Italian and Mexican cuisines are two cuisines deeply integrated into our American persona. Italian-American food is such a part of our "American culture" that we forget that Italian immigrants were once marginalized and hated just like newer immigrant groups are marginalized and hated now. And even though Mexicans were living in parts of the US long before those parts were even US territories, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans are still going through the same struggles other immigrant groups have gone through over the centuries here in the US-- and around the world, for that matter. But Mexican food? I could wax for pages and pages about how integral Mexican influence is on food in our society but other people have done a much better job than I could have ever hoped, so you are safe from my arguments, however full of common sense they might be. Suffice to say: everyone loves Mexican food.
Nowhere is this more clear than in a restaurant like Piccolo's, a bit of a unknown Denver institution that prides itself on not only featuring Italian and Mexican-American food--which is nothing unique--but blending the two together in one-and-only ways.
Walking into Piccolo's understated corner stripmall storefront is like walking into a slice of middle America. A 9/11 "Never Forget" poster hangs besides family photos. On this Saturday night the dining room is mostly full of families and older couples while at the small bar a few locals watch the CSU football game. It is busy but easy to get a seat. The servers are mostly teenagers. Almost instantly a thin man with gray hair, a skinny tie, and a youthful ear-to-ear grin sidles up to our table to greet us. It's Vincent Canino, one of the three brothers who own and operate Piccolo's. His father, he explains, owned a restaurant in Denver in the 1950's called Tico Taco, so featuring Mexican-like food on the menu was a no brainer.
The menu at Piccolo's is largely typical Italian-American and Mexican-American, or better, Mexican-Colorado food. For the most part the Shrimp Scampi and Eggplant Parmigiano stay on one page and the burritos and enchiladas on another. Still there other some unique cultural clashes that stand out like the Jalapeno ravioli and garnachas with Italian dressing. Sounds gimmicky, I know, but keep reading and see if you don't want to eat what I did that night.
As I perused the extensive menu, my eyes stopped on the first item in the "Mexican" section where I found a dish I couldn't resist: the Mexican Canoli. The Mexican Canoli is something few restaurants would dare to put on a menu even if they were insane enough to dream it up. It is comprised of a pair of jalapeno cheddar bratwurst freshly baked into a tubular bread dough, or "canoli".
The green chile was actually a quite good, part gravy-style and part stew-like, with large chunks of pork and a modest kick. Also inside was a strip of roasted jalapeno (below) which ran the length of the brat and provided another little kick along with a wonderful smoky flavor. All in all it was a great sandwich, or canoli, or bread burrito, or whatever the hell you want to call it.
Many people seemed to come for the pizza, which my kids ate along with a kid's chicken taco the size of a small burrito. The pie? It was decent, though nothing special.
There may never be a day when we as a collective society will ever learn from our own recent history. There will be a day, and I hope to live to see it, when Mexican-Americans and other, more recently marginalized groups will be as commonly accepted as the Irish, Italians, and the long list of other ethnic groups that have been outcast while they tried to survive in our country. Maybe one day we will live in a society that will even welcome ethnic changes in our country-- or better yet, one day the typical American will be so blended with different ethnicities and backgrounds that we won't even notice. Whatever the case, we can all agree to disagree over a plate of Mexican food.