Once a year, despite my protestations and whining, I agree to take my Kim to the Olive Garden. It’s a deal we have, albeit one that makes me feel like Faust in the Christopher Marlowe play. Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. In my case, the deal is a visit to Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year. I sure got the rotten end of that deal.
On a list of things I’d rather do, my annual visit to the Olive Garden for a meal of cheese glop or tomato torture ranks somewhere below visiting a proctologist or watching The View. Kim likes the salad and bread sticks and I suspect derives a bit of sadistic satisfaction in hearing me mutter polysyllabic epithets about the “Evil Garden’s” food. The cultural anthropologist in me finds it both amusing and tragic that teeming masses congregate for pathetic pasta, mediocre marinara and boring bread sticks. It makes me long for a visit to Joe’s Pasta house in Rio Rancho.
Joe’s Pasta House is the antithesis of the Olive Garden. In the words of Bruce Schor, one of my astute readers (and not solely because our tastes in food are fairly similar), “Joe’s represents real Italian food of the real comfort variety.” The operative word here is “real.” Joe’s is most often thought of as old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurant, the type of which have survived the onslaught of their supposedly more sophisticated brethren, the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants; the type of which remain so popular throughout the East Coast. Perhaps that’s why Joe’s is so beloved in Rio Rancho, the city so many call “little New York.”
To label Joe’s as strictly a “red sauce restaurant” is to do a disservice to one of the most comprehensive Italian restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant which transcends labels in that it showcases the cuisines of Italy’s three distinct culinary regions: north, south and central. Joe’s also prepares the familiar Italian American dishes developed by Italian immigrants, occasionally spicing things up with green chile, a tribute to the adopted home of proprietors Joe and Kassie Guzzardi.
Joe Guzzardi is a peripatetic presence with a buoyant personality and charm to spare. He visits every table to make sure his customers are enjoying their dining experience. “Mi casa es su casa” seems to be his mantra–and he really means it. I once overheard him tell a guest who didn’t like the entree he ordered, “this is my house. We’ll make you happy.” before proceeding to recommend entrees with a different flavor profile than the dish the guest didn’t like. Joe’s energy, enthusiasm and customer orientation are mirrored by an attentive, well-mannered and highly professional wait staff that is easily among the very best in the metropolitan area.
While Joe manages the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, his pulchritudinous partner Kassie oversees the restaurants social media channels, search engine optimization, blog and Web site presence. In a day and age in which it’s become fashionable for restaurateurs to tout their social consciousness, Kassie was a pioneer in forging relationships with local suppliers to ensure the highest quality, most socially responsible and healthy foods possible. She’s understandably very proud that Joe’s won’t feed guests anything the Guzzardi family wouldn’t eat themselves.
That means hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and to the greatest extent possible GMO (genetically modified organism) free pasta imported from Italy. It means grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, humanely raised veal and sustainably-caught fish. Pastas and sauces are prepared in stainless steel pots, healthier vessels by far than their aluminum counterparts. Only non-hydrogenated oil is used and it’s changed out every day, the remnants given to owners of vegetable oil-powered vehicles. Unfortunately Rio Rancho’s solid waste infrastructure is currently incapable of providing the recycling capabilities to fully comprehend all of Joe’s needs, but the restaurant recycles as much as possible.
As for Joe’s famous red sauce (so good I’ve joked with Joe that he should serve it in a shot glass), the secret is in the tomatoes. Joe’s uses only imported, vine-ripened, hand-picked Italian plum tomatoes which have a wonderful, natural sweetness. Now, there are two schools of thought about preparing sauce. Joe is a proponent of not simmering his sauces for hours on end as opposed to the school of chefs who employ marathon-long simmering sessions (which tend to render tomatoes very acidic). That’s one of the reasons Joe’s red sauce is much lighter in color. It’s much more delicious, too.
It may be hard to believe that Joe’s Pasta House occupies the former digs of an International House of Pancakes (IHOP), but what’s not surprising is that the restaurant consistently earns flawless ratings on all its restaurant inspections. It’s an immaculate and attractive restaurant. Sophisticated stylings include an exhibition kitchen under the cover of a burnished copper awning. The restaurant’s walls are festooned by artwork provided by the Rio Rancho Art Association.
