DENVER - When I heard a Denver Italian restaurant had been revamped by Chef Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares I jumped at the chance to try a recipe by the world-renowned chef.
But when I walked in to Pantaleone's, it was empty.
The owner, Pete Fafalios, told me he is praying that publicity from the show will save him from having to shut down the pizzeria he opened in 1985.
When I come back a week later, Pete greets me by name, leads me to a table and pulls out my chair.
"Most of the old customers, I know their first name," Pete says with a thick Greek accent. His Old World charm is irresistible.
Before I can start the interview, we are interrupted by a man looking for work.
"Right now, I'm not hiring. In a month or so, I don't know," Pete says, shrugging.
His concern is evident. Already struggling financially before the restaurant re-launch, Pete says he lost some of his existing customers after Chef Ramsay cut unprofitable items from the menu.
"I used to give the food away," Pete explains.
At the same time, few people know about the new options created by Chef Ramsay specifically for Pantaleone's.
The episode is scheduled to air on Fox in February.
"It can't happen fast enough," Pete tells me, with his palms pressed together in prayer.
The 62-year-old estimates he works 70-80 hours a week, making everything fresh from scratch -- including the sauce, the sausage and his legendary pizza dough.
"I make my own dough. That's what kept me going 29 years," Pete says proudly. A bit begrudgingly, he adds, "It's the one thing Ramsay didn't change."
The changes Ramsay and his team made are extensive. They remodeled Pantaleone's dining room with new tables, walls and art, bought a $10,000 stainless steel stove, and a brand new catering van.
When I ask Pete why he thinks Ramsay chose to help his restaurant, he claps his hands and laughs.
"My family!" Pete says with a huge smile. Then he is suddenly serious.
"Gordon likes family and we had a lot in common, family-wise. A lot of heartaches." Pete stops, not wanting to reveal too much about the world-famous chef he now calls a friend.
But he tells me about taking out a VISA and sending his brother $10,000 to save his house in Greece.
Pete imitates Ramsay jabbing him in the chest with a finger.
"Gordon said, 'You tried to save your brother with no money. You're a good man.'"
And Pantaleone's is a family affair. Pete's younger son Joshua, 33, helps run the kitchen.
Adding to the already-intense situation, Pete says Josh grew up idolizing Chef Ramsay.
"When [Ramsay] came in the restaurant, [Josh] lost his voice. Gordon goes 'What's wrong with you?! Did he castrate you?'" Pete laughs.
"Were there big blowouts?" I ask.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah!" he says. "He tore Josh apart in that kitchen!"
I couldn't help asking if he was secretly a little glad Ramsay did it.
"Yeah," Pete admits. "He needed it."
I confess that the thought of being reamed by Chef Ramsay absolutely terrifies me.
"No, no, no, no! Don't be scared of him!" Pete insists. "He didn't bother me, not that I'm tough guy!"
But Pete admits he felt the pressure, too.
"The margherita pizza came out beautiful, the most beautiful pizza I've ever made," Pete says. Then he imitates Ramsay turning up his nose and walking away. "He's so damn arrogant, he can never admit something is good."
And Chef Ramsay also had a few extra challenges up his sleeve to really turn up the heat on the night of the re-launch.
Ramsay sabotaged the stove, replaced a dishwasher with a production assistant, tossed out a waiter, and sent Pete's 17-year-old grandson to talk to Miss Colorado.
"You think those were the only challenges? You will have to see the part about the van!" Pete says.
"If you see the episode, don't judge me," Pete pleads. "I cussed in Greek at the waiter."
But Pete refuses to let anything stand in his way.
"I'm telling you, I never back down."
His spirit, determination and experience kicked in when it really counted.
"When you get stuck in the kitchen with 20 tickets, forget the 19 tickets. You start one at a time and at the end you'll be OK."
And if he can fill 20 tables in his restaurant, he will be OK. The food is phenomenal. The eggplant parmesan is like a fine cut of steak. The meatballs are amazing, the marinara is incredible and the pizza dough deserves the title of best in town.
But for now, Pete's hopes are pinned on people seeing his episode on Kitchen Nightmares. And he says Chef Ramsay is his biggest supporter.
"The last speech [Ramsay] gives, you know when he does this (smacks hands), he said, 'I never wanted anyone to make it so bad as these people.'"
Ramsay already plans to revisit Pantaleone's for a follow-up that will air next season, Pete tells me.
"We're supposed play soccer when he comes back," Pete smiles.
So what was the best part of the whole experience?
"To me, as a chef, it was a honor to meet this guy and work with him in the kitchen," Pete says. "It was the thrill of a lifetime, it really was."
He also got some vindication.
Chef Ramsay signed his recipe book, "P.S. I do love your dough."
Check it out for yourself! For more information about Pantaleone's menu, delivery service, location and hours: http://www.pantaleones.net/