Steamboat Springs Malcolm Goble was the star of the local theater company in Whitefish, Mont., two years ago when he walked into Billy Castronova's Italian restaurant.
Before long, he was the star of the restaurant as well. Goble cooked and sang to the customers, belting out Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.
Goble's voice mixed with the smells of garlic and olive oil.
The newspaper in Whitefish voted the restaurant the best in town and the restaurant's wine list won two awards from Wine Spectator magazine.
As its popularity grew, the owners expanded seating and added a new deck.
The place grew until it was ready to expand beyond the borders of the tiny Montana town and Castronova went on a road trip.
"I visited three cities and nine ski towns," he said. "In the end it was between Jackson Hole, Sun Valley or Steamboat.
"This town had the strongest sense of community," Castronova said. "We love the tourists, but we want to win the local business."
Castronova showed up in August with his father, known as "Pops," and a crew of employees from the Montana restaurant to transform the space once occupied by the Alpine Bistro on South Lincoln Avenue into their second success.
"We met a lot of people those first couple months, because we had to ask a lot of questions," Castronova said.
They opened on Dec. 30 without advertising and the place was packed, he said. Their second night of business was New Year's Eve. Castronova brought in actors from Denver to play Buddy Holly, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and the new restaurant, Mambo Italiano, made an impression.
Word spread fast around Steamboat, and the Mambo Italiano restaurant has been full almost every night since.
People come for the singing and for the food.
Castronova calls it "immigrant Italian."
As a first-generation Italian-American, raised in Brooklyn, Castronova inherited the recipes from his grandparents.
His family came from the southern port town of Bari in southern Italy. One grandfather was a fisherman and the other grandfather was a farmer.
"My family makes good things in inexpensive ways," he said. "A lot of restaurants serve that kind of food, but they charge Northern Italian prices."
Before opening for business on Wednesday, the restaurant had the atmosphere of backstage before a performance. Employees were shouting jokes at each other across the room with the warm family affection of people who have been through months of rehearsals together.
"Of all the restaurants I've worked," Goble said, "this one has the best sense of family among the staff."
The four remaining members of the Whitefish crew who stayed to live in Steamboat have been living with Castronova until a few days ago.
Until last week, Goble was cooking and entertaining the dining room, but when the restaurant was busy, he found it harder and harder to do both.
"We've decided to keep him as front of the house," Castronova said.
When Goble gets settled into his new job and community, he hopes to get involved with local theater, he said. In the past, he has starred in productions of "The Little Shop of Horrors" and "The Drunkard."
"This is a great stage for me," Goble said, "but when I get on the real stage ..." His voice drifted off, nostalgic.
Meanwhile, he has a job to tend to. Just as it did in Montana, the Steamboat Mambo Italiano is pushing its seams and Castronova is already applying for permits to expand the building.
"The only complaint we've had is that it gets crowded in here," Castronova said.
On a busy Friday night, the 97-occupancy building will turn more than 400 covers.
"We were trying to create the fast-paced buzz of a New York restaurant in here," Castronova said. "Luckily, the customers did that for us."