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Cafe Bella – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

My friends Bruce “Señor Plata” Silver and Paul “Boomer” Lilly in front of Cafe Bella Coffee in Rio Rancho

Caffeine is my shepherd; I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness for its name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal:
For thou art with me; thy cream and thy sugar they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me in the presence of The Starbucks:
Thou anointest my day with pep; my mug runneth over.
Surely richness and taste shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the House of Mochas forever.
~Author Unknown

Among the many unflattering stereotypes about Information Technology (IT) professionals is that we’re all propeller-headed Poindexters hopped up on Mountain Dew, Red Bull and strong coffee.  As if to lend credence to that stereotype, the cafeteria where I work provides free coffee to its employees from the ubiquitous (and unnamed here) industry leader–as much of it as we can drink.  All day long programmers and systems analysts turn down the volume on Metallica, doff their headsets and leave the sanctity of their Jedi knight poster-filled cubicles to refill their barrel-sized coffee mugs.

There are some of us, however, who defy those stereotypes, particularly about the coffee.  It’s not that we like our coffee weak.  It’s that we don’t like introducing battery acid into our delicate systems.  Piquant red and green chile, the type of which makes New Mexicans sweat and New Yorkers cry, an emphatic “yes,” but caustically bitter coffee, “no.”  It’s only because the temperature in our facilities is regulated for the cool comfort of computers and not for thin-blooded human habitation that we occasionally succumb to the warming effects of coffee as strong as Agent Orange.

Affable proprietor Michael Gonzales tends to guests

Admittedly this techie is a relative neophyte to the lure of the coffee sirens.  Only in the past ten years or so have I rekindled my appreciation and love for the nuanced depth of flavors conferred by this stimulating and satisfying elixir.  Few things in life have become as pleasurable to me as the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee beans followed by the soul-warming, palate-pleasing flavors of a rich, gourmet blend.  As an adventurous voluptuary, it also pleases me to no end that coffee actually has almost twice as many flavor-characteristics discernible by human senses than wine does (take that, oenophiles).

Today more than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed annually across the fruited plain with some 57 percent of all Americans over the age of 18 drinking it daily. The average American consumes about 10.5 pounds of coffee per year, a number which pales in comparison with per capita consumption in other countries.  Coffee has become, next to water, the world’s most popular beverage with 400 billion cups consumed yearly (1.4 billion cups daily) across the globe.  It ranks behind only oil as the planet’s most valuable commodity and may be the one item which can be ordered in any country even if you don’t know that country’s language.

Coffee Cup Chandelier

Not surprisingly, the US city with the highest per capita consumption of coffee is Seattle, birthplace of both the unnamed industry leader and the Seattle’s Best chain. With 35 coffee shops per 100,000 residents and an average monthly spending on coffee of $36, it’s no wonder Seattle is sleepless.  Denver (number four) and Phoenix (number seven) both made the Daily Beast‘s list of America’s twenty most caffeinated cities, but Albuquerque did not.  Sadly, when people associate the Duke City with coffee, it’s because of a 1992 incident in which an elderly woman was severely burned by coffee served in a Styrofoam cup at a McDonald’s drive-up window.  A jury also awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages, the equivalent of about two days of coffee sales at McDonald’s.

Also not surprising is that the unnamed industry leader from Seattle has dominated the Duke City coffee scene for years with a franchise seemingly around every corner.  Local chain Satellite Coffee has been gamely fighting for market share as have a number of independent operations which are really starting to get noticed.  Perhaps the reason no New Mexico city is widely regarded as a player in the coffee scene is that coffee drinking hasn’t fully caught on as a cultural and community experience as it has in Seattle and other copious caffeine consumers.  Michael Gonzales hopes to change that and he’s got the coffee cred to do so.

