Keeping it in the family: When you taste Anthony Sarlo's cooking (see review, page 67), you get a taste of the family he grew up in. But Vita Bella isn't the only restaurant in the area flavored by this Colorado restaurant clan.
Anthony's Aunt Elisa and her husband, Troy Heitman, own Cafe Jordano (11068 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood). Another strip-mall treasure, this restaurant should be easy to find -- just look for the drooling crowds hanging out by the front door, clamoring for one of the dozen or so tables in the small, casual, family-run restaurant. I don't know if they're drawn by the thick, homemade red sauce, the perfect tiramisu -- mild, light and deeply flavored with espresso and sweet cream -- or the signature Italian entrees (prices run a little higher than at Vita Bella, in the $10 to $20 range, but you get a lot of bada-bing for your buck). Reservations? Fuggedaboudit.
Here's what you do: If you want a table for dinner, show up about lunchtime, and wait. If you're just looking for a quick lunch, sleep in your car in the parking lot. According to one member of the legion of loyal, almost fanatical fans, Elisa and Troy could expand the dining room to seat 500, and there'd still be a wait. And Cafe Jordano doesn't even do pizza!
But Anthony's father does, at Armando's, 201 Milwaukee Street (newer outlets are located at 16611 East Smoky Hill Road in Aurora and 1610 East Girard Place in Englewood). Armando's is still tossing the spinach pie that made it famous when it opened back in 1986, along with a dozen or more varieties that will satisfy the cravings of even the most die-hard New York-style-pizza purist. For the spinach version, fresh leaves are sauteed in olive oil and Italian spices, then stuffed along with sliced black olives, a good dose of garlic, oceans of mozzarella and a dusting of romano into a double crust that's more like pastry dough than the tough, flavorless cardboard you find at Denver's less artistic trattorias.
Although this pizza is obviously a twin to the one Anthony makes at Vita Bella, it's fraternal, not identical. Armando's spinach has a bit more bite to it, and Anthony is more liberal with the romano than is his father. But at either place, we're still talking one monster pie. An inch thick, stuffed until swollen and served with a generous side of the house red sauce, one Armando's ten-inch was enough to feed three -- with some pie left over.
And while Armando's menu is more comprehensive than that of Vita Bella -- including twice the pasta choices -- that won't be the case for long. Anthony Sarlo promises that his restaurant will be expanding its offerings soon, bringing the upstart Bella more in line with old man Armando's.
What's in a name? Two weeks ago, I offered a few choice words about the national organic-labeling standards that went into effect on October 21. Last week, I told you about hermaphrodite frogs. This week, the debate rages on, with a letter I received from local organic farmer Tom McCracken of Green Earth Farm:
"Thanks, Jason, for giving us your views on the new USDA Organic seal," he wrote. "You have some of your facts wrong, however. Certified Organic farmers and ranchers are required by law to provide humane conditions for animals and are required to use sustainable farming practices, such as crop rotation, green manures, composting, etc."
Thanks, Tom, and you're right -- to a point. In sub-part C (the section dealing with organic-crop, wild-crop, livestock and handling requirements) of the 556-page National Organic Plan, you'll find these lines: "Any production practice implemented in accordance with this sub-part must maintain or improve the natural resources, including soil and water quality, of the operation.... The producer is required to implement crop rotation...[and] must maintain or improve soil organic matter content, provide for effective pest management...manage plant nutrients, and control erosion."
And while these requirements are well-intentioned, they're also vague. The required "organic plan" -- the personal documentation of standards and practices by which certified organic producers/farmers/ranchers will be judged under the new rules -- is excessively restrictive to the small farmer. The specificity of certain requirements (such as the recording of the composition and source of every substance used on the farm or ranch), combined with the ambiguity of others (undefined terms such as "humane conditions" and "stress-free environment," no mention of the frequency with which soil and tissue must be tested), could make for tricky record-keeping.
"I have to check my compost temperature every day," McCracken tells me when I call to chat. And he has to keep a record. And that record must be made available when his organic certifier or inspector requests it. But he's willing to try, because it was small organic farmers like Tom who "fought for these standards all along, because there's been plenty of people lying, cheating and stealing," he says. "I know some of them."
