Bite Me

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."

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan