San Pedro Middle East Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, my very favorite Mediterranean restaurant in New Mexico

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, my very favorite Mediterranean restaurant in New Mexico

The St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Magdalena, New Mexico is adorned with ceramic statues, most familiar and easy to identify…at least for lifelong Catholics like me.   After Sunday Mass one September, 2010 morning, we espied a statue of a saint clutching a curious implement to his chest.  None of the parishioners we asked had any idea who the statue represented.  Father Andy Pavlak, the parish vicar, confirmed the statue depicted Saint Lawrence  of Rome and the curious device he held was a gridiron, a metal grate used for grilling meat, fish, vegetables or any combination thereof.

Father Pavlak went on to explain why Saint Lawrence clutched the gridiron.  Saint Lawrence was one of seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian.  The manner of death he suffered was especially gruesome.  The intrepid saint was grilled on a gridiron.  As his flesh cooked, Lawrence is said to have cried out, “This side’s done.  Turn me over and have a bite.”  That probably explains why Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, butchers and roasters. He is also patron saint of several parishes throughout the Land of Enchantment.

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

The dining area at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant

I suspect Saint Lawrence might also be the patron saint of grillmasters.  If so, I sure could use his divine intercession.  Like the administrators of his death, I seem to have a problem discerning when one side is done.  Consequently one side is usually charred to the consistency of coal while the other is as rare as the raw beef fighters apply over wounds acquired in the ring.  It doesn’t matter how closely I study the collective writings of Bill and Cheryl Jamison, America’s preeminent outdoor cooking experts, my results are disastrous.  On the grill, I’m a disgrace to my gender.

Because I’ve ruined thousands of dollars of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, my Kim would just as soon see me wave the white flag of surrender (though I’d probably drop it on the grill and only one side would burn.)  Better still, she’d rather I take her to a restaurant in which bona fide grillmasters impart the olfactory-arousing direct application of heat to produce succulent results.  Frankly, that would be my preference, too…so, perhaps my ineptitude on the grill might be a subliminal thing.  Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.

Purchase an assortment of seasoned snacks such as watermelon seeds

It’s no secret that some of the very best grilled meats anywhere are prepared to perfection in Middle Eastern restaurants.  Many Middle Eastern dining establishments have mastered the enviable art of imbuing meats with the pungency of exotic spices; a distinctive aroma inherent from woods with personality; a whisper-thin crust that seals in flavor and tenderness in a pleasantly pink interior; and any number of heavily spiced, flavorful sauces, all of which seem to highlight even more of the magnificence of meat in all its grilled glory.

In Albuquerque as in many other cities, Middle Eastern restaurants seem to fall into two stratum: opulent, lavishly adorned dining rooms or time-worn cafes in bedraggled edifices.   Experience shows that spit and polish alone don’t make the restaurant. Some of the very best Middle Eastern restaurants are often found in tumbledown buildings.  Perhaps the very best of these is the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant on the southwest corner of San Pedro and Montgomery in the Northeast Heights.

Dolmes: Six piece stuffed grape leaves served tahini sauce

The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is ensconced in a stand-alone building that frankly could be home to just about any retail business.  Much of the building is dedicated to comestibles.  Its shelves are well-stocked with Middle Eastern spices, groceries and dry goods.  Adventurous cooks will enjoy walking up and down the aisles studying all the wonderful options, perhaps inspired by the olfactory arousing aromas coming from the small kitchen at the front of the complex.  The counter separating the kitchen from the store doubles as a counter in which patrons pay for their purchases or place their to-go orders.

Dine-in and carry-out options abound.  Should you decide to dine in, there are several comfortable booths and tables available.  The dining area is ensconced beneath a canopy reminiscent a large Bedouin tent, the biggest difference being that instead of Middle Eastern rugs, the canopy is made from Southwest themed rugs (Kokopeli anyone?).   The menu over the counter is abbreviated; you’ll be handed a laminated menu to take with you to your table.  From the window-side booths, your vantage point will be of busy San Pedro to your east.

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

Six-piece Falafel appetizer: fried garbanzo beans with herbs and spices served with a yogurt sauce

The menu is surprisingly ambitions considering the relatively cramped quarters.  Reading from top-left, the first items to catch your eye are appetizers and small order items followed by a seven salads, only one of which you might see at any type of restaurant.  One entire page is dedicated to platters, both meat-based platters and vegetarian platters.  Platters generally include a meat or vegetarian entree with hummus or rice and one of the seven sensational salads.  Homemade fresh pita bread (which you can see being made at the kitchen) comes with several of the platters.

The last page of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches–non-vegetarian and vegetarian–and desserts.  It’s an intriguing menu, one you might expect to see at a larger Middle Eastern restaurant and not necessarily at a grocery store doubling as a restaurant.  Your hosts are brothers Muhammad and Abraham, who are as cordial and accommodating as any restaurant proprietors in the Duke City.  Both are more than happy to recommend various options and will check up on you periodically.  Trust their recommendations.

Lamb shawarma Platter served with Hummus

The appetizers section includes some de rigueur standards you’ll find at almost all Mediterranean restaurants.  The difference is that the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant prepares them better.  “Heresy,” you say.  After our inaugural visit on November 13th, we were so impressed that we had to return a week later to confirm what our taste buds were saying.  They were telling us this humble little establishment might be the very best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque.  Zomato readers seem to agree.  As of this writing (September 20, 2016), the restaurant has earned a 4.7 rating (out of 5), one of the highest in Albuquerque. Muhammad proudly points this out to new visitors.

14 November 2010:  The dolmes, a six-piece appetizer of stuffed grape leaves served with tahini sauce is one of those items at which this restaurant excels.  Decoratively plated so that the six dolmes form a pool for the tahini sauce, you can use the plastic fork to cut the dolmes into smaller, bite-sized pieces, but Muhammad will encourage you to eat your entire dinner the way it would be eaten back home in Palestine.  He would just as soon you dispense with your fork altogether.  Great advice!  The dolmes are fabulous!

Bakdunecea Salad

Unlike many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Duke City, these dolmes are homemade, not from out of a can.  They have a very distinctive flavor with nary a hint of lemon.  The distinctiveness comes from a seven spice blend, one that’s just slightly different than many seven spice blends I’ve seen in Japanese and Arabic cooking.  This one is made with All Spice, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Fennel and Ginger, a blend which enlivens the vegetarian dolmes with a flavor punch that will wow your taste buds.  The dolmes are even better when dipped into the fresh, invigorating tahini sauce.

14 November 2010:  Another terrific starter is the six-piece falafel plate.  Falafel (chickpeas mashed with onions then fried to a nice crunch) are hemispherically shaped, like the top half of the Earth.  Bite into each falafel and you’ll experience the sensation of a slight crispy crunch followed by a soft, moist inside that tastes unlike any falafel I’ve ever had.  It’s the type of falafel which should be used to help broker peace in the Middle East.  They’re that good!  Seasoned with herbs and spices, they’re served with a luscious yogurt sauce which complements them wonderfully.

Housemade Fresh Pita Bread, Maybe the Best in Town

14 November 2010: For years, my local standard for Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic, has been Yasmine’s Cafe, yet another terrific Palestinian-owned treasure.  If possible, the San Pedro Middle Eastern Restaurant’s version is even better.  It’s rich and creamy with a prominent garlic flavor.  In Middle Eastern fashion, you’ll want to cut up pieces of the wonderful housemade pita (still fresh and warm) and use the pita to scoop up as much Baba Ghanoug as you can fit into your mouth.  Each bite is an adventure in appreciation.

20 September 2016: For me, the highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the seven choices–was always the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil).  Though no longer offered on the menu, the accommodating staff might just whip it up for you if you ask nicely.    This salad has powerful qualities, a term you might not associate with parsley.  Parsley is usually thought up as an ingredient to chop up and sprinkle on entrees needing color.  It’s sometimes thought of in a decorative sense, not for its flavor enhancing qualities.  Used correctly and in combination with other ingredients (such as tahini), it is refreshing and assertive.

