Cafe Society

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan