Just as Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria presents an uncompromising take on authentic Neapolitan pizza, with its magical pizza ovens and transplanted pizza man, Armando's Ristorante in Aurora (one of three metro locations) presents an uncompromising take on another Italian-food experience.
Here it's a museum-quality reproduction of the classic (and, some would say, nonexistent) fantasy neighborhood Italian joint, the food striving toward some imaginary ideal of red-sauce simplicity reached only by the paring-down of recipes over decades, aiming for a spaghetti-and-meatballs absolute zero that can never be reached.
And Armando's pulls it off amazingly well, considering that its phone has a 303 area code rather than a 212. The dining room always seems to have the buzz of a big holiday meal — the floor overcrowded, everyone smiling and talking and eating with no self-consciousness at all. This atmosphere owes much to the fact that the Armando's mini-chain is a family-owned operation and that family is responsible for most of the area's best Italian joints (think the long-gone Vita Bella and the very alive Cafe Jordano).
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16611 East Smoky Hill Road, Aurora
The menu at Armando's is big, covering all the bases — from garlic knots and calamari to pizzas, pastas and cannoli. And while not every single thing on this menu is great, enough of it is that I've never come away from a meal disappointed. Sure, the gnocchi always seems too gummy (though that doesn't stop me from ordering this dish over and over again), and the linguine with white clam, a benchmark of strip-mall Italian cuisine, is alternately depressingly bland or the best you'll have in Denver. But the chicken Florentine, which comes drowned in a murderously rich Alfredo that bleeds butter the minute it starts to cool, is consistently amazing — so rich it'll get you high. And the pizzas, though workmanlike, are exactly what they should be: solid pies with no pretension, dressed in sweet red sauce with just enough toppings to keep them interesting.
Beyond this, the Armando's staff (both floor and kitchen) are some of the nicest folks you're going to run into anywhere. Always smiling, always helpful, eager to throw a few extras into an order (like a whole plate of spaghetti just because you look a little hungry, or a side of on-the-house garlic knots for mopping up the last of that sauce), they are like the sisters, cousins or uncles that you always wished you had — generous and friendly and warm and always ready with a plate of spaghetti when you need one.