Faux Italian marble columns, a mural painted by a deceased beloved Rio Rancho city council member, real napkins and linen tablecloths let you know this is more than a casual dining restaurant even though the reasonable prices might belie that fact. Until 2009, the great Bob Morris sang at the Pasta House, his elegant voice delivering beautiful Italian arias and romantic ballads on weekend evenings. Bob now lives in Texas, but is much missed by frequent patrons and the staff at the Pasta House.
In August, 2013, Joe’s began featuring delicious, fine, imported foods and confections for those evenings in which you’re craving Italian cuisine, but don’t want to leave home. Almost immediately as you step into the restaurant, you’ll espy shelves replete with imported olive oils, pastas, olives, salts, risotto, nutella, pastas, mustard, cookies and so much more. It’s not quite the next best thing to dining at Joe’s, but Kassie assures me this is excellent stuff.
Perhaps the only thing at the Pasta House as warm as the Guzzardi’s hospitality is the bread which arrives at your table shortly after you’re comfortably seated. There may be nothing as comforting as a basket of sliced bread and yeasty rolls baked in-house–unless, of course, it’s a dish of seasoned olive oil and various herbs and spices in which to dip that bread. Joe’s Pasta House goes even further with a complementary plate of bruschetta crowned with a mixture of rich, red tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic and other savory ingredients. At most restaurants you would pay handsomely for such a treat.
Extreme care must be taken to ensure you don’t fill up on bread, great as it is. You also have to be doubly cautious so as not to fill up on Pasta House appetizers, some of which arrive in profuse portions which might constitute an entire meal elsewhere. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the Pasta House hungry! The menu features several tempting appetizers and while such options as fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari are seemingly standard offerings at most Italian restaurants, live it up and try something unique to Joe’s Pasta House. That something different might be the poppy seed shrimp, ten (yes, 10) jumbo shrimp sautéed with bell peppers, red onions and black olives in a tangy poppy seed sauce. It’s different and it’s delicious.
15 January 2014: The menu offers six salads, most available in half and full sizes. Our favorite is the Caesar salad which is classically interpreted then improved by Joe’s. The traditional touches are large leaf Romain lettuce, shaved Parmesan cheese and croutons topped with Caesar dressing. Joe’s touches include red peppers and a sole cherry pepper. Caesar, after all, was Italian so these small additions are copacetic. The Caesar dressing is applied lightly so you can enjoy the other salad ingredients.
13 November 2012: Another unique appetizer is the hot antipasti for two, an entree-sized portion that features stuffed eggplant (with rich Polly-O Premium Ricotta Cheese from New Jersey), clams, calamari, shrimp and mussels baked and served with marinara sauce. The shrimp have that snap that signifies freshness and a sweet brininess that’s addictive. The marinara is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico–slightly sweet, barely acidic and wholly addictive, but it’s the eggplant that makes me want to sing like Bob Morris. Prepared incorrectly eggplant can leave a “metallic” taste in your mouth that may last for days. The Pasta House chefs know what they’re doing with eggplant! By itself, it’s quite good, but the Pasta House tops it with melted mozzarella and bits of prosciutto.
Addictive is an apt description for a lightly breaded eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese, prosciutto and sauteed spinach, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. Eggplant is the bane of my kitchen, a dish I’ve never been able to prepare well (hence my aforementioned references to “metallic” taste), but Joe’s rendition comes highly recommended by a trusted fellow gastronome and friend Dave Hurayt who calls it “exquisite…more than a full meal.” Dave knows what he’s talking about. He’s a world-traveler who’s experienced the very best in Italian food throughout Boston, New York City and Italy. Another friend, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver calls this the very best dish on Joe’s formidable menu. My Italian sister-in-law says it’s just like her sainted mama used to make.
The eggplant is indeed exquisite. It’s the type of dish which makes all your synapses fire as your taste buds try to discern the adventure of flavors going on in your mouth. Texturally, the skin of the eggplant is soft, but not mushy. The prosciutto is fairly mild and not nearly as salty as some prosciutto is prone to being. The sauce is rich with tomatoes, basil, garlic and other spices. This is an excellent appetizer, a wonderful way to start a meal.
