Spaghetti Western: Armando Sarlo’s recipe for joy combines family, friends, great food and a few glasses of red wine

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When Armando Sarlo was growing up in Naples, Sunday family dinner was the highlight of the week.

“Dinner” didn’t mean chowing down for 30 minutes plopped in front of the tube.

“It started at 2 p.m. and went until 8,” Sarlo said. “It was brunch, lunch and dinner all in one.”

And by “family” he means the whole extended group of brothers, cousins, in-laws and everybody’s best friends.

Covering the big dining room table were pasta — of course, plus bresaola (stuffed pounded beef), chicken Florentine, fisherman’s stew (known here as cioppino), and classic sweets like ricotta-filled sfogliatelle and rum baba cake.

“You would take a bite and the rum would run down the corner of your mouth,” he said, an ear-to-ear grin filling his face as he sat in the dining area of his family’s Aurora restaurant. The nearby kitchen was bustling with men in white making creme brûlée, slicing cheese and making garlic knots from scratch.

That joy of food and feeding people turned into a career when Sarlo moved to the United States in 1977 at the age of 22. The day after he arrived he started working in his uncle’s eatery in New York. At that point, he said, he had only eaten at restaurants a few times a year.

“When I came to America, instead of taking girls out to eat, I cooked something nice to eat at home. They LOVED it,” he said.

When he and most of his family gradually moved to Colorado, it seemed natural to open a restaurant. Armando opened a pizzeria with his dad and his brothers, Benito and Antonio, in 1987. Armando’s of Cherry Creek became known as one of Denver’s best spots for pasta or a slice. They expanded to Aurora with an Armando’s that was open for 20 years on Smoky Hill Road before moving to its new location six months ago. The Sarlo brothers’ Parker eatery debuted in in 2007.

Translating Italian cuisine for American diners has always been a work in progress. “Here we had to adapt to what people wanted and expected,” Sarlo said.

Among other things, diners in Colorado and elsewhere want a lot of choices so you have pizza, pasta, risotto and everything in between on the same menu, something you wouldn’t ever see in the old country.

The fare at this “mom-and-pop place,” as Sarlo calls it, is primarily red sauce Neapolitan — from Naples — with some Roman and Northern Italian touches. Many beloved Italian-American restaurant dishes liked baked manicotti are actual based on the home cooking of Southern Italy.

Sarlo speaks in mellifluous Italian-accented English in which manicotti (man-i-caught-ee) is pronounced “mahn-ee-got.”

He noted that “you won’t find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. That’s all-American,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not beloved. When he goes to visit his mom who lives nearby, he always brings food. “She likes my tortellini and she likes spinach and cheese ravioli with a meatball,” he said with a shrug.

Seafood-packed cioppino is the single most popular dish the Aurora location serves, but Sarlo believes that many of his regulars return because of the relationship the staff has with them.

There’s also been a world of changes over the years he’s been cooking in Colorado.

“People are more sophisticated about food now. They have learned along with us,” he said. And the quality of ingredients available here has improved dramatically, especially when it comes to fresh seafood and produce.

Since so many dishes at his restaurants are made to order, he said he’s happy to adjust for individual taste including gluten-free dishes, but he laments that so many people have so many dietary restrictions that it’s hard for them to enjoy going out for dinner. “The word ‘moderation’ has gone out the window,” he said.

Instead of removing cheese, beef, carbs, salt and fat out of your diet, Sarlo recommends some self-control. “So maybe instead of 12 ounces of pasta, you have seven ounces.”

He takes his own advice, too. Most afternoons you’ll find Sarlo sitting in a quiet corner eating a meal and sipping a glass of red wine. “I like to make myself linguine and manila clams with lemon and white wine,” he said.

Sarlo draws a line in the marinara between “feeding” and “dining.” He knows his customers are often too busy to linger over a meal but he wishes they would find time more often to dine with their family.

“Eating together is one of the great pleasures of life. You’ve got to enjoy a good meal. Have a nice glass of wine. These are the things that keep us going.”

It’s so important to Armando Sarlo that his guiding philosophy is posted on the wall of his Aurora eatery:

“Mangia Bevi Divertiti” it reads.

That’s “Eat. Drink. Have fun.”

Reach Colorado Table Editor John Lehndorff at 720-449-9711 or[email protected]