Panini with roasted organic chicken, micro greens, garlic mustard and cheese

Michael is a classically trained chef with years of experience in the food and beverage world.  He has held positions as an executive chef for corporate chain concepts and independent eateries and he’s served as general manager and outlet manager for companies such as Hyatt. Born in Santa Fe, Michael was raised in Seattle during the height of the coffee revolution and was trained as a barista by Italian World Cup tasting champion Sauro Dall’aglio.  From an experiential standpoint, those  are all serious creds, but the real difference-maker is Michael’s customer-centric philosophies.  To him, the word “espresso” literally means “for you.”

In January, 2012, Michael launched Cafe Bella, a flagship espresso cafe concept in Rio Rancho, just north of the demarcation line with Albuquerque’s northwest side.  It’s minutes from several burgeoning neighborhoods as well as Intel Corporation, the Presbyterian Medial Center and the Lovelace Westside Hospital.  The east-facing coffee shop is an inviting milieu, offering free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating in which to enjoy a leisurely cup or six.  The friendly, community feel is evident even if you’re among the many commuters who stop by to pick up orders especially made for them one order at a time.

Panini (grilled Red Delicious apples with caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on local Fano rustic artisan bread) with a large Cafe Au Lait.

Michael has cultivated relationships with high-quality local sources who are as passionate about their products as he is.  The single source of Cafe Bella’s roasted drip-brewed coffee is Fat Boy Coffee Roasters from Cedar Crest which procures its beans from individual properties in countries such as Peru, Sumatra, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras.  The beans are roasted to Michael’s exacting specifications and are available for purchase by the pound.  None of the coffee beans will ever see a Mr. Coffee caliber coffee maker.  Great coffee beans deserve the best coffee maker and that’s what Cafe Bella has in the form of a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso maker, a world barista championship caliber machine. 

The quality is telling in some of the very best coffee you’ll find in New Mexico.  A simple cafe au lait (drip coffee with steamed milk) practically had me cursing the acerbic qualities of the unnamed and ubiquitous industry leader.  Cafe au lait, which has been described as the French version of a latte, is a doubly-strong coffee (especially in New Orleans where chicory is added), but as Cafe Bella proved to me, strong doesn’t have to be bitter or caustic.  Made from beans grown in Honduras, the cafe au lait was smooth, delicate and rich with slightly sweet notes.  During subsequent visits, I’ve had cafe au lait from Chiapas, Mexico and Peru, both of which were terrific.

Breakfast Bagel of the Day: Warm toasted Parmesan bagel, Italian herb bread with mozzarella, sundried tomato cream cheese spread and Canadian bacon

Michael takes guests on an around-the-world coffee tour, rotating coffee beans every few days.  The coffee menu includes espresso, latte, mocha java freeze, mango freeze, red eye, Bella mocha, iced coffee, chocolate milk and the very best hazelnut chocolate milk I’ve ever had.  Cafe Bella also sells teas, smoothies, muffins, scones, brownies, salads, panini sandwiches, breakfast bagels, quiche and so much more. 

20 January 2012: The panini sandwich of the day, made fresh daily from local ingredients including farm-to-table greens, is a terrific accompaniment for the coffee and show off Michael’s culinary creativity.  Show up late for lunch and the panini may be sold out; they are that popular.  One of the most popular is crafted with grilled Red Delicious apples, caramelized onion herb spread, melted mozzarella cheese and organic field greens on a canvas of local Fano rustic artisan bread.  The ingredients marry very well together, providing delightfully complementary taste contrasts.

Chocolate Panini

Chocolate Panini

Cafe Bella Coffee works with four special bakeries to bring its guests the freshest baked goods on a daily basis. All its bakery partners are mico-businesses that work out of certified professional kitchens preparing their baked goods the old fashioned way, each item by hand with no artificial flavors.  The Lemon Budt Cake from Cosmic Euphoria Desserts is available exclusively at Cafe Bella.  It’s made with unrefined, unbleached flour, organic cane sugar, agave nectar, coconut oil and real lemon.  The blueberry scones from Cosmic Euphoria are an early favorite, as good a scone as we used to have on the banks of the River Windrush in Bourton on the Water, England. 