Kefta Kabob with Rice

20 November 2010: Another sensational salad is the Tabbouli (lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint, cracked Bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice and virgin olive oil).  Growing up in Peñasco with Lebanese neighbors, I was introduced to Tabbouli, Kibbeh and Tahini long before I’d ever had Chinese food or even my first Bic Mac from McDonald’s.  The Tabbouli may be the best I’ve ever had, reminding me in some ways of what a Middle Eastern pico de gallo might taste like.  It’s got remarkable freshening qualities, like a savory and delicious breath mint.

20 September 2016: It wouldn’t be a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant without a sensational hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic) and that, too, is available at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant.  You can order it on its own as an appetizer or you can order one of the several platters with which the hummus is served.  The hummus encircles the meat platters like an island of creamy, garlicky goodness.  Muhammad taught us to use pita to scoop up heaps of meat and hummus with our hands.  It’s the only way to eat them.

Shisk Kafta Platter: ground beef, onion, parsley served with hummus, salad and homemade fresh pita bread

20 September 2016: The Lamb Shawarma (marinated slices of lamb) is terrific (as if that needs to be said).  Instead of shaved lamb as you’d find on Greek gyros, the lamb is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces, each blessed with a grilled smokiness and penetrated with seasonings that are so distinctively Middle Eastern.  Sprigs of fragrant, roughly chopped parsley impart fresh qualities which meld with the other ingredients to fashion a fabulous flavor profile.

Not since Banbury, England in 1987 have we had better shish kabob (cubes of extra lean beef served) than we’ve had on San Pedro.   In describing the grilling expertise at Middle Eastern restaurants earlier in this essay, I must have had this shish kabob in mind.  The meat is grilled to perfection.  At medium, it has just a slight hint of pink inside while its exterior texture is nicely charred. It’s the type of grilling expertise I lack.  It’s perfect grilling.

Chicken Tawook surrounded by the best hummus in Albuquerque

13 February 2011: Another exceptional platter which showcases the grilling process and exceptional seasoning is the chicken tawook platter, marinated juicy cubes of chicken breast with garlic sauce served with hummus, salad and the homemade fresh pita bread.  The chicken is moist and tender, absolutely impregnated with flavor though not so garlicky that it will wreck your breath.  Instead, the garlic melds wondrously with a hint of grilling.

27 March 2011: The chicken shawarma, an island of small-cut chicken pieces surrounded by hummus is yet another fabulous entree.  Similar to the chicken tawook, garlic is a prominent flavor as is the wondrous fragrance of grilling.  Parsley also fits prominently into the flavor profile, imparting an invigorating herbaceous freshness, but this dish is best when scooped up with hummus and that absolutely amazing pita.  Abraham tells me he makes some 700 pieces of bread on an average day.  I’ll typically have four of them each visit and take home another half dozen.  This is the best pita in New Mexico!

Chicken Shawarma

24 August 2011: Even on the rare occasion in which an item you don’t order is delivered to your table, you’ll want to try it before even thinking about sending it back.  Such was the case when my friend Ruben Hendrickson and I ordered dolmes and a strange looking dish with an even stranger name was placed before us.  As it turns out, the Foul Mudammas with Pita is an outstanding appetizer, one which will visit my table in the future. 

There’s nothing foul about this wonderful dish which is made with diced fava beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.  Given the same ingredients and asked to create something wonderful, there’s no way most of us could ever concoct anything nearly this good.  The humble fava hasn’t made significant inroads in the American diet, but in combination with the right condiments and spices, it’s more than palatable.  Fava beans have tremendous healthful benefits, too.

Foul Mudammas with Pita

20 September 2016: The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is no slouch when it comes to desserts.  Trays of baklava behind a glass pastry case may elicit involuntary salivation.  Don’t hesitate to order the pistachio baklava.  This baklava is on par with the pistachio baklava at the Anatolia Doner Kebab House which means it’s the very best in New Mexico.  The salty pistachios are a perfect foil for the cloying honey, making this a dessert of complementary and contrasting flavors which go so well together.  Bite into the layers of luscious flaky phylo and you’ll be rewarded with a moist, delicious, wonderful way to finish an outstanding meal.

Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is reminiscent of the type of restaurant you’d find in an ethnic rich area of a large metropolitan area.  It is frequented by customers of all ethnicities, the common denominator being the recognition that this is a very special restaurant with incomparable food, terrific service and the type of grilling skills I envy.

San Pedro Middle East Restaurant
4001 San Pedro
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 888-2921
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2016
1st VISIT:  13 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Shish Kabob Platter, Lamb Shawarma Platter, Fresh Pita Bread, Bakdunecea Salad, Garden Salad, Dolmes, Falafel, Baba Ganouj, Shisk KaftaPlatter, Beef Shawarma, Tabbouli, Chicken Shawarma, Foul Mudammas with Pita, Fatoush, Pistachio Baklava

San Pedro Mart Middle East Grocery & Alquds Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’Tucci’s Kitchina – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Kitchina, an outstanding Italian restaurant on Montano

Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone..”
Stanley Tucci as Segundo in Big Night

With a name like M’Tucci’s Kitchina, you might wonder if the Italian restaurant on the intersection of Coors and Montano is named for Academy Award nominated actor Stanley Tucci. After all, Tucci co-starred in Big Night and Julie & Julia, arguably two of the very best food movies in recent years. The “Kitchina” part of the restaurant’s name is obviously a whimsical play on “cucina,” the Italian term for kitchen, but is spelled more similarly to Kachina, the Hopi ancestral spirits. In any case, if the amusing name and fun, casual ambiance doesn’t hook you, the food certainly will.

Step into the expansive dining room and the playfulness hinted by the restaurant’s name continues. Our immediate impression was “Laissez les bon temps roulette” (let the good times roll) as in New Orleans Mardi Gras. That impression was gleaned from the colorful Mardi Gras-like masks on several walls and a life-sized alligator on another. Then there’s the pergola–large enough to accommodate a table of four–with an ominous lizard crawling down the roof. There’s something to pique your interest everywhere you turn.

M’Tucci’s colorful dining room

The colorful masks (which are easily mistaken for those widely seen in New Orleans) are Venetian, a staple of the Carnival of Venice. The alligator…well, he’s there because co-owner Katie Gardner likes him. The chandeliered pergola is designated for feting guests celebrating a special occasion. When we commented on the restaurant’s “wildly eclectic ambiance” Katie explained that she’s a wildly eclectic person. She’s also very experienced in running successful restaurants, having owned eleven of them along with her husband in New York City…and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

Succeeding where other restaurants have failed will certainly be a challenge. M’Tucci’s is situated in the digs formerly occupied by The Mill of New Mexico, Tomato Café and Spinn’s Burgers and Beer. It’s a tough location exacerbated by the fact that its storefront, while facing heavily trafficked Coors Boulevard, is obfuscated by distance, traffic flow and other shops. A very active Facebook presence and (mostly) glowing reviews by print and online media (including Cheryl Alters Jamison for New Mexico Magazine) have helped tremendously, but word-of-mouth from satisfied guests (especially those returning) is a major catalyst for drawing new guests. In October, 2013, scant months of its July launch, M’Tucci’s finished as runner-up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants  as the “best restaurant on the west side.” 

M'Tucci03

Borlotti White Bean Soup

Katie and her husband Jeff Spiegel moved to Albuquerque, his hometown, in 2007. Eventually they started to miss the hustle and bustle of the restaurant business and launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in July, 2013. The “M’Tucci” in the restaurant’s name is in honor of Richard Matteucci, a friend of Jeff’s. A framed black-and-white photo of Jeff, Richard and an unidentified frolicker celebrating a (very) good time hangs among the bric-a-brac. You’ve got to love an owner who shares in his fun.

While the ambiance bespeaks of fun and whimsy, the menu includes some seriously good dining options, some heretofore unseen in the Duke City. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this modern contemporary Italian restaurant which offers playful takes on classic dishes as well as a bit of local flavor (it’s virtually impossible to have a menu in New Mexico without red and green chile). Six Neapolitan-style pizzas are prepared in a wood-burning pizza oven. The bar menu, which varies daily, includes tapas-style small plates.