16 November 2013: Joe’s fried breaded butternut squash and ricotta ravioli is one of those seasonal appetizers which may have you wishing it was autumn all year round. Four raviolis, each the size of an iPhone are served with a piñon cream sauce so rich and decadent, it should come with a warning. As addictive as the ravioli are, they’re also so rich you couldn’t possibly eat more than two, but you’ll relish every single morsel. The butternut squash and ricotta combination is a perfect blend of semi-sweet and savory, buttery and creamy. The sauce features not only woodsy New Mexico piñon, but nutmeg and cinnamon to accentuate the squash. This is one seriously good, ultra rich, ultra delicious appetizer.
7 April 2007: The menu is broken into several sections: fresh salads, appetizers, local favorites, traditional favorites, house specialties, seafood favorites and grilled entrees. Within each section are various options, all sure to please the most discerning diners. From the “Local Favorites” section comes a Mediterranean Pasta entree as good as you might expect to find at an upscale Greek restaurant. This dish is crafted with artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese sautéed in a white wine butter sauce all served atop linguine pasta (or you can substitute penne). Available with chicken or shrimp, it is richly calorific and served in a deep dish. You’re sure to have some left over.
9 January 2014: Another local favorite not commonly found in Albuquerque area Italian restaurants (but extremely popular in New York City and which we’ve also had in the deep South) is the beguiling Ziti alla Vodka, Ziti pasta with prosciutto and scallions in a vodka pink sauce. The sauce appears to be combination of the restaurant’s rich Alfredo sauce and its meatless marinara with a bit of vodka splashed in and the alcohol cooked out. It’s inventive and unconventional, creamy and rich, sweet and savory…and absolutely delicious. The pasta is slightly more than al dente and the scallions appear to have been added after the entree is put together, offering a nice contrast. The prosciutto is sliced into tiny morsels and offers a startling taste and texture difference that you can’t help but take notice. This is an excellent entree.
4 August 2007: One of the restaurant’s richest entrees is the Fettuccini Carbonara (pictured above) made with green peas, pancetta and a heavy cream sauce that will put weight on you just by looking at it. There are two Albuquerque area restaurants whose carbonara I recommend highly–Paisano’s Italian Restaurant and Joe’s Pasta House. The commonality is a subtle balance of rich flavors and perfectly prepared pasta crafted from complementary ingredients.
23 January 2011: Though it’s easy to characterize Joe’s Pasta House as a “red sauce” restaurant, in truth the restaurant excels at a variety of sauces, some complex and some simple, but all delicious. During a visit in January, 2011, we happened upon the former, a special of the evening my Kim’s friend Rosalie Marella makes in Chicago. The label “special” certainly fits. It’s rigatoni pasta and pork ribs, an Italian dish showcasing a simple, but magnificently executed tomato sauce. The dish showcases old-world style tender pork ribs cooked in Joe’s homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil, olive oil and Romano cheese served over imported rigatoni pasta.
The pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty (porky?) enough for Fred Flintstone. It’s easy to extricate the pork off the bone, but your inclination might be to pick them up and gnaw off that pork with your hands. It’s a messy proposition considering the tomato sauce, but then that’s what napkins are for. The rigatoni pasta is prepared at just slightly past al dente, but certainly not nearly to the level of the squishy, mushy overdone pasta served at the restaurant at which I’m forced to eat once a year.
23 January 2011: As smooth as degustation (a sensory (taste, smell, tactile, experience) appreciation of a meal, especially with good company) tends to be at Joe’s, there are some meals which are thoroughly enjoyable while you partake of them at the restaurant, but not so enjoyable if you’re prone to indigestion later. One of these is the Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp special, a sinfully rich dish of lobster and ricotta engorged ravioli topped with sauteed shrimp, fresh peas and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce. It’s the brandy cream sauce which will get you. It’s ultra rich, but also ultra-delicious which means you’ll probably polish off the entire plate. Then there’s the lobster. Each ravioli (tablet-sized) is engorged with fresh, delicious and rich lobster meat.
