the cream and lower the heat. Allow the cream to come to a boil. In a separate bowl, lightly beat egg yolks. Add 1/4 cup of the hot cream to the egg yolks and mix well. Return this mixture to the pan and allow the snails to simmer until the sauce is thick. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste.

Use imagination when serving the escargots: try a puff pastry shell or wrap them in parchment paper. We cut a double piece of parchment paper into a half-heart shape, you would make a valentine. Beginning at the point and extending half or two-thirds of the way up, double fold the two edges together to form a pocket between the layers. Put the escargots in the pocket and close the remaining edges. Fasten with paper clips. Butter the paper and bake at 450°F until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove paper clips before serving.

Chicken and Pesto Frittata

From The Egg Shell, which used to be at 1520 Blake Street, Denver

8 oz. cooked spaghetti
1 to 2 cups pesto sauce
8 oz. broiled and skinned chicken, diced
1 cup cooked peas
6 chives

12 large eggs
6 oz. provolone cheese, grated
1 tomato, diced
4 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated

In a large bowl, toss spaghetti with enough pesto to coat lightly. In a separate bowl, mix together chicken, peas, chives and remaining pesto sauce. In a third bowl, mix eggs with wire whisk.

To cook each frittata, butter a 7- to 8-inch frying pan and heat. When butter bubbles, pour in 5 to 6 ounces of whipped eggs; add spaghetti. Let eggs cook over high heat until set around the edge. Lift with a rubber spatula and let uncooked egg run underneath by tilting the pan away from you. When the top is almost dry, flip the entire egg with a spatula so the other side can cook. Remove from heat.

Flip back over; top with chicken mixture, provolone, tomatoes and parmesan. Melt under broiler. Serve. Makes 4 frittatas.

Fortune Cookies

From the Lotus Room, which used to be at West 9th and Speer in Denver

1 egg
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp. corn oil

2 tbsp. water
1/4 cup corn starch

Beat egg slightly and then gradually beat in sugar until very thick. Fold in the corn oil. Mix water with two tablespoons of egg mixture. Add cornstarch and stir into smooth paste. Blend this paste into egg mixture. Heat a well-greased griddle until drops of water will bounce when sprinkled on it. Drop batter by tablespoons onto griddle; spread with spatula until cookies are about three inches in diameter and 1/8-inch thick. Stir batter before spooning up each cookie. Bake on griddle until golden and edges are barely brown. Cookie will lift easily when ready to turn. Cook on other side until golden. Remove cookies one at a time; place fortune inside, and quickly fold cookie edges toward center to cover paper and bend backwards across middle so narrow ends meet. Weight cookies down wile cooling so they will retain their shape. Makes 12 to 18 cookies.

For our series “The Kitchen Shelf,” CPR News wants to know about other local Colorado cookbooks and we want your help. Whether your cookbook is collecting dust on a shelf or is a butter-stained countertop workhorse, take a picture of the cover and tweet @cprwarner or email it to [email protected]. We’d love to share more of these family recipes and the stories behind them.