House Bread Imported From Three Doors Down

The visionary behind the menu is John Hass, executive chef and member of the restaurant’s ownership triumvirate. John’s interpretation of traditional foods often involves their deconstruction, refining and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes with which you’ve grown up, but they might not be exactly as you  John is already so highly regarded that he was named “best chef” runner up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants 2013.  Traditional items he prepares might not be exactly as you may remember them. They’ll be better! The ricotta stuffed cannelloni dish, for example includes both marinara sauce and New Mexico red chile which is why it’s sub-titled “Enchiladas Italianas” on the menu.

5 October 2013: You won’t need cold weather to luxuriate in the warmth and deliciousness of the Borlotti White Bean Soup, M’Tucci’s answer to the seemingly de rigueur pasta fagoli. This superb soup is constructed from Haas-made (get it?) sausage, arugula, carrots and fennel in a steamy chicken broth with just a sprinkling of Parmesan. It’s Italian comfort food at its finest even without pasta or tomatoes. The Borlotti white beans are terrific with a “meaty” flavor, creamy texture and nary a hint of sweetness. The sausage is a bit coarse, but has excellent fennel enriched flavor. A bowlful will cure whatever ails you.

Fried Brie crispy brie cheese, apples strawberries, mixed greens, grilled baguette, pomegranate glaze

Fried Brie
crispy brie cheese, apples strawberries, mixed greens, grilled baguette, pomegranate glaze

27 August 2016: When M’Tucci first launched, the house bread came from America’s breadbasket. That’s one of the nicknames for the state of Kansas which is renowned for its high quality wheat production. It was an excellent bread!  Three years later, the house bread is imported from four doors down.  It’s baked by the talented bakers at M’Tucci’s Italian Market and Deli and it’s outstanding!  A basketful of the staff of life includes six lightly toasted and buttered  slices. A hard exterior crust belies a pillowy soft inside with plenty of air holes. It’s the type of bread for which you risk filling up quickly, but can’t stop eating because it’s so good. 

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells laments “Menus shouldn’t need explanation. Menus should BE the explanation. That’s the point of writing things down.”  In far too many restaurants, you practically need a degree in Egyptology to understand the hieroglyphics placed in front of you.  As creative as they are with food, many chefs lack creativity with words.  This translates to overly confusing, overly wordy menus.  Kudos to Chef Hass and the M’Tucci staff for publishing menus diners can actually understand.

Golden Beet Salad

19 April 2014: One of the most exquisite appetizers on the M’Tucci’s menu is the fried brie.  Call it a finely choreographed symphony of simple flavors which go so well together.  A wedge of soft brie is sheathed beneath a crisp, light, golden crust.  It’s intended to be spread onto thinly sliced, pomegranate glazed grilled baguette.  From there you’re on your own.  You can then add crisp apple slices, strawberries and even mixed greens, a brie sandwich of sorts.  The warm silkiness of the brie amplifies the tanginess of the apples and strawberries and the bitterness of the greens.

27 August 2016: One of the more interesting items on the Antipasti menu when we first visited in October, 2016 was  the quaintly named Fauxpaccio de Barbietola Arrostite.  Fauxpaccio is obviously a play on the word carpaccio, (thinly sliced or pounded thin meat or fish) while Barbietola Arrostite is an Italian terms for roasted sugar beets.  The menu had me at Fauxpaccio.  Served in a dinner plate, it was a beautiful dish: roasted yellow beets shaved supermodel thin and as gold as New Mexico foliage in autumn, pickled red onion, goat cheese and a pile of arugula all lightly drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. It was a marvelous contrast of ingredients with varied flavor profiles and textures, all thoroughly enjoyable.  A few days after having this wonderful appetizer we learned that it is no longer offered because, for some reason inexplicable to me, it just wasn’t selling.  Grrrrr!  During our August, 2016 visit, we espied a “roasted beet salad” on the menu.  Comprised of the same ingredients as the aforementioned Fauxpaccio, the golden beets aren’t shaved or presented quite as artistically, but you still get an excellent salad as exciting as its predecessor.

M'Tucci06

Pan Seared Duck Breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions, cherry balsamic reduction

Some Italian restaurants segregate their menus into Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, loosely translated to appetizers, first course and main course.  M’Tucci’s also includes a Pizza menu, offering some six pizzas, including gluten-free options.  Portion sizes will make it a challenge to order one from each menu then expect to have dessert, too.  The Secondi menu, available during dinner hours, is replete with proteins (rotisserie chicken, fried fish, duck breast, braised tripe, Kurobuta Pork and ribeye).  Some of them are  also available for lunch, too. 

19 April 2014:  One of the most ambitious items on the menu is the Risotto Del Giorno, a daily risotto special featuring seasonal ingredients.  Even the most intrepid of chefs avoid risotto because it’s easy to make simple mistakes that ruin the dish.  You’ve got to admire Chef Hass’s gumption.  He doesn’t just prepare risotto on special occasions, he’s got the temerity to offer it every day.  If the seafood risotto is indicative of his mastery of this oft-intimidating dish, I’ve got to visit more often.  The triumvirate of mahi mahi, shrimp and mussels in a sumptuous and rich saffron sauce was absolutely perfect.   The saffron imparts the color of a sunny disposition and a uniquely umami quality.  The seafood is fresh and delicious.  The rice is a smidgeon past al dente, a textural success.

Seafood Risotto

Seafood Risotto

5 October 2013: Much as we admire the monogamy of ducks, it’s hard to resist the beautiful feathered waterfowl when it’s on the plate and it looks so inviting.  The pan-seared duck breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions and a cherry Balsamic reduction is so good, it’ll mitigate any guilt we might feel.  The duck breast is perfectly prepared and sliced thinly.  The end pieces are slightly crispy.  The polenta, often a “take it or leave it” dish is definitely a “take it” at M’Tucci’s.  It’s creamy, light and fluffy and it inherits additional flavor from the braised kale and caramelized onions which blanket the polenta.  If polenta is an oft unappreciated dish, kale is often disdained, even by foodies.  This kale might win over some converts. 

19 April 2014:  The two culinary feats I have yet to master after five decades on Planet Earth are using chopsticks and twirling spaghetti around a fork.  Because of the latter, my appreciation for pastas other than spaghetti has grown tremendously.  For fork challenged diners, a great alternative to the confounding, long, thin strands is the pappardelle noodle, a ribbon pasta easy to work with.  M’Tucci’s Pappardelle con Salsiccia, a ribbon pasta with sausage is an exemplar on how well this noodle works, both from a functional as well as an esthetic perspective.  This dish showcases the Haas made Italian sausage, a medium coarse blend flavored with fennel.  My Kim says it’s of Chicago quality, a huge compliment.  A delicate sauce imbued with braised kale and Pecorino lend more than personality to this winner of an entree.

Ribbon Pasta with Sausage (Pappardelle con Salsiccia) - Haas made Italian sausage, braised kale, pappardelle pasta, pecorino

Ribbon Pasta with Sausage (Pappardelle con Salsiccia)

5 October 2013: During our inaugural visit, the lunch menu included an aptly named sandwich called the AL-BQ Italian Beef, Chef Haas’s interpretation of the Italian beef sandwich held sacred throughout Chicago.  The sandwich is named partially for Al’s #1 Beef in the Windy City and of course, for Albuquerque.  The thinly shredded roasted beef, giardinera and Italian beef au jus  on an Italian hoagie roll make it Chicago while green chile makes it Albuquerque.   Frankly, we enjoyed the AL-BQ Italian Beef more than we did the sacrosanct Italian beef sandwich at Al’s #1 (although Al’s does pack quite a bit more beef into its sandwiches).  So do a number of transplants from the City of Big Shoulders.  For additional authenticity, ask for your sandwich to be served “wet” (as in immersed in the au jus).  It’ll render your sandwich falling apart moist, but that’s why forks were invented. The sandwich is no longer on the menu.