15 March 2013:  Fourteen months after its launch, Cafe Bella continues to do the right things right and winning repeat visitors one guest at a time.  Guests not fortunate enough to live or work near Cafe Bella are clamoring for Michael to launch a second instantiation of his popular cafe.  Other Duke City area coffee aficionados who haven’t had the pleasure of a smooth cup of coffee at Cafe Bella may have watched Michael’s appearances on KASA Fox 2′s New Mexico Style program or read in Albuquerque The Magazine that Cafe Bella was runner up for the magazine’s best coffee shop award in 2012.  Perhaps they read about Michael’s genius on Larry McGoldrick’s Albuquerque Food Musing or met Michael at the Taste of Rio Rancho event.  However you’ve learned about Cafe Bella, if you have yet to visit, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Cafe Bella is one of those rare gems which truly exceeds all expectations.

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Slow Smoked Carne Panini

Cafe Bella has further cemented its standing as an asset to the community by hosting, sponsoring and participating  in a number of events on and off location.  On the first Saturday of each month, it’s the “Coffee & Cars” event which draws in hundreds of automobile aficionados.  Monthly poetry nights draw in a different demographic as do the Salsa-Zumba nights.  With live music on Friday nights, Cafe Bella is also a great venue for unwinding after a challenging workweek. 

8 June 2013: The Cafe Bella menu has expanded as well.  One of Michael’s new creations is a chocolate panini, a unique sandwich crafted from a melted dark chocolate and mozzarella cheese on grilled rustic Fano bread.  It’s even better than it sounds if possible.  Dark chocolate ensures the sandwich isn’t cloying while the mozzarella lends just enough fat and salt to prevent a chocolate overload.  The rustic Fano bread is a perfect canvas. 

CafeBella12

Smoked Turkey Panini with Garlic Mustard Barbecue Mayo, Melted Mozzarella, Organic Field Greens on Local Fano Artisan Bread

16 March 2013: Vegetarian offerings, and not just salads, have always been a staple at Cafe Bella.  One of my favorite vegetarian sandwiches (or sandwiches of any type) in the Duke City is the Grilled Vegetable Ciabbata: grilled garden vegetables, fluffy egg, Parmesan cheese and organic greens on a Ciabbata roll with sun-dried tomato cream cheese.  For a calorically low sandwich, this one is remarkably delicious, especially the amazing combination of perfectly grilled seasonal vegetables with complementary organic greens.  The sun-dried tomato cream cheese is the type of schmear bagel lovers appreciate most. 

14 May 2013: Larry McGoldrick, the esteemed professor with the perspicacious palate, called the slow-roasted carne panini at Cafe Bella the “Best panini I have ever had. Anyplace.”  He named it one of the very best dishes he had in 2012.  It’s easy to see why.  Michael has managed the near miraculous feat of creating a perfect cheese melt while heating the chile marinated pork to perfection without singeing the panini.  When he first served this panini, the carne, true porcine perfection, came from the Smokehouse BBQ, a now defunct Rio Rancho institution and one of New Mexico’s very best purveyors of smoked meats.  When the Smokehouse closed, Michael began procuring the pork locally and cooking it for four and a half hours.  The result is pure, unadulterated edible art.  Michael engorges the panini with that succulent pork, baby field greens, mozzarella and a mayo-based sauce.   Each bite is an absolute joy and an adventure in deliciousness. 

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini

Red Chili Mocha with Locally Smoked Carne Adovada Panini (with an egg)

7 June 2013: If, like me, you find turkey one of the most boring meats with which you can construct a sandwich, you’ve probably had those paper-thin slices of pre-packaged turkey.  You haven’t had turkey from Cafe Bella.   Michael procures only the finest locally-smoked turkey for his fantastic smoked turkey panini.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is Fano artisan bread atop of which is a smear of garlic mustard barbecue mayo (as good as it sounds), melted mozzarella, organic field greens and thick pieces of chopped smoked turkey.  This is real turkey, not the turkey “slurry” sold at the grocery stores (you know, the one which tastes just like the pre-packaged ham).  This is the type of turkey for which you’ll give thanks. 

