All in the Familia
There are moments in a chef's life that forever define him. The first taste of foie gras; the oily reek of anchovies; the crisp, celery-stalk snap of a rabbit's neck being broken; the explosion on the back of the tongue set off by the full, huge, deep-brown flavor of a real glace de viande that's been cooking down for twenty hours. There will be longer stretches that shape the chef's talent: seasons that teach him to love (and hate) the land that brings apples in autumn and midwinter truffles; weeks that test his endurance; nights during which he wonders whether he might have been happier as an orthodontist or a plumber. Skill, patience, humility, restraint, even love -- these all come with time. But food memories are created in a flash, permanent and indelible. Like any artist, a chef lives and dies by his ability to plunder that stockpile.
"I remember when my father opened Armando's," says Anthony Sarlo, former general manager of his father's place in Cherry Creek and now the owner of Vita Bella in Superior. "There would be a bunch of us kids in the back, everywhere, rolling dough, cutting vegetables. My father and his two brothers are there, cousins, wives. It's a family thing; it's always been a family thing."
Anthony Sarlo talks New York fast, bouncing from topic to topic, discussing uncles and cousins and grandparents like I should know them, like I was from the neighborhood. When I ask about the flavors, textures and experiences that shaped him, he speaks only in terms of these people -- his family. And he does so in the immediate tense, as if it were all happening now and they were all sitting right there with him.
I ask for his most powerful food memory, the one thing that hooked him on cooking. "There's so many," he replies. "I guess it's eating Sunday dinner with my grandmother. She'd make this...wait a minute, I wanna be sure I get this right." He drops the phone and yells back to his grandmother -- who really is right there. "Hey, Grandma! What's the name of that spinach pie? Yeah, the real name. What'd you call it?" And then he's back: "Yeah, a Sicilian empanada."
Sarlo tells me how they used to have it every Sunday, how it was made and how it smelled. "But you gotta use fresh spinach," he insists. "Fresh baby spinach. We never changed the recipe, you know? You just sauté it in a little olive oil with garlic..."
I realize mid-sentence that he's no longer talking about how his grandmother used to make it, but how he makes it today -- how he'd probably been making it all day before I got him on the phone. The spinach pie on Vita Bella's menu is the spinach pie he remembers having as a kid: a stuffed, double-crust pie filled with mozzarella and romano cheeses, black olives and that gently handled spinach. "Done just enough," he says. "So it's cooked, but still green and fresh. I know these other places..." And then he goes off on the chains, restaurants that will abuse their spinach and commit a variety of other culinary sins.
Chain restaurants are a big concern of Sarlo's. He's surrounded by them in Superior. The location he chose for Vita Bella -- a strip-mall suite with big front windows looking out over a Blockbuster and a Land Rover dealership, just south of FlatIrons Crossing in the former home of Bleachers Sports Grille -- guaranteed that the restaurant, a wiry Italian flyweight, would be duking it out from day one with a ring full of super-heavyweights and proven punchers. Red Robin, Bennigan's and California Pizza Kitchen, they're all big fellas. But Sarlo knew what he was getting into when he opened his own place last December. His tactic was to offer something different, something more warm and welcoming. Vita Bella is casual, with about twenty tables spread around an understated dining room, all visible from the long, open-line kitchen. Sarlo's confident -- very confident -- that his vision will sustain him. "It's a family thing here," he says. "And we're deserving."
Every other sentence out of his mouth is about the family. The recipe for the wonderfully light, espresso-spiked tiramisu is his mother's secret. He remembers her working the cash register at Armando's during the Cherry Creek Arts Festival while his dad manned the ovens in back and he and his cousin sold pizzas. Sarlo's mother, brother, sister, grandmother and cousin Sal all work at Vita Bella; his father is still at Armando's; his aunt is at Cafe Jordano in Lakewood (see Bite Me). The family's restaurant history goes back to 1962 in this country, when Sarlo's maternal grandfather, who was from Vizzini, Sicily, opened the Continental in Brooklyn. The old man spent the rest of his life in the business, opening a total of seven restaurants in New York City, culminating with the Oriental Manor, which achieved a measure of immortality when Martin Scorcese used it as the setting for Henry Hill's wedding scene in Goodfellas. Sarlo's father arrived in New York from Naples in 1979, working at Original's in Brooklyn, then coming west to Colorado. In 1986, he opened Armando's. Anthony did time there for years, turning dough and throwing pies, until finally he left for college. He was in his fourth year, pre-med with a double-biology major, when he walked away.