10 October 2013: In recent years, Albuquerque has experienced not only a pizza resolution, but an evolution of its pizzas. Almost every purveyor of the pie now offers a pizza or two sans tomato sauce and we’re all the better for it. Of the six pizzas offered at M’Tucci’s, only two of them are made with tomato sauce. The Alla Campagna starts with a beauteous golden brown crust topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta and Balsamic glaze. The crust is a little thicker than some Neapolitan-style pizzas, especially the cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) which is thick, soft and chewy. It’s also delicious with the flavor of freshly baked bread. The Alla Campagna’s ingredients provide wonderful taste contrasts which not only make it an interesting pizza, but a delicious one.

M'Tucci09

Alla Campagna: goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta, balsamic glaze

23 August 2016: Had anyone other than founding Friends of Gil (FOG) member Bruce Schor declared the eggplant Parmesan at M’Tucci’s “better than Joe’s” (as in Joe’s Pasta House), I would have considered that either heresy or hokum.  Bruce loves the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s.  Moreover, he’s a native New Yorker who really knows his eggplant Parmesan, so his opinion carries a lot of weight with me.  It took me two days to make my way to M’Tucci to sample what is indeed a fantastic eggplant Parmesan.   This magnificent dish, available for both lunch and dinner, features two thick eggplant medallions topped with marinara sauce and house-fresh mozzarella.  You can easily puncture the light and crispy breading with a spoon, but there’s nothing mushy about the interior of this dish, just a silky smooth, delicious eggplant. The sauce is redolent of tart and juicy fresh tomatoes, a perfect foil for the melted mozzarella. Now is M’Tucci’s eggplant Parmesan better–or as good as–the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s Pasta House? That’s a decision you, my dear readers, will have to make yourselves. Both are head and shoulders above any other in Albuquerque, but for me it would take a side-by-side comparison to decide.

23 August 2016: The eggplant is served a terrific Cacio E Pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” or as described by some sources as a “minimalist mac and cheese.”  Al dente pasta may look like spaghetti sans marinara, but in reality those long, stringy noodles are tossed in olive oil then impregnated with melted Pecorino and cracked pepper.  The cracked pepper lends a pleasant assertiveness while the Pecorino adds a nutty tang. More like spaghetti without marinara than like a minimalist mac and cheese, it’s a delicious dish no matter how you describe it.

Eggplant Parmesan

Ever since our friends Tom and Ellyn Hamilton brought us two bags of freshly picked mushrooms, we’ve been cooking with the fleshy fungi, expanding our repertoire and exploring the vast possibilities of cooking with sumptuous shrooms.  From cream of mushroom soup to beef Stroganoff, we’re planning on running the gamut as to what can be done with mushrooms: grilling, stuffing, breading, frying, roasting, braising and sauteing.  A recent visit to Torinos @ Home has inspired us to try concocting Porcini Ravioli ourselves.  Similarly, our visit to M’Tucci’s in August, 2016 gave us yet another mushroom dish we can try preparing ourselves (though it’s unlikely we’ll match Chef Hass’s high standards.)

27 August 2016: The Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini (wild mushrooms, scallions, roasted chicken, Parmesan, Parmesan Porcini cream sauce, ribbon pasta) is a magnificent dish with the mushrooms shining so well, the roasted chicken is almost redundant.  Hearty, nutty and earthy, the Porcini cream sauce is everything a strongly flavored mushroom sauce should be.  The pappardelle noodles, large, flat and broad noodles, are perfectly prepared–neither al dente nor near mushy as pappardelle tend to be if not prepared correctly.  The roasted chicken would normally have been the star of most dishes.  Here it’s just a complementary ingredient, a delicious foil.

Cacio E Pepe

27 August 2016: Pappardelle noodles played an integral role in the special of the day, a magnificent dish so good it should make it to the standard menu.  Picture three four-ounce heritage pork and lamb meatballs served over pappardelle ribbon noodles tossed in a tomato Agre Dolce (an Italian term for bitter-sweet) sauce.  The dish is garnished with freshly shaved Parmesan.  Our first bite of the meatballs challenged us to discern their composition.  With notes similar to five spice powder, we finally had to ask our server to find out.  It turns out the meatballs are made with nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic and sundry other spices.  The meatballs were extraordinary with just enough filler to bind them, but mostly meat.  The tomato Agre Dolce sauce was superb, punctuated with mint and Balsamic vinegar to help give the sauce their bitter-sweet flavor profile.

According to the M’Tucci’s Facebook page, an ancient proverb once declared that if four or more desserts gather in one place, at one time, you will have the power to change the world. Whether or not that proverb rings with truth, one thing is for certain: desserts at this fantastic new Italian restaurant are fantastic. M’Tucci’s inaugural pastry chef was Eric Moshier who was named America’s best new chef in 2000 by Food& Wine. Moshier has moved on, but the restaurant’s dessert offerings are still among the very best in Albuquerque.

Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs

5 October 2013: Desserts aren’t only spectacular, they’re inventive–some of the Duke City’s most  unique and uniquely delicious pastries.  The most inventive might be the Twinkie L’Italia which Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.”  Fantasy is right!  This is a terrific dessert.  So is the Cannoli Di Sicilia (crispy cannoli shell, sweet ricotta filling, chocolate chips) with tantalizing citrus notes. 

10 October 2013: Another transformative dessert is the Crostada De Limone, a lip-pursing lemon tart as artistic and beautiful to ogle as it is to eat.  It’s one of few lemon tarts in the Duke City that’s actually made well in that it doesn’t reek of artificial ingredients and flavors.   The lemon is actually allowed to taste like lemon, not artificial in the least.  It’s the type of lemon dessert you might find in Florida. 

Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini

27 August 2016: Of all Italian desserts, panna cotta may be the most delicate.  While Italians tend to think nothing should sully its purity, American pastry chefs like to partner it with everything from fresh fruits to fresh fruit sauces.   M’Tucci’s Torta De Panna Cotta is an interesting variation on an Italian standard.  In Italy, a torta is normally a pie consisting of a filling (sometimes even vegetables) enclosed in thin dough and baked in an oven.   M’Tucci’s torta is a chocolate Genoese cake topped with strawberry-rhubarb Jam with a single pine nut bark wedge leaning on the chocolatey creation.  Delicious as we found the cake, we enjoyed the single pine nut bark most.  The pine nuts are redolent with the roasted flavor of good piñon, intensely–sweet with a subtle hint of pine.

The restaurant’s coffee is made by Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain.  The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque.  It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.”

Torta De Panna Cotta

You can never have too many good, must less truly outstanding Italian restaurants in town.  M’Tucci’s Kitchina falls into the latter category.  With a formula that includes great food and great fun,  M’Tucci’s Kitchina has the right stuff needed to succeed in a tough market.

M’Tucci’s Kitchina
6001 Winter Haven Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2016
1st VISIT: 5 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Twinkie L’Italia, Chocolate Cannoli, Borlotti White Bean Soup, Fauxpaccio de Barbabietola Arrostite, Pan Seared Duck Breast, AL-BQ Italian Beef, Alla Campagna Pizza, Crostada de Limone, Seafood Risotto, Pappardelle con Salsiccia, Eggplant Parmesan, Cacio E Pepe, Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini, Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs, Golden Beet Salad, Torta De Panna Cotta

M'Tucci's Kitchina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Namaste Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Namaste: Incomparable Indian and Nepalese Cuisine in Rio Rancho

Several years ago while leading my organization’s e-business marketing and communication effort at Intel, I had the great fortune of hiring a phenomenal Web developer recently arrived from India. In the process of filling out one of our complicated employment forms he transposed his name, writing his last name then his middle initial and first name instead of the way hinted at on the complicated form.

As a result, during the entire time he worked for us we all called him Kolli, his last name. He was too polite to tell us his first name is actually Srini.  Over time Srini became more acculturated, maybe even a bit “Americanized” (he’s now a huge Dallas Cowboys fan), but he’s never lost his personal warmth, good humor and impeccable manners.

A Rare Sight: Every Seat In The Restaurant Not Taken

Politeness and great manners seem to be a hallmark of Indian people…or at least those in the service industries. When colleagues ask for a romantic dinner recommendation, I frequently suggest one of the area’s Indian restaurants where impeccably attentive service and consistently excellent food impart the effect of making diners feel like welcome royalty. 