19 March 2014: Creative people realize that sometimes an idea takes time, testing and patience to achieve actualization.  For Michael, it took more than two weeks of trial before he was ready to debut the best red chili (SIC) mocha in New Mexico.   You can almost envision Michael as a proverbial mad scientist emptying the contents of one steaming beaker into another.  In perfect proportion, the formula for the red chili mocha includes Dutch chocolate cacao, cinnamon, brown sugar and New Mexico red chili.  The red chili imparts that back-of-the-throat heat that raises endorphin levels and makes you happy.  The chocolate and cinnamon lend sweet qualities that temper the piquancy of chili.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  Michael, by the way, knows the spelling “chili” might offend purists like me, but he’s happy that it starts a conversation.  If people are talking about this magical coffee, they’re bound to try it and if they try it, they’re surely going to love it.  I did!

Street Tacos, becoming a Tuesday tradition in Rio Rancho

8 July 2014:  While on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Michael reached an epiphany when he happened upon life-altering tacos at a street food stand.  These tacos were  paradigm-changing, causing him to rethink what tacos are and what they can be.  In May, 2014 he started serving his version of those transformative tacos on Tuesdays from 10AM to 2PM or until they’re all sold out.  On several Tuesdays they’ve been sold out before noon.  What makes these tacos so unique and special is the concordant combination of fresh and delicious ingredients elevated to heights of taste explosions. 

An order of Cafe Bella’s Street Tacos will sate your appetite and render you eager for your next visit.  Three amazing tacos per order may not seem overly sizable, but each taco is so engorged with ingredients that you’ll be challenged to finish them all.  The canvas for these handheld masterpieces are white corn tortillas which are stuffed with sauteed carne, onions, fresh pineapple salsa and a cilantro lime crema.  The sauteed carne packs  a piquant punch that is tempered by the fresh crema.  Similarly the pineapple salsa serves as a foil for the onions.  Because of the moistness and generosity of the ingredients, two corn tortillas are used on each taco. This triumvirate of tastiness is the antithesis of every hard-shelled faux taco you’ve ever had. They’ll rock your world!.

Cafe Bella's drive-up window means coffee to go at any time

Cafe Bella’s drive-up window means coffee to go every day but Sunday

In 2013, Cafe Bella expanded by launching a drive-through location at 9121 Eagle Ranch Road, N.W. in Albuquerque.  The drive-through windows are open Monday through Friday from 7AM to 12PM and is closed on Sundays.  Who knew coffee flavor so rich and delicious could originate in such a small building.

My love and appreciation for coffee waned after leaving Massachusetts where the wonderful (and sadly now defunct) Pewter Pot in Burlington (about fifteen miles north of Boston) practically become a second home.  The Pewter Pot resonated with revolutionary war era personality.  Waitresses donned  period clothing, walls were adorned with colonial themed wallpaper, wooden beams supported the ceiling and the coffee was served in faux English pewter pots.  The coffee was very good, but it was the sense of community and the personable service that kept me coming back.  Cafe Bella has many of the same qualities.  If  this IT professional could break away more often from grueling propeller-headed projects, it might become a second home.

Cafe Bella
2115 Golf Course Rd SE
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
505 306-6974
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 July 2014
1st VISIT: 19 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cafe Au Lait, Blueberry Scone, Panini, Hazelnut Chocolate Milk, Breakfast Bagel, Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Coffee Brownie, Chocolate Panini, Soy Vanilla Honey Smoothie, Grilled Vegetable Ciabatta, Slow-Roasted Carne Panini, Smoked Turkey Panini, Red Chili Mocha, Street Tacos


View Cafe Bella Coffee on LetsDineLocal.com »

Cafe Bella Coffee on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Pasta House – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Joe's Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho

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.

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico at the best table in the house in front of the fireplace

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.

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe's

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe’s

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.

If you’re not careful you can fill up on the complementary bread”

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.

