Smaldone, Denver's Mob Family

Brothers Clyde and Checkers Smaldone used their north Denver family restaurant, Gaetano’s, as the headquarters from which they built a mob empire. The Smaldone underworld enterprise died out, but Gaetano’s remains.

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THE MOST NOTICEABLE change at Gaetano’s since the days when the Smaldones held court is the tongue-in-cheek slogan adopted by the new ownership: “Gaetano’s – Italian to die for.”

Gene Smaldone notices it when he slides into a booth for lunch and for a magazine story interview. The booth seat is black, and there’s a white cloth on the table. Gene orders the rigatoni with red sauce.

Gene is the elder of the two sons of Clyde and his wife, Mildred. Gene is trim and looks two decades younger than his 81 years, and in his khakis and green windbreaker, he comes across nothing like his suit-wearing father. He never got into his family business, never even smoked or drank. He was a North High and University of Denver football star who followed that path into coaching before entering a long and lucrative career in real estate. Gene shrugs off the mention of his family as mobsters.

“That was just my dad,” he says. “These other guys were my uncles and friends. I thought we were just like any regular family.”

But the legacy follows him, and he’s come to embrace it, focusing on the good things his family did. He helped arrange the interviews that provided the raw material for a 2009 book, Smaldone: The Untold Story of an American Crime Family, written by friend and retired Denver Post columnist Dick Kreck, who joined us at the table.

“You won’t find anybody in north Denver who has anything bad to say about them, because they gave money to the orphanages and the church and people on the street,” Kreck said.

The Smaldone name still means something to people here, Gene said. He talks about his wife’s recent grocery shopping expedition, how when it was time to pay, the woman at the checkout stand noticed the name on the credit card.

“She says, ‘Oh, are you related to the Smaldones?” the clerk said. “And Linda says ‘yes.’ And so the clerk says, ‘Can I carry your groceries out for you?”

But being a Smaldone can be something of a burden, too, and name recognition hasn’t always been so kindly expressed. We talked a few days later with Gene’s younger brother Chuck, who recalled his first day of first grade.

“I can remember they were calling the roll and there was a dead silence” after his name was called. “The teacher asked if I was part of the gangsters, or something like that, in front of the whole class,” Chuck said. “I was mortified.”

His parents, especially his mother, were adamant that Gene and Chuck not follow in their father’s line of business. Clyde had chosen his path almost out of necessity, to support his parents and younger siblings, and he never finished high school, he made sure his sons went to the best schools and got college degrees.

“My mother told my brother and I that because of our name, we had to be twice as good as everybody else, because people expected us to be bad,” Chuck said. Like his brother, Chuck defied expectations, making a lawful living as co-owner of Duane's Clothing menswear shop in Arvada.

When weighing the Smaldones’ crimes against the good things they did for people, the fact that they steered their children away from the family business – and in so doing guaranteed the end the criminal empire they built – is perhaps another weight on the “good” side of the scale.

But the Smaldone name still has the power to sparks imaginations. After the book on the family came out, Gene and Chuck started fielding calls from people interested in telling the Smaldones’ story in a movie; they recently met with an established screenwriter to work on a treatment. If their family appears on the big screen, the brothers want it to break from mob clichés and show the way the Smaldones helped others.

Hollywood depictions of mobsters are sometimes ridiculous, Chuck says, singling out The Sopranos as making them look “dumb.” The level of violence is always amplified in the movies, but some films hit closer to home. The wedding scene that opens The Godfather was reminiscent of Gene’s wedding in 1951, where 500 guests were invited, and 1,500 showed up.

And so the Smaldone legacy lives on, somewhere between myth and reality, between good and bad, and possibly, on the big screen, where immortals are made.

(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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