This grassroots effort did effect some important changes (prohibitions on genetically modified foods, irradiation and the use of sewage sludge in organic products, to name the three biggies), but it may also put the small farmers who fought for it out of business. "You are correct that this bill will help large agribusiness while perhaps even crowding out small farmers like myself," McCracken acknowledges. "Drastic increases in fees, mountains of record-keeping and labeling requirements are hard, if not impossible, for small growers. This is the catch for those of us who have supported verification. We have seen unscrupulous growers cheat and sell conventional product as organic. What are we to do?"
Members of the organic community did the only thing they could do, and the national organic standard was passed into law with their help. But while the USDA tried to write a fair and flexible set of rules -- after receiving half a million comments on its first draft alone -- its premise relies on "a mutual consent to the responsibilities of organic farming." The relationship between the grower or producer and his certifier must be such that both the farmer and the government are working together for a reasonable application of these standards -- which is great in a perfect world, not so great in ours.
So what can you, the consumer, do? "Get to know your farmer," advises McCracken. "Demand that your natural-food stores buy from small growers as well as the huge new players in the industry, such as Kraft, Dole, etc. Go visit a farm and find out for yourself how things are done."
I'm with him on that. The organic labeling standards are not a perfect solution to problems with our food supply, but they're the best safeguard we've got. They do guarantee certain protections for the consumer, and they do contain a sort of "in a perfect world" plan for sustainable, humane and environmentally friendly practices, but it's going to take the cooperation of all players in the market -- the small grower, the distributor, the huge agri-corporations, the government and ultimately, you, the consumer -- to make this work.
Leftovers: But back to deck-oven-fresh, non-organic, New York-style pizza. Basil Doc's Pizzeria will be opening a new location in the Union Court Plaza at 150 South Union Boulevard, Lakewood, sometime before the spring thaw. This will be the fourth outpost of the successful mini-chain, which has bragging rights to a 100 percent growth in sales over the last year in an economy that has been crippling so many other restaurants. Also, Rose's Cafe -- the strange, Vietnamese/Italian eatery that didn't survive its move from Seventh and Quebec to a much larger space at 1515 Madison Street, the former home of the Normandy -- will be reborn after Thanksgiving as Casabona's, a full-fledged Italian restaurant.
The massive Blue Sky Grill, the Ponderosa-style restaurant that Stan Kroenke had carved into the Pepsi Center (at a cost of millions), is now open only when the Pepsi Center is hosting events. No surprise, considering the location, but it was nice to be able to get a buffalo ribeye anytime you wanted. As a consolation prize, Ted's Montana Grill opened last week at 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. The restaurant -- a joint venture between media titan Ted "I still like Citizen Kane better in color" Turner and restaurateur George McKerrow (former CEO of the Longhorn Steakhouse chain) -- will offer "comfort food for the 21st century in an authentic atmosphere that brings the spirit of the American West to cities across the nation," its owners promise. The 3,800-square-foot homage to Montana living (or Turner's version of it, at least) seats about 150 and features twenty varieties of burgers, lots of bison, daily specials and that nice, choking aftertaste you get after swallowing your individuality and moseyin' on up to the corporate trough.
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Littleton makes the sixth Ted's Montana Grill, and another slated to open in Larimer Square, someday relatively soon, will make it seven. But according to McKerrow, plans call for forty locations in two years, 150 in five.
And we're worried about human cloning?
A critical seven blocks further up Larimer Street, the Mexico City Lounge (2115 Larimer Street) will be staying open after lunch and offering a taco happy hour. According to Bob Muniz, who took over the classic joint a few years ago, the special will run from 5-7 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, and start "in a week or so" -- just as soon as he gets a new sign and some fliers made up to let all you good people know about it.
Marczyk's Fine Foods (770 East 17th Avenue) now has a sandwich menu. For those of you craving some upscale fare, how 'bout a Bocadillo with Serrano ham and manchego, or a fresh antipasto sandwich? Molinari finocchiona salami, prosciutto arrosto and shaved Piave cheese on a rustic roll with fresh arugula certainly sounds better to me than a Ted burger, but hey....that's why they make M&Ms in different colors, right?