Hot Antipasti for two

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. 

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

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.

Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad

Appetizers

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.

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli Served with a Piñon Cream Dipping Sauce

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

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.

Ziti Alla Vodka

Ziti Alla Vodka

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.

Carbonara, a sinfully rich entree

Carbonara, a sinfully rich entree

Entrees

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.

Traditional Gnocchi Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

Traditional Gnocchi
Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

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.

Baked Cannelloni: Homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

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.

Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp

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.

Giovanni Special: Six cheese stuffed ravioli, three meatballs, two sausages topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

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.

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli:  Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli:
Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

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.

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

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. 

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

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.

Garlic Scallops

Garlic Scallops

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.  See where it ranks among my favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Seafood Bisque

Seafood Bisque

Desserts

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.

Tiramisu and Cannoli, the two desserts made on the premises at Joe’s. Other fabulous desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor

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
(505) 892-3333
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 4 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 17
RATING: 24
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


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Rub-N-Wood BBQ – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

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Rub-N-Wood Bar-B-Q in Rio Rancho

“Beam me up Scotty. There is no good barbecue on this planet.”
~
James T. Kirk

Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the United Starship Enterprise never actually uttered those words, but had he visited Rio Rancho between June 22nd and August 2nd, 2013, he would have found NO barbecue–good or bad–in Rio Rancho. No barbecue in the City of Barbecue…er, Vision, is akin to no Subarus in Santa Fe. Rio Rancho, after all, is home to the annual Pork & Brew, the state barbecue championship sanctioned by the prestigious Kansas City Barbecue Society. Rio Rancho has also been the home–for nearly a quarter of a century—of the legendary Smokehouse.  

When the Smokehouse shuttered its doors on June 22nd, its loyal patrons were torn between wanting to fly the flag at half-mast or flying it upside down as a sign of distress. The Smokehouse’s affable proprietor Gary West urged calm, assuaging those of us whose blood is the color of barbecue sauce with news that we would be without barbecue for only a short while. He told us a competitive barbecue team called Rub-N-Wood would be filling the void soon. Having sampled Rub-N-Wood’s ‘cue, Gary was excited that Rio Rancho would be well served.

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Interior of Rub-N-Wood Barbecue

Rub-N-Wood (no double entendre intended) opened its doors on Friday, August 2nd. Though it’s not normally a good practice for critics to visit a new restaurant until it’s had a chance to iron out any start-up problems, the intoxicating aroma of barbecue wafting through the air was too irresistible. My willpower lasted a whole day and things went so well, I returned the following day.  It will take a while, however, before the number of visits to Rub-N-Wood will equal the one-hundred plus visits I made to the Smokehouse over the years.

Rub-N-Wood is the brainchild of Roger Bell who’s been smoking meats since building his first barbecue pit in high school. He’s a veteran of Rio Rancho’s annual Pork & Brew event, consistently placing in the top 25 with an 11th place finish in chicken in the 2012. It’s not every competition barbecue team which will succeed with a storefront operation, but Roger and his family have the right attitude to make it big. They want their restaurant to be a place where friends congregate for good food, good friends and good fun.

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Smoked Chicken, Fried Corn and Bread

There are a number of cosmetic changes that differentiate Rub-N-Wood from the Smokehouse. One is a touch of modernity with a flat screen television over the counter where you place your order. The menu is replete with familiar favorites such as brisket (whole, sliced or chopped), ribs (baby back, St. Louis or spare), smoked sausage, smoked turkey (whole, legs and breast), pulled pork and some of the very best sides served at any barbecue establishment in the Duke City area.

3 August 2013: If the smoked chicken at Rub-N-Woods managed an eleventh place finish in the chicken category at the Rio Rancho Pork & Brew, the top ten must have really be something. This is an excellent smoked chicken! It’s half a bird of moist, meaty, magnificent deliciousness. Deep-penetrating smoke imbues even the interior flesh with that addictive smoked flavor. This chicken needs no amelioration, but the sauce does pair well. The sauce combines tangy and sweet elements and has a nice viscosity.