"It was a turn toward familiarity," he says, a return to the life he'd grown up in. "I'm running my dad's place in Cherry Creek, and I was doing pretty well. As I'm getting into it, I'm like, 'I love this.' I loved this every day, and I didn't love the doctor thing so much. I mean, what was I going to do? School for four years, become a doctor, get that M.D. and then just die in some hospital someday?"
So though he's still working on finishing college, Sarlo now spends most of his time in the kitchen at Vita Bella, doing what he knows best. Not fancy food or stuffy food, but street-corner Italian from his grandfather's recipes and his own memories. "You won't be able to find direct-from-Italy imported cheeses and mint-encrusted lamb chops," Sarlo says, "but you will find everything that Grandma would make for us as we sat around the table on Sunday."
That means an Italian red sauce made in-house, slow-cooked and bittersweet, with fat chunks of tomatoes that haven't been mauled by a blender. A red sauce needs only time -- time, and a little bay leaf, a little oregano, a little garlic and a good meat base -- to turn into this kind of classic: clingy, thick, soft on the tastebuds and "all gravy, no grease," as one of my old bosses used to say. Vita Bella's spaghetti is a properly thick noodle (none of the thin sissy stuff everyone seems to use these days); its ravioli are filled with a simple, seasoned ricotta; the lasagna is a chubby, delicious mess of layered beef and sausage, mozzarella and ricotta. For the chicken parmigiana, a huge breast is pounded, breaded and baked golden with red sauce and mozzarella, then served with a side of spaghetti. There are no surprises; everything is exactly what you'd expect.
Or better. In the beginning, God made peanut butter and jelly. That was a good combination, but it wasn't enough, so he went on to create honey and mustard, black figs and strawberries, Corona and lime, Siegfried and Roy, and a whole lot of other things that went well together. Still, it took the pushcart vendors at Italian street festivals to combine sausage and peppers properly. The secret is to sauté the peppers with some onions in the grease left from the sausages, and cook the vegetables until they go limp. That's how Vita Bella does it.
Vita Bella also makes its own meatballs, and in the fine tradition of every pennywise mom-and-pop trattoria from Flatbush to White Plains, these are heavy on the breadcrumbs, easy on the spices, stiff, a little dry and soak up sauce like a sponge. With every pasta, you get a choice of one big meatball or a sausage: Order extra.
From the appetizer side of the menu, I tried the excellent garlic-fried shrimp. There were about a dozen in the order, butterflied and marinated, then fried in a light garlic batter that made them come out mild and chewy, with the texture of a good calamari. A second, takeout order of the shrimp -- acquired in the name of thorough research -- filled the car with the tenacious funky aroma of fried seafood, because I couldn't wait till I got home before digging in.
Pizzas occupy an entire page of Vita Bella's menu, and most of Sarlo's time behind the line. He loves making pizza, and while his brother or cousins ably man the kitchen's other stations, the pies are all his. Vita Bella offers both the thin-crust and pudgy, square Sicilian varieties, each made with the same nutty, slightly sweet New York-recipe dough. The smallest Sicilian available is 8 x 16 inches, and even a small round pie will feed two reasonable people. The sauce is mild, the toppings fresh and the firm, flavorful cheese is a good mozzarella rather than the gooey, bland and stretchy stuff that's a sure sign a pizza joint is using "pasteurized milk product" rather than actual cheese. While I don't claim to understand the weird culinary hoodoo that grants some pizza men the ability to make a perfect, chewy, orange grease-soaked pie that just begs to be folded up and eaten with a glutton's abandon, I'm thankful that Sarlo is one of the chosen few. It's something in the genes, I think. Or a boon granted only those who make strange sacrifices to the Neapolitan pizza gods. Whatever it is, there are guys like Anthony, who have it, and then there are the guys who work at Domino's....
He's followed a long, twisting road to get there, but Anthony Sarlo is now solidly in the restaurant game. It's his calling; this is where he belongs. We talk about it for a long time -- about growing up in the kitchen, about the smell of bread baking on a cold morning, about knowing when something tastes right because it's what you've tasted all your life. But mostly we talk about love.
"I take joy in putting the pies in the oven. I take joy in pulling them out again. There's just so much joy," Sarlo says, suddenly slowing down so that he can savor his words for the first time in our conversation. "The hospital felt like work to me. But this? This is love."
Sarlo has come home, and it shows.
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