In 1988, the twenty-seven-year-old refused to be intimidated by big names such as Papa John’s and Quiznos. Armed with recipes from New York, Villareal opened Armando’s— the first restaurant with a pizza-by-the-slice concept in the area.
At the beginning, Villareal hoped the urban location of McAllen would provide an audience, but their particular neighborhood was slow to grasp the idea. “No one knew us,” his wife Nelly remembers. The couple then tried a spot on Nolana for seven years before finally settling in Edinburg. “Now we’ve been here for sixteen years, and everyone knows us,” Nelly celebrates. “There are orders from Harlingen, Weslaco, and all of the nearby towns.”
Today, most of Armando’s costumers are from Edinburg’s university and local businesses. “Many professors send their students, and we love it when they stick with us,” Nelly shares. While confessing the desire to serve more families, she’s happy to call their current costumers family. “I know each by name and enjoy getting to know them,” she mentions.
Such a personalized service is part of Armando’s intent to distance itself from bigger franchises. “Our goal is to make sure every new client doesn’t feel like just a number,” Nelly highlights. This attention to detail is also extended to the food preparation.
“Everything’s homemade,” Nelly states. “People walk in and smell the fresh spices.”
Their competitors might rely on electric equipment, but Armando’s is proud of their rustic methods. “Using a gas-operated stone oven makes a huge difference in taste,” Nelly explains. “It leaves our pizzas with a rich flavor.”
As result, costumers can enjoy generous, foldable slices that don’t resemble franchise ones that are often too thin, greasy, or hard. “New Yorkers who live here say this is the closest around to what they remember as a true New York pizza,” Nelly boasts.
On their quest to authenticity, the Armando’s team isn’t afraid to work hard. Their popular Sicilian pizza, according to Nelly, takes about fours hours of preparation. “We have two or three in stock to order, and need a forty five minute advance to prepare the dough,” she reveals of the process toward a delicious crust that becomes both crunchy and soft.
When asked about the secret to the perfect pizza, Nelly’s quick to say love—for both their food and the people they serve. “It makes me get up in the morning,” she lights up. Costumers seem to love them and keep coming back, as Nelly reports to have lived great experiences in their twenty-three years of service. Regardless of what happens, Nelly shows her passion is always the fuel for her day. “No matter how many problems I have, I leave them aside,” she smiles, seeming to relax at the thought. “Once I open the door, this is Nelly from Armando’s Pizza. And that’s what makes the difference.”