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The Bubba Platter: Three meats (pulled pork, brisket and chicken) and three sides (fried corn, okra, coleslaw)

15 August 2013: Rub-N-Wood lends credence to stereotypes of barbecue lovers being hearty eaters with the “Bubba Platter,” your choice of three meats and three sides. The Bubba Platter is the best way to sample most of what the menu has to offer. Finish a Bubba Platter for lunch, however, and you probably won’t have room for dinner. The Brisket is moist and tender, two characteristics not always ascribed to brisket, a notoriously tough dish that requires meticulous care and patience to prepare and is prone to dryness. The pulled pork is plentiful and makes for a great sandwich or by itself. 

15 August 2013: There’s only one thing better than a Bubba Platter. That’s two Bubba Platters and someone with whom to share all six meat choices. You might not want to share the smoked turkey which became my favorite of all the Smokehouse’s meaty offerings. You won’t find turkey of this caliber on most Thanksgiving tables. The Flintstonian sized pork ribs are meaty and messy, a combination barbecue aficionados don’t mind at all. The sausage has personality with a spicy flavor profile you’ll enjoy. Rub-N-Wood’s barbecue has a pronounced smokiness. It’s not wimpy smoke as too many barbecue joints offer, but an adult R-rated smoke.

Bubba Platter: Three meats (sausage, pork ribs, smoked turkey) and three sides (beans, fried corn, potato salad)

Bubba Platter: Three meats (sausage, pork ribs, smoked turkey) and three sides (beans, fried corn, potato salad)

It wouldn’t be a barbecue restaurant without sides and Rub-N-Wood has several stand-outs.  My early favorite is the beans with green chile which have notes of seductive smoke.  The green chile is a bit on the mild side, but it has a prominent roasted flavor.  Also notable is the fried corn, golden niblets of buttery corn that has been lightly fried. 

18 March 2014: On Saturday, February 8th, 2014, twenty-six of Rio Rancho’s best restaurants participated in the fourth annual Taste of Rio Rancho, a celebration of the city’s best restaurants.  Held in the Santa Ana Star Center, the Taste of Rio Rancho gave guests the opportunity to sample more than seventy-five mouth-watering dishes ranging from decadent desserts to piquant chiles, sumptuous sandwiches, prolific pizzas and much more.  The award-winning appetizer was a pork rib from Rub-N-Wood.  Appetizers were the first category judged during the event so it took great willpower on the part of the judges not to consume the entire rib (it was very tempting). A very assertive rub is applied copiously on these ribs, giving them an adult flavor not for the faint of heart.  The Flintstone-sized ribs are very meaty and tender.

Rack of Pork Ribs

Rack of Pork Ribs

21 December 2014: During the Christmas season, Rub-N-Wood added smoked tamales to its menu.  Strictly a seasonal item, the tamales are excellent, much more moist than you might imagine.  Generously engorged with seasoned pork marinated in red chile, the tamales are a godsend for New Mexicans who don’t consider it to be a true Christmas season without tamales.

Desserts include a traditional Southern favorite–cobbler. Rub-N-Wood features peach, cherry, apple or blackberry cobbler as good as it’s made in the Land of Enchantment. You know it’s good cobbler when you don’t need a scoop of ice cream on top. The blackberry cobbler is more fruit than pectin with a flaky, buttery crust you could enjoy on its own.

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Blackberry Cobbler

Rio Rancho’s skies are brighter and its citizens happier now that it’s been graced with a barbecue restaurant.  All is right with the world again in the City of Barbecue.

Rub-N-Wood BBQ
4000 Barbara Loop, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-1914
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 March 2014
1st VISIT: 3 August 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bubba Platter, Smoked Turkey, Sausage, Pork Ribs, Brisket Smoked Burger, Smoked Chicken, Fried Corn, Beans with Green Chile, Blackberry Cobbler, Coleslaw, Pork Ribs, Smoked Tamales


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