13 November 2012: If ravioli is what you crave, there are a variety of ways in which you can have it at Joe’s. It’s available as a breaded and deep-fried appetizer served with a mushroom cream sauce. It’s available as an entree where it’s stuffed with cheese and topped with marinara sauce. It’s also available off-the-menu as an entree called the Giovanni Special. Invented by John, one of Joe’s long-time waiters, this dish is the mother lode for ravioli lovers. It features six round cheese stuffed raviolis, three meatballs and two sausages topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella. This is one of those dishes only regular guests know about. We’ve had to describe it to members of the wait staff who have never heard of it; fortunately Joe knows precisely what it is.
13 November 2012: The Baked Cannelloni, homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella is akin to having one large ravioli. The season beef is an excellent counterpoint to the rich, melted mozzarella and the tangy sauce. Roughly the size of a baked potato, it’s a red sauce dish with the richness of an Alfredo sauce. As with all entrees at Joe’s, it’s an archetypal example of how good this specific dish can be.
16 November 2013: Every once in a while Joe’s will feature a special which proves just how much the restaurant’s cuisine has also been influenced by the Land of Enchantment. Now, green chile on Italian pasta dishes isn’t exactly a novel concept in New Mexico, but rarely is it done as well as the Green Chili (sic) Chicken Ravioli, ricotta-filled ravioli topped with sauteed chicken and green chili Alfredo sauce. The piquancy (discernible, but not overwhelming) and roasted flavor of the green chile are a perfect foil for the richness of the Alfredo sauce…and it is rich. It’s also delicious, a fine departure from the tried and true sauce.
16 November 2013: In November, 2012, four time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison published an article entitled 5 Top New Mexico Spots for Divine Gnocchi on her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog. Cheryl lamented that for years she tended to avoid gnocchi in restaurants because “most I’d sampled in such settings were heavy with a gluey quality I associate with eating paste in kindergarten.” She elaborated that “gnocchi should be hearty but have an ethereal lightness about them, too.” The traditional gnocchi at Joe’s would make my top five. Traditional means the gnocchi are made from potato, not semolina flour as prepared at some restaurants. Potatoes is the way gnocchi are made in the Piedmont region of Italy and it’s the way gnocchi tastes best. At Joe’s the gnocchi are topped with a superb tomato sauce and topped with meatballs and Italian sausage.
While the pasta dishes are infused with flavor, it’s apparent the chef’s culinary skills are as plentiful as are the portions. Joe’s Pasta House is by no means a one-trick pasta. In August, 2009, the menu was upscaled with the addition of an admirable cavalcade of chops: Porterhouse steak, French style pork chops, lamb chops and more. These are chops the type of which you might expect to find in Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders.” If Joe has his way, perhaps Rio Rancho should be called “City of Big Chops.” Lamb chops. Pork chops. Porterhouse steaks.
15 January 2014: The Colorado lamb chops are cloud-like luscious and redolent with grilled flavor. At about an inch thick, they’re the antithesis of the tiny, emasculated chops so many restaurants serve and each order includes four prepared to your exacting specifications. At medium rare as the chef recommends they be prepared, the flavorful juices flow as you cut into them. As with much of the lamb served in restaurants, the inherent gaminess associated with lamb has been somewhat bred out which is why medium rare works so well. These chops are tender and succulent with just the slightest hint of fat for additional flavor. They’re also not served in the “Frenched” style with the bone “handle” for easy handling. The lamb chops are served with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes and a ramekin of delicious gravy made from pan drippings.
Porcine perfection can be found in the form of juicy French cut grilled pork chops in a Chianti mushroom sauce. Chianti is a full and rich red wine that couples well with the mushrooms to imbue the inch-thick chops with a complementary flavor that doesn’t detract from their native pork flavor in any way. Two chops for under twenty dollars is an additional bonus.
In February, 2013, Joe’s Pasta House began offering a “Fish Fry” as its Tuesday night weekday special. If you’re from the Midwest, you know that fish fry is practically a religion. Consider the dining room tables at Joe’s your altar as you enjoy two pieces of hand-breaded, cold-water, wild-caught flounder served with a garden salad, fried potatoes and a house made tartar sauce! The fish is fried in 100% vegetable oil. Meat lovers have their own special day, too. On Wednesdays, the special is all-natural, slow-roasted, Black Angus Prime Rib served with garden salad and mashed potatoes! Liquid smoke doesn’t exist within the same zip code as this slow-roasted slab of beefy deliciousness.
