By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
The in-laws were in town again recently. It was just a quick visit, a few very busy days of catching up and shooting the breeze, punctuated (of course) by meals. Lots and lots of meals. That's the thing about visiting me and Mrs. Critic -- no matter who you are or how long you stay, you can guarantee that three out of every five conversations will center on where we're going to eat, where we just ate or what we would eat if we could, if the best green-chile cheeseburger on earth wasn't 500 miles away (the original Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico) and our favorite place for drinking a high-test Mai Tai in the rain almost 2,000 (China Garden in Rochester, New York).
While they were with us, Laura and I did get a few tastes of home. Her mother served cheap-and-dirty cheesesteaks made with Steak-Umms, supermarket hoagie rolls and individually wrapped cheese slices; she also cooked up chicken supremes, a murderously good family recipe lifted from one of the original Julia Child cookbooks, made with chicken breast in a vermouth cream sauce that packs about thirty pounds of butterfat per square inch. (The closest you come to this dish locally is Bob's Favorite at Cafe Jordano in Lakewood, which nearly killed me when I first encountered it.) Meanwhile, Ellis, my father-in-law, brought in a stock of Philly soft pretzels -- muling them like a brick of black-tar heroin through security, wrapped in plastic and folded up among the T-shirts in his carry-on. And while I usually prefer mine with plain old French's yellow, I've found that the pretzels also go quite nicely with local favorite Maidy's beer mustard, the spicy-sour Killians blend helping to alleviate the cottonmouth you get after sacking out on the couch and scarfing down three or four of the figure-eight twists while watching an Alton Brown Good Eats marathon on the Food Network.
But man cannot live on soft pretzels and chicken supremes alone (not for long, at least), and what we all really wanted was some good Italian. I don't mean good like Luca d'Italia, which is fantastic, and not even good like Parisi, which is significantly less white-tablecloth but has a dangerous deli attached at its new location. Given my deli-centric impulse-control problems, allowing myself to go within even a block of Parisi is like dropping a recovering alcoholic into the middle of Oktoberfest. Bad things are bound to happen.
11068 W. Jewell Ave.
Lakewood, CO 80232
Region: West Denver Suburbs
4401 Tennyson St.
Denver, CO 80212
Region: Northwest Denver
No, what we wanted was cafe Italian: street-corner, mom-and-pop, brick-and-lambrusco, trattoria-style rustica with Frank (Sinatra,not Bonanno) on the Muzak and candlesticks stuck in old wine bottles. We wanted Italian done the way Italian is done back East, which is to say cheap and right and everywhere. Where we're from (the Philly suburbs for Laura, upstate New York for me), you can't swing a salami on the street around dinnertime without whomping someone who's rushing home with a bag full of takeout spaghetti and a box of cannoli. There are neighborhoods where the fastest way to clear out a bar is to stick your head in the door and yell, "Hey, Tony! Your Camaro's on fire!" Back East, finding a good little Italian restaurant is as easy as closing your eyes and walking a hundred feet in any direction. There, such joints are as ubiquitous as mountain-bike shops and Vietnamese nail salons are here, with at least one in every plaza, and often two or three.
Good Italian of this breed may be tough to find in Denver, but it does exist. There's Anthony's("A Cut Above," February 5), a homegrown mini-chain of pie-and-pasta joints scattered across the city that makes a worthy 'za and also delivers. If you're looking for something a bit more substantial, though, my new fave is Armando's -- in particular, the Armando's of Cherry Creek in Aurora, at 16611 East Smoky Hill Road, just a few blocks south of my normal pho and bulgogi stomping grounds.
This place...man, it has it all. A dozen-odd varieties of truly Italiano, buffalo mozzarella, thin-crust and deep-dish Sicilian pies; a sapore di mare appetizer with wine-poached clams, mussels and shrimp that's like the best linguine with white clam you ever tasted (it also comes with red sauce); homemade spaghetti, homemade manicotti, homemade gnocchi di patate in a simple red gravy with melted mozz and just a slight twinge of oregano acidity. The kitchen's authentic Italian sausage is porkerific, the shrimp alla Romana an evil tango of milky veal parm and prosciutto-wrapped shrimp so good it ought to be illegal. And the puttanesca? I've only had one better -- from Tyler Wiardat Mel's Restaurant and Bar (Bite Me, June 10) -- but his was only an amuse, and Armando's went on forever.
For an ex-pat like me -- someone who runs screaming from dinner at the Macaroni Grill and is cursed with a wanton need for the occasional take-away box of rolettini or a carbonara made with actual pancetta, not Jimmy DeanBacon Nuggets -- Armando's is a little slice of back-East heaven.
Fry me to the moon:And speaking of treats from the East, I must make a painful confession: I have become addicted to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.