Most Indian restaurants, like my friend Srini, embody the spirit of a traditional Indian salutation, “Namaste” which is said while holding one’s hands pressed together near the heart with head gently bowed. Namaste is translated as “I bow to the divine in you,” a sign not only of respect but of deference in that the greeter recognizes not just good, but the fact that there is divinity in other people. It is something from which we oft unpolished and uncouth Americans can learn.

Bounteous, Beauteous Buffet – The Best in New Mexico

Rio Rancho  has a restaurant named for that most reverential of greetings. It opened in late July, 2008 in the small, age-worn strip mall which previously housed Tawan Thai cuisine and before that a number of other restaurants. It’s a seemingly cursed location in which restaurants seem destined to fail. If outstanding service and cuisine are portend success, Namaste has reversed the trend of failure and become a very popular dining destination in the City of Vision.  Along with the incomparable Joe’s Pasta House and the superb Cafe Bella, Namaste belongs on the pantheon of the very best restaurants in the metropolitan area.

Namaste is owned by Shree Prasad Gurung who was a mainstay at the India Palace for several years before striking out on his own. His wife Sandhya and brother-in-law Hem are the ownership triumvirate responsible for preparing not only the cuisine of India, but several Nepalese dishes as well. The charming Sandhya still has family in Nepal which was affected by the devastating earthquakes of 2015.

Sandhya, the heart and spirit of Namaste, Poses With a Painting of Her Done by Her Aunt

It’s with increased rarity (at least in Albuquerque) that you find any restaurant which greets you before the door with irresistible aromas. In that respect, Namaste is indeed an anachronism because it does capture you before the door with wafting emanations that bid you welcome and which just may have a Pavlovian effect on your taste buds.  Along with Siam Thai, it may be the most aromatically arousing restaurant in the Albuquerque area.

Similar to most Indian restaurants in the Duke City area, Namaste offers a very inexpensive for the quality lunch buffet. It’s not quite as Bacchanalian as the buffet at the now defunct India Palace, but it provides an excellent introduction to its diverse and delicious offerings. As much as you’ll enjoy the buffet, your dining experience is Namaste is incomplete if you don’t take it to the next level. That would be returning for dinner when the quality is an order of magnitude better. During dinner, the ambiance speaks of refinement and only part of that is attributable to the absence of diners who visit the buffet three or four times in one seating. The lights are subdued and tones are hushed in the evening.

Garlic Naan, the very best in Albuquerque (as good as my mom’s tortillas)

Among the appetizer selections on the buffet, you might find vegetable samosa, crisp patties stuffed with spiced potatoes and green peas. Samosas have reportedly been an Indian specialty since before the tenth century. They are delicious as is or dipped into one of the various chutneys. Namaste offers several excellent chutneys–onion, mint, tamarind and more–none of which are subtle in their impact on your taste buds. Flame imbibing New Mexicans will love the jalapeño chutney, a neon green amalgam of the fiery pepper, vinegar and other spices. The vinegar balances the heat of the jalapeño while the jalapeño cuts the tartness of the vinegar. It’s as good, if not better, than many salsas we’ve had.

Of course one of the best ways to enjoy the chutneys is with naan, the incomparable Indian flat bread which is a staple accompaniment to most hot meals in India. Naan bears some resemblance to pita bread and, like pita bread, is usually leavened with yeast. It is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven fired by charcoal where the temperature at the bottom is maintained at 800 degrees Fahrenheit. The tandoor oven is from which tandoori cooking derives its name.

Paneer Pakora

The menu features several variations on the freshly baked white flour bread. Those include garlic naan in which the naan is garnished with minced garlic. There’s also cheese naan in which the white flour bread is, you guessed it, stuffed with cheese. Another intriguing naan is the kashmiri, freshly baked white flour bread stuffed with cashews, pistachios, raisins and cherries. At first glance you might think thin-sliced pizza or even lavosh, the flat, thin Armenian flat bread. After a bite or two, you might notice a semblance in flavor to the ubiquitous Christmas fruit cake. That’s because of the cherry and raisin influence which not only adds sweetness, but color to the naan. That sweetness isn’t overwhelmingly cloying like fruit cake; it provides a nice contrast and balance of flavors. 

21 June 2015: Turophiles, those of us who love cheese in all its fetid and aromatic forms, know all about paneer, the soft, crumbly farmer’s cheese native to India.  Who among us hasn’t enjoyed saag paneer (cooked spinach studded with cubed of fried paneer cheese) and mutter paneer (peas and farmer’s cheese in a tomato based sauce, spiced with garam masala)?  Because it’s not offered on the buffet, fewer have enjoyed paneer pakora, slices of homemade cheese stuffed with mint and spices, wrapped in garbanzo bean batter and deep-fried.  At four to an order, these golden-sheened beauties are absolutely delicious.  Paneer isn’t nearly as “melty,” gooey and oozy as say, goat cheese and it’s not as sharp as even the mildest Cheddar, but it’s got a very pleasant and mild personality that couples well with the mint chutney.

My Kim’s Buffet Plate: Mostly Tandoori Chicken and Meatballs

When you mention tandoori cooking, you’ve got to include tandoori chicken in the discussion. Namaste marinates its chicken in a fabulous array of exotic spices then broils it over mesquite in the tandoor oven. The mesquite imparts a smoky redolence to the chicken that renders it impossible to stop eating. Namaste’s tandoori chicken may just be the best we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The dinner menu offers several tandoori specialties, all prepared in the cylindrical clay tandoori oven and fired by charcoal to a constant temperature at the bottom of 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Several lamb dishes are prepared on the tandoori oven.  Among them are lamb tikka kabob which is lamb marinated in herbs and spices and lamb seekh kabob, spicy ground lamb molded on skewers and broiled in the tandoor oven. The lamb on the tikka kabob is cut into slightly larger than bite-sized cubes. The lamb seekh kabob might is cylindrical in shape, like a short, fat cigar, and in texture might remind you of rolled up gyros meat. The plate on which the lamb dishes are presented arrives at your table with a sizzling flair. It is lined with grilled onions and peppers which lend to the flavor explosions. Both lamb dishes will convert even the most staunch non-lamb eaters. In part, that’s because none of the characteristic “gaminess” of lamb is evident, but also because both dishes are very well flavored and enjoyable to eat.

Chicken Vindaloo

24 January 2011: The tandoori chicken is similarly delicious and also served two ways. The first is chicken tikka kabob, or delicately spiced boneless chicken breast cut into large pieces. This chicken is tender and perfectly seasoned. The second presentation is of tandoori chicken, a leg and thigh combination marinated and broiled over mesquite.  Still the very best chicken dish on the menu is the chicken tikka masala, boneles chicken  with creamy tomato sauce and exotic herbs and spices.  Preparation of chicken tikka masala is a two-step process.  First the chicken is baked in a tandoor then cooked in a thick, creamy “gravy” of tomato sauce, cream and spices.  The charcoal tandoor oven imparts an unmistakably distinctive smoky flavor to the chicken while the creamy tomato sauce imparts a sweet piquancy to an absolutely marvelous dish.

24 January 2011: My very favorite vegetarian entree at any restaurant is mattar paneer, green peas with Indian farmer cheese (paneer) in a creamy gravy.  Paneer is a fresh, unaged, non-melting cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or some other food acid.  It’s not necessarily the type of cheese you’d want to snack on as you might a slice or two of Kraft singles, but it’s the perfect cheese for the creamy gravy seasoned to perfection.  Mattar paneer is rich and utterly delicious, prepared to your level of piquancy.  No one in New Mexico does it better than Namaste.

Mattar Paneer

You might also opt to make dinner an adventurous event by trying one of the menu’s six Nepali dishes. Santa Fe has had a Himalayan restaurant for years, but Nepali dishes in Albuquerque were scarce until Namaste. The Nepalese diet consists heavily of lentil and rice dishes along with vegetable curries and a side dish called anchar, which are pickled vegetables and fruits (tomato, mango, cucumber, etc.), much like a chutney. There are many similarities to Indian food in Nepalese cooking.

26 October 2008: It may surprise you to discover similarities to Chinese food as well.  That’s especially true in Kathmandu where  the most popular lunch and snack item served are steamed or fried vegetable and meat dumplings known as “Momo.”  Namaste features both chicken and lamb momo.  The lamb momo plate consists of ten dumplings stuffed with ground and spiced lamb served with a piquant and delicious tomato achar.  It’s easy to see why this would be the most popular dish in Nepal.  The only downer for me is that the achar is served cold and the momo just warm.  Submerge the momo into the achar and it cools off quickly.  Still, this is a minor inconvenience and should not deter you from trying a delicious entree.

Lamb Momo

21 June 2015: When the Gurungs moved to New Mexico, they soon fell in love with green chile and have been roasting two sacks per year of the best Hatch has to offer.  it stands to reason that they’d eventually incorporate green chile into their menu.  Over the years, the green chili (SIC) chicken curry has become one of the most popular dishes offered at Namaste.  One of the reasons New Mexicans have adopted this dish as one of their own is that the green chile has plenty of heat, even more than the restaurant’s incendiary chicken vindaloo.  The curry incorporates a variety of aromatic spices that waft toward your nostrils like a fragrant breeze, possessing a flavor profile that’s sweet, savory, piquant and addictive.  It’s akin to a thick gravy punctuated with larger than bite-sized pieces of chicken.  In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine accorded this dish a “Hot Plate” award signifying its recognition as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”

24 December 2015: Manhattan Chef Dan Barber likes to say that “clean plates don’t lie.”  It’s an adage that describes all my dining experiences at Namaste.  Only the combination platters challenge fulfilling Barber’s adage.  Namaste offers five combination platters, each as delicious as they are bountiful.  Each platter comes with your choice of dal (a yellow lentil soup) or chicken with rice soup as well as your choice of plain or garlic naan.  As if this isn’t enough, dessert is also provided, either Kheer (rice and cream), Gulab Jamun (fried dough in sweet syrup), Gajar ka halva (described below) or mango custard depending on which of the five platters you order. 

Combination Platter

Non-Vegetable Dinner Combination Platter

My favorite of the combination platters is the Non-Vegetarian dinner combination (Chicken Tikka Masala, Shrimp Sang, Lamb Curry).  This platter should come with a warning label.  Not only is it exceptionally delicious, it features three of the richest entrees on the menu.  You’re well advised to temper the richness with the Raita, an Indian yogurt and cucumber condiment which soothes your palate and stands up to the creamy richness of the entrees.  Indian cuisine isn’t always noted for its contributions to seafood, but the shrimp sang  dish warrants plenty of love.  This dish features several large shrimp nestled in a rich pureed spinach and cream sauce.  The sweet shrimp snap when you bite into them and provide a nice contrast to the rich creaminess of the dish.  It’s my favorite of the three entrees in this combination platter, but not by much.  All three are outstanding! 

30 July 2016: Ask the dear-hearted Sandhya to recommend a dish and she’s likely to tout the incendiary deliciousness of the chicken vindaloo.  Vindaloo dishes didn’t originate in India, but in Europe and weren’t originally intended to be piquant, but garlicky-vinegary.  The transformation to a fiery dish is rather recent, but there’s no going back.  The blends of spices and seasonings that give Vindaloo its signature heat are here to stay.  There’s an Indian restaurant in New York City which prepares a vindaloo dish so potent that chefs wear gas masks to protect them from the heat level.  Namaste’s chicken vindaloo isn’t nearly that piquant, but it does have a very pleasant burn.  Moreover, it’s got an amazing flavor.  It’s no wonder it’s Sandhya’s favorite dish.

Green Chili Chicken Curry

21 June 2015: Meals at Namaste are extraordinary and you’ll savor each and every bite as you experience flavor combinations and taste explosions that will enrapt all ten-thousand of your taste buds.  As challenging as it is to stop eating, make sure to save room for a dessert specialty that this restaurant prepares better than any other Indian restaurant of my acquaintance.  It’s Gajar Ka Halwa, a sweet and dense confection made with carrots, butter and milk.  Though the julienne carrots are served warm, they’re not mushy in the least, but retain a discernible crunchiness.  Namaste adds shaved almonds for an even crunchier contrast.  This is a rich dessert as good, if not better, than any carrot cake.

You might notice that my rating for Namaste is the highest I’ve accorded to any Indian restaurant in New Mexico.  Namaste may not be as big or ostentatious as its competition, but in my estimation, it’s much better.  My friend and colleague Tushar Desai, a Bombay native and globetrotter who’s traveled extensively across the fruited plain as a project manager for Microsoft confirms this, saying Namaste is in the top three to five Indian restaurants at which he’s dined in North America.  That’s exceedingly high praise from a true connoisseur whose opinion I value.  

Gajar ka Halwa, one of my favorite desserts in the world

On November 14th, 2015, Namaste launched its second location in the Albuquerque metropolitan area.  Located at 110 Yale in the University of New Mexico area, the new location will bring the best Indian food in the state to a wider demographic.  With its proximity to a wider base, look for Namaste to earn “best Indian food” perennially.   Namaste’s walls are festooned by framed certificates naming it among Albuquerque’s top five Indian restaurants by Albuquerque The Magazine voters.  Methinks with greater proximity to a wider voting populace, you can replace the the term “among the best” with “the very best.”

The only thing that could have improved our visits to Namaste would have been sharing our meal with Srini, who in his infinite politeness, tells me I can still call him Kolli as long as I call him friend.

Namaste Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-3126
Web Site | Facebook Page
1st VISIT: 8 August 2008
LATEST VISIT: 30 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Naan, Kasmiri Naan, Lamb Momo, Mix Grill Tandoori, Gajar ka Halwa, Green Chili Chicken Curry, Mutter Paneer, Chicken Tikka Masala, Non-Vegetable Combination Platter, Chicken Vindaloo

Namaste Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Piatanzi – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Piatanzi, the stuff of wishes…

Italy is an illusion, indeed, a mirage, the stuff of wishes.”
~Mario Luzi

In the 1996 motion picture Big Night, two Italian restaurants across the street from one another operate in diametric opposition to one another both philosophically and in practice.  One is enormously successful because it gives customers what they want and expect (even though savvy diners would consider the culinary fare mediocre and uninspired).  In the other restaurant, the chef is a perfectionist who will labor all day to create a perfect dish and becomes exasperated when diners don’t recognize the authentic culinary art he creates, preferring  “Americanized” Italian food instead.

You might think the American dining public would prefer the latter and reject the former.  Our inaugural visit to Piatanzi seems to indicate the opposite may be true in Albuquerque.  Our route to Piatanzi took us past an Olive Garden where throngs of patrons lined up to get their fill of mediocre Americanized Italian food.  When we arrived at Piatanzi, we practically had our choice of seating.  The cavernous restaurant was nearly empty on a Saturday at noon.  We could only hope this was an anomaly because diners should be beating down the doors to dine at any restaurant owned and operated by Chef-Owner Peter Lukes.

Piatanzi, an intimate milieu for magnificent Italian deliciousness (This is the Juan Tabo location)

Chef Lukes and his wife Maggie launched Piatanzi in May, 2014 after a 16-year-stint at Terra Bistro, one of the Duke City area’s very best Italian restaurants, despite violating the three most important tenets of successful restaurants: location, location, location.  Situated in the North Valley on heavily trafficked (mostly commuters trying to get to and from the west-side) Alameda, Terra was the very definition of a destination restaurant, one with a strong enough appeal to draw customers from beyond the city’s burgeoning Northwest side.

Piatanzi is much more centrally located than was Terra, although Girard is somewhat less trafficked than Alameda.  Located just a few blocks north of the University of New Mexico, Piatanzi occupies the space long held by the Grocery Emporium in a neighborhood that’s more residential than it is retail.  No vestiges of the grocery store remain.  Piatanzi is a beautiful space courtesy of Maggie Lukes, an über-talented interior designer with a flair for creating spaces which are both comfortably cozy and upscale.  A second instantiation was launched in 2015 in a 6,000-square-foot venue that used to house R & S Yamaha motorcycle dealership.  The transformation is spectacular!

