Pizza is like a mother’s love: The first impressive slices you eat as a child imprint themselves on your brain. You carry the memory of those pizzas wherever you go, often romanticizing their qualities to the people you meet. You seek out their comforts whenever you return home because, in your mind, no other pie can ever hope to attain the perfection of your favorite childhood pizza.
Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria was not the pie of my youth. My first experience with the place came in late 2001, long after the towheaded locks of my boyhood had turned the color of dishwater. I had just moved to Takoma Park from Houston and was asking locals for their favorite pizzerias. Armand’s came up repeatedly.
My first visit to the Silver Spring location wasn’t what I expected. The space felt dark, even in the daytime, as if it had been designed by vampires. Its pies were to Chicago deep-dish what Olive Garden’s breadsticks are to Italian grissini. But there was a charm to Armand’s that I couldn’t deny: The tablecloths were checkered but also waterproof, the kind you wipe clean between customers. The water glasses were oversize plastic tumblers, all the better to prevent breakage. There was even an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a sneeze-guard, complete with salad fixin’s for those who remember grazing endlessly at the local Pizza Hut.
Armand’s reminded me of Godfather’s Pizza, the faux deep-dish chain of my Nebraska youth.
Armand’s struck me as a time capsule, an interactive Smithsonian exhibition of the Period before Neapolitan Pies. Before every pizzeria had a wood-burning oven and a stack of seasoned wood in the kitchen. Before cooks called themselves pizzaiolos and invested in five-day courses on how to bake authentic pies from Naples. At that point in my life — it was post-9/11, and the whole city seemed perpetually on high alert — I found Armand’s a total comfort. I’d find myself there frequently, reveling in nostalgia in an uncertain world.
Every Washingtonian of a certain vintage, of course, has an Armand’s story. It’s only natural for a business with more than 40 years of slinging pies. Founder Lew Newmyer — the Alan Alda look-alike whose portrait still hangs in the Silver Spring restaurant — launched the pizzeria in 1975 after he discovered Chicago deep-dish pizza on a business trip. Newmyer wasn’t a restaurateur in the way we think of one today: He wasn’t a culinary school graduate or a student of the hospitality industry who knew from an early age that he was destined to open restaurants.
Newmyer was a dreamer. An idea guy. A restless soul who served as a Navy medic during World War II, performed amateur magic shows, worked as a liquor salesman, ran his own cabinetmaking business and was even the proprietor of Armand’s submarine sandwich shops, a forerunner to the pizza chain. He was a national yo-yo champ — twice, once as a boy in 1937 and again in 1996 when he was a septuagenarian. He died in 2015 at age 92. His obituary was a tribute to a life well lived.
Newmyer will go down as one of Washington’s great characters, even if he won’t go down as one of the city’s great businessmen. Yes, Newmyer pioneered deep-dish pizza in the District (his pre-YouTube recipe development project had him literally digging through the garbage), and he had vision enough to install warming ovens in his vehicles (and later a real deck oven in one) to build a formidable catering and delivery business. But as Newmyer himself once said, “I can’t run an adding machine to this day.”
His son, Ron Newmyer, confirms his father’s financial shortcomings. “I don’t think we were ever really well set up for franchising, and that took up a lot of time and energy,” he tells me. “Over 43 years, tastes have changed and the industry has changed a little bit. It’s difficult to remain on the cutting edge of everything. We were on the cutting edge when we started in ’75.”
For those who haven’t been watching, the once-mighty Armand’s chain, which at its peak had 14 locations in the area, is now down to two. Only the Silver Spring location is still owned by the Newmyer family; the one in Rockville is a franchisee. As best as I can recall, the Silver Spring outlet looks much like it did in 2001: A life-size cutout of Chef Luigi greets you at the door, holding a chalkboard menu. Nothing’s written on it. On a wall, there’s another chalkboard scribbled with “semi-fascinating Armand’s factoids.”
The fourth bullet point seems particularly relevant: “The owners of Armand’s are all local musicians.” The word “all” is underlined.
I’ve been down this road before: Children who were, essentially, drafted into their family’s restaurants find they have other interests, far away from the blisteringly hot ovens and nonstop demands of the hospitality business. Their dream is not their parent’s dream.
“We all have music careers that we’ve been doing on the side as we’ve been restaurateurs,” Ron, 64, says about his siblings and brother-in-law.
My first visit to Armand’s in years certainly felt as loose as a jam session. A friend and I were sitting at a wobbly table, experiencing a meal so beleaguered it bordered on the comedic. I was given the wrong beer and, after pointing out the error, was eventually told they were out of the one I wanted. Our server never punched in our order of garlic bread. We had to ask three times for water. Our pizza, an Original Chicago Combo with pepperoni and sausage, arrived underbaked and doughy. The steak and cheese sandwich, slathered with mayo, had been warmed with the shredded lettuce tucked inside the roll. Let me tell you: Wilted iceberg is no wilted spinach.
We left, I’d guess, three quarters of the food uneaten and didn’t request takeaway boxes. No one batted an eye. As we were picking through dinner, I received a text from a friend, who has just seen my photo from Armand’s on Instagram.
“If you trash Armand’s you’re gonna have hell on earth at your front door 10 minutes after that goes live. Leave Armand’s alone!” Lou texted.
“I implore you,” he added a beat later. “Leave our Armand’s alone.”
What’s a critic to do? Sure, I made follow-up visits, which had the curious effect of making the anachronistic seem normal. Some slices, piled high with three cheeses and baked just right, reminded me that my affection for Armand’s will never wane, much like my love for the aunt who always encouraged me to eat, eat, eat! But like the Newmyer family, I have other passions now. I can kiss Armand’s on both cheeks and walk away, with only a small pang in my heart.
But it’s easier for me, right? I didn’t grow up with this pizza.
1909 Seminary Road, Silver Spring, Md. 301-588-3400, myarmandspizza.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Silver Spring, with a 1.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $9 for starters and salads; $8 to $19 for sandwiches, pastas and pizzas.