15 January 2014: The prime rib is available in ten- and twelve-ounce sizes. It’s become so popular that you’re well advised to get to Joe’s early (the prime rib special is available from 4PM to 9PM) because once it runs out, you’re out of luck. Because of the demand, Joe’s roasts some four prime rib roasts. It’s easy to see why the prime rib is so popular. It’s very tender, cutting almost like butter and revealing a perfectly pink center (at medium) with rich juices flowing copiously onto your plate. As with great prime rib, the “crust” is seared to perfection. Seasoning is earthy and natural, accentuating the terrific grass-fed flavor of the beef. The accompanying horseradish sauce has some bite, but not so much that it detracts from the starring attraction.
15 January 2014: You can add a dinner or Caesar salad with your entree for a pittance or top your steak with sauteed sliced mushrooms, melted mozzarella cheese or sauteed sweet onions for just a bit more. If you’re tastes are more inclined toward surf and turf, you can also top any of your steak or chop entrees with garlic scallops. Because scallops are delicately flavored and sweet, you might think garlic would overwhelm those qualities, but that’s not the case. The garlic kisses the scallops softly so as not to change their flavor profile. This is a surprisingly nice dish.
4 April 2014: During my years in New England, I consumed boatloads of creamy, comforting, delicious seafood bisques and chowders from Maine to Connecticut. Nothing in the world compares to a thick, sweet, creamy bisque served at a waterfront restaurant with the advantage of being able to use freshly caught, just off the boat seafood. There’s also no equal for enjoying such a repast while the salty sea air and balmy ocean breeze lulls you into a state of blissful relaxation.
Joe’s Pasta House has none of those advantages, but somehow manages to serve a seafood bisque which transports me back to so many wonderful afternoons on the wharf at Gloucester, Massachusetts. The bisque isn’t always on the menu, but when it is, it quickly sells out. That’s because Rio Rancho may be a landlocked city several hundred miles from the sea, but its citizenry knows great seafood. A large soup cup is brimming with fresh crab, mussels and clams sharing a creamy home with carrots, scallions, celery and a single crostini. The seafood is unbelievably fresh and surprisingly plentiful with sweet crab being especially cherished. The bisque is creamy and thick and is served at the perfect height of steaminess.
Not surprisingly, the Pasta House also has a stellar dessert tray with palate-pleasing options galore: German chocolate cake, chocolate cake, lemon cake, chocolate cannoli, red velvet cheesecake and oh, so much more. It’s all tempting and likely all delicious. Only the tiramisu and cannoli are prepared in-house. Other desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor.
The Italian Dream Cake will inspire nocturnal smiles. It’s rich, creamy and delicious. The cannoli is among the best in the city, replete with rich ricotta brought in from New Jersey. The lemon cake zings with a nice tanginess while the German chocolate cake is the perfect marriage of coconut, pecans and chocolate. Desserts are decadent, delicious and dreamy.
There is so much to like at Joe’s Pasta House, an Italian restaurant several orders of magnitude better than the heavily trafficked Olive Garden to which I’m subjected once a year. In 2013 that fact was acknowledged when Joe’s Pasta House was selected by readers of Albuquerque The Magazine as the “best Italian restaurant” in the metropolitan area. That’s proof that Joe’s has become a dining destination drawing diners from throughout the Duke City area and beyond.
Though they’re absolutely indefatigable ambassadors for their establishment, Joe and Kassie also rave about other restaurants in the City of Vision, an act of class so very typical of this dynamic couple who win the hearts and stomachs of their guests one delicious dining experience at a time.
Joe’s Pasta House
3201 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 17
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pesto, Mediterranean Pasta, Hot Antipasti for Two, Lasagna, Cannelloni, Giovanni Special, Fetuccini Carbonara, Zita Alla Vodka, Gnocchi, Butternut Squash and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli, Tiramisu, Cannoli, Italian Cream Cake, Green Chili Chicken Ravioli, Colorado Lamb Chops, Prime Rib, Seafood Bisque