Fano bread with a mix of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar

As much as we’ll miss Terra (and selfishly, our proximity to it), in time the lure of innovative and well-executed Italian cuisine will make Piatanzi a favorite.  Where Terra was more formal and upscale, Piatanzi is just a bit more casual and relaxed.  While Terra featured a more conventional antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, dolci format, Piatanzi ‘s focus is on small plates similar to Spanish tapas or Chinese dim sum.  Many of the familiar favorites from Terra are still available though scaled down to fit the format. 

The dinner menu at Piatanzi is segmented somewhat differently than at Terra, at least in terminology.  Starters or appetizers are called “Boccone” which translates to “morsels.”  Next on the menu is the “Giardino” or “Garden” section which lists the restaurant’s salads.  The “Fattoria or “Farm” section lists small plates of meats and cheeses while the “Mare” section lists seafood items.  The “Farina e Acqua which translates to “Flour & Water” is a compilation of pasta dishes.  Then there’s the “Pietra” or “Stone” which lists Piattini’s pizza selections.  The “Contorni” section lists sides. 

Ceviche Italiano

The Pièce de résistance is the “Grandi Piatti” or “Large Plates” section of the menu. This section features several items with which we were familiar from having dined at Terra.  On his outstanding blog Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings, my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, was especially effusive about the dinner menu which, unfortunately, is not available during the lunch hour.  Serendipitously, we did visit on the day Piattini introduced its new weekend brunch menu so even though we missed out on the fabulous dinner menu, there were many terrific options available.  Note:  Brunch is no longer served on weekends, but you can sleep in and visit for dinner.

Alas not available at Piattini is the warm, fresh, house-made bread right out of the oven which was a staple at Terra.  It’s entirely unfair to consider bread from Albuquerque’s artisan Fano Bread bakery a consolation prize since it’s excellent bread, but the bread at Terra was peerless in the Duke City.  Still, Fano bread encapsulates all that is wonderful about the staff of life–a hard-crust surrounding a soft, yeasty bread.  When dipped into mixture of virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar the character of the bread really stands out.  If you’re not careful, however, you can easily fill up on bread.

Asparagi

27 September 2014: Time was the only restaurants in which you could find ceviche were either Peruvian or Mexican.  Today ceviche can be found in Japanese restaurants as well as avant-garde Italian eateries such as Piatanzi .  Each restaurant puts its own spin on a dish which is essentially seafood catalyzed in citrus juices.  At Piattini, the Ceviche Italiano ( scallop, shrimp, tuna, tomato, cucumber, lime, parsley, basil) would never be mistaken for the ceviche at a Mexican restaurant where the citrus flavors can be a bit overwhelming.  The emphasis at Piattini is on the freshness and natural flavor of the seafood and the way it plays against a lesser citrus influence.  The invigorating Italian basil and its peppermint-anise notes is a terrific twist. 

27 September 2014: Many adults grow up to rue the wasted years in which foods such as spinach, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus were feared and hated.  Fussy eaters as children sometimes become adventurous diners who grow up to love those foods they once avoided like a plague.  Asparagus is usually near the top of public enemy number one lists.  If asparagus was prepared everywhere as it is at Piatanzi, even persnickety diners would enjoy it.  The Asparagi (grilled asparagus, prosciutto di parma, balsamic vinaigrette, Gorgonzola cheese) is an amalgam of ingredients and flavors that complement one another very well though the grilled asparagus is excellent in its own right.

Salsiccia, a magnificent pizza!

29 July 2016: A cynical quote posits “who needs friends when you have pizza?”  During a Friends of Gil (FOG) dinner hosted by Piatanzi, several FOG members, including my Kim, ordered the pizza.  Perhaps the aforementioned quote should be reworded “When you have pizza, you have friends” (or vice-versa). Our long-time friend Jim March (Albuquerque’s bartender nonpareil, now plying his craft at Piatanizi) recommended the Salsiccia, knowing Kim is originally from Chicago where the sausage is sourced.  The Salsiccia (fennel sausage, roasted peppers, tomato sauce, blended cheeses) is a magnificent pie and the fennel sausage lives up to its name.  The fennel imparts an aromatic, mild licorice flavor that marries wonderfully with the pork-based sausage.  With a balance of crispiness and pliability, the crust is a terrific canvas for the bubbling cheese blend, roasted peppers and sausage. This pizza belongs on the pantheon of great pizzas along with the Funghi & Tartufo which you’ll read about next. 

19 January 2016: There are some ingredients on pizza that, at least for some of us, are solely “supporting cast.” For example, the “more is better” crowd wouldn’t conceive of constructing a pizza whose sole topping is black olives, red onions, green peppers or mushrooms. No, these are complementary ingredients, toppings which go well with pepperoni, sausage, bacon and the like. When my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and Dazzling Deanell raved about a “mushroom” pizza, my first inclination was to dismiss it as “boring!” Larry went so far as to declare it the best pizza he’s ever had while Deanell confessed to having dreamed about it. It was a pizza I held off trying until I could share it with Larry and Deanell who’ve never steered me wrong. If anything, they may have undersold it.

Funghi & Tartufo (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

Piatanzi’s Funghi & Tartufo, a mushroom pizza is a masterpiece—constructed with a lavish field of criminis from each tapered slice’s triangular endpoint to the cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza. A sprinkling of Gruyere, strategically placed scallions and a liberal dousing of truffle oil on a crust that’s crispy or soft where it should be allowed the criminis to shine, imparting their earthy flavor profile in every bite. Truffle oil, the one ingredient surly cur Gordon Ramsey contends no self-respecting chef should have in his or her pantry, imparts an earthy, pungent aroma that complements the criminis very well. Ramsey should try this pizza. This probably isn’t a pizza everyone will enjoy, but if you’re a fan of the fetid, fleshy fungi, you’ll fall for this one.

29 July 2016: There are several items available for dinner that you won’t find on the lunch menu.  Since Piatanzi’s launch, Larry has raved to me about several of them, none more effusively than the Pescatore, an entree he ordered the first two times he visited the restaurant.  Pescatarians and landlubbers alike will love this dish which just may transport you back to San Francisco where similar dishes abound. Swimming in a delightfully assertive marinara and Pinot Grigio broth enlivened with chile flake are clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and some of the best potato gnocchi we’ve ever enjoyed.  The next time someone laments that you can’t find great seafood in Albuquerque, mention this dish.  Words can’t do it justice.

Pescatore for the Pescatarian in you

19 January 2016: While not quite as effusively as they raved about the mushroom pizza, Larry and Deanell waxed poetic about the deliciousness of Piatanzi’s calamari.  A plateful of calamari ringlets delicately dusted with a rice flour and lightly fried is the antithesis of the fried rubber band (typically denoting overcooking) calamari some restaurants serve.  Each ringlet is textbook perfect, described by Larry as “almost butter soft and tender.”  Though you can have the calamari with marinara, it’s best with the restaurant’s lemon aioli which lends the qualities of acidity and richness to some of the best calamari you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.

29 July 2016: Another of the aforementioned foods of my wasted youth are beets which novelist Tom Robbins described as “the most intense of vegetables.”   As a child, beets ranked with spinach and verdolagas (purslane) as vegetables to be feared and loathed.  Beets were so awful not even our omnivorous scrounging dogs would eat them.  In my estimation as an adult, beets can’t be beat.  They’re among my favorite vegetables.  Only at the phenomenal Blade’s Bistro in Placitas have we had beets as good as the Barabietola (beets, tomato, pickled fennel and red onion, goat cheese, walnuts) at Piatanzi.  Your taste buds will do a happy dance over the melange of flavors while your sense of esthetics will appreciate the sheer beauty of this dish…and if you’ve never had yellow beets, you’re in for a treat.  Paired with goat cheese, they’re spectacular.

Barabietola, a fabulous beet salad

Several years ago, a case could easily be made that great Italian restaurants in the metropolitan area were far and few in between.  Restaurants such as Piatanzi have certainly changed that perspective.  Piatanzi ranks with the best!

Bistro Piattanzi
1403 Girard, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 792-1700
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 July 2016
1st VISIT: 27 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Asparagi, Fano Bread, Barabietola, Pescatore, Funghi & Tartufo, Salsiccia

Piatanzi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Golden Crown Panaderia – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Golden Crown Panaderia, one of Albuquerque’s premier dining destinations

Although we pride ourselves on keeping a pulse on the local dining scene, it took a nationally syndicated Food Network cable program called Food Finds to introduce us in 2003 to the Golden Crown Panaderia, an Albuquerque fixture for nearly three decades.  In an episode entitled Viewer’s Choice filmed entirely in New Mexico, hostess Sandra Pinckney visited several small-town shops, mom-and-pop stores and local vendors that pride themselves in creating specialty foods the old-fashioned way.

The Golden Crown Panaderia is an exemplar of dichotomy, a highly successful operation in which old-fashioned meets state-of-the-art and father and son proprietors rely on both technology and tradition to create one of New Mexico’s most unique and beloved dining experiences.   The Panaderia crafts its magnum opuses on equipment that is positively ancient by modern automation standards, but it uses avant-garde technology to grow the herbs and vegetables for its salads, sandwiches and pizzas.

View from the Patio

Old-fashioned might also describe the relationship between senior proprietor Pratt Morales and his son Chris.  It’s an old-fashioned father and son relationship in the tradition of Andy and Opie. On Food Finds, Pratt recounted having helped deliver his son, calling it the beginning of a life-long love affair.  Pratt also demonstrated his unique craft–bread sculpting. He can literally prepare bread in any shape and form as chronicled in a photo album replete with pictures of the artistic bread creations. Although the Food Network made larger than life celebrities out of father and son, they are both as friendly and accommodating as possible.

I probably wouldn’t be writing about Golden Crown, however, if the end product wasn’t good. Make that outstanding! Make that “the very best bakery in Albuquerque” outstanding!”  Situated in a ramshackle old building just outside Old Town, it’s far enough off the beaten path as to be relatively inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous, however, doesn’t mean diners aren’t finding it.  This humble Panaderia has been consistently ranked by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel community, as one of the top five out of 1,235 restaurants in the Duke City.   Golden Crown receives similar praise from Yelp while Lonely Planet, a French publication calls Golden Crown “Albuquerque’s best place to eat.”

A rare sight–no queue

The Panaderia’s crown jewel (no pun intended) is the original New Mexico green chile bread on which is sculpted a Santa Fe style coyote baying at the moon. Aside from green chile, this staff of life is fashioned with onions, fresh tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and cilantro.  The bread is baked slowly to seal in the flavor and aroma of all the fresh ingredients.  Toast it with butter and (if you can get it) New Mexican chokecherry jelly and you’ve got a mouth-watering breakfast.

All artisan breads are baked fresh daily and are out of the oven at regular intervals between 10:30AM and 2PM.  There may be no more pleasing bouquet in the Duke City than the aroma of fresh bread baking in one of the Golden Crown’s ovens: honey whole wheat, cinnamon raisin honey whole wheat, cinnamon pecan honey whole wheat, Appaloosa bread (a dark and light swirled rye), black rye and even seven-grain bread.  They’re all great!

One of the most beautiful pastry cases in New Mexico

The Appaloosa bread is edible artwork.  Swirling patterns of visually appealing dark brown pumpernickel ornament the bread like a beautiful Rorschach ink blot.  This is a full-bodied bread, the type of which makes outstanding delicatessen style sandwiches thickly smeared with a fine mustard or with sauerkraut piled on generously.  It’s also excellent toasted which enhances the vibrancy and flavors of the bread.

Also beyond reproach are the biscochitos, New Mexico’s official state cookie which is mildly sweet with a light taste of anise and a hint of cinnamon. These orb-shaped treats are melt-in-your-mouth delicious!  The minute you step into the bakery, a complementary biscochito is handed to “children of all ages,” a gift from the bakery gods.  You’ll probably leave with a dozen or more biscochitos courtesy of that warm cookie welcome.  In January, 2016, Spoon University named those bizcochitos New Mexico’s best dessert.  Spoon described them as “sweet, cinnamony cookies” that became the “official state cookie almost 20 years ago” and “deserve to graduate onto the official dessert.”

Blueberry Empanada and the World’s Greatest Coffee Shake

You might think it heretical, but the Moraleses also feature a chocolate biscochito made from a strong, slightly bitter dark chocolate and sprinkled liberally with anise.  If you like your chocolate dark, you certainly won’t care that New Mexico’s official state cookie has been altered such. A more recent addition to the biscochito family is a unique cappuccino biscochito. It’s like dunking a biscochito into strong coffee.  Abuelitas everywhere (or at least in New Mexico) marvel at the fact that Golden Crown even bakes biscochitos from blue corn flour. 

How good are the Golden Crown’s biscochitos? The October, 2005 edition of Gourmet magazine indicated the Golden Crown’s handmade version of biscochitos “make a delightful holiday accompaniment to red or white wine.” Wine, by the way, is how biscochitos were originally served in Spain. With or without wine, biscochitos are an absolute treat in which New Mexicans delight.  The Golden Crown’s biscochitos were also celebrated in the July-August edition of National Geographic Traveler magazine.  An article entitled “five American desserts worth the trip” describes them as “fragrant, infused with anise, this flaky shortbread coated with cinnamon.”  A more succinct way to describe them is absolutely wonderful!

Combination Pizza on Green Chile Bread Crust

Another pastry favorite are the flautas (flutes). No, not the corn tortillas rolled around a filling of shredded chicken or beef then fried until crisp. These flautas are filled with glorious lemon or apricot filling and dusted with white powdered sugar. Not too sweet and not too tart, they are absolutely delicious.  The Golden Crown’s empanadas are nonpareil, absolutely the very best in New Mexico–whether pumpkin, sweet potato, apple, blueberry, strawberry, apricot, lemon or raspberry.  The crust is reminiscent of the biscochitos in both texture and flavor. 

The menu purports to offer the “creamiest latte in town,” its creaminess attributed to”the freshest milk in town–straight from the cow.”  Espresso, latte and mocha coffee drinks are all available if indeed you wish to dunk your biscochito into excellent coffee.  The coffee-flavored milk shake also has the flavor of strong coffee (courtesy of two shots of espresso) without the cloying flavor of coffee that’s been over-sweetened.  It’s an adult coffee shake and it’s served cold thanks to nearly a full pound of vanilla ice cream out of the freezer.  This is my very favorite shake in Albuquerque and the very best coffee-flavored shake I’ve ever had anywhere.  Obviously, both the proprietors and legions of fans agree with me as this shake has earned the designation of “the world’s greatest coffee shake.”  That’s how it’s listed on the menu.

Make Your Own Pizza: Sausage, Canadian Bacon, Extra Cheese on Peasant Bread Crust

The Morales family goal is to serve products which are delicious, nutritious and beautiful. In keeping with that lofty aspiration, Pratt has figured out how to bake breads that are free of trans-fats, oils and fat without losing absolutely nothing taste-wise.  Still, it’s the artistic nature of his bread sculpture that continues to induce awe among visitors, including Guy Fieri who visited the Golden Crown Panaderia for a 2013 airing of an episode titled “All kinds of Gobble, Gobble” celebrating restaurants who specialize in Thanksgiving offerings.  Pratt Morales demonstrated his technique for sculpting a bread turkey.

By popular demand, the Golden Crown Panaderia also serves bakery-style pizza that starts with your choice of three innovative crusts: blue corn dough, peasant dough or the famous New Mexico green chile dough.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that no one knows bread (or pizza) crust as well as a baker?  While Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff didn’t give this pizza enough love to place it among their top five pizzas in their annual Food & Wine issue for 2010, it was rated the best pizza along Route 66 by a Roadfood crew rating the “best of the best” from among the dozens of restaurants they sampled in a 5,250-mile excursion along the route.  The pizza which captured the Roadfood crew’s affection was a green chile and roasted chicken pizza on a blue corn crust.  Golden Crown’s pizza is among my top three in Albuquerque and top five in New Mexico.

Roast Beef Sandwich with Chips and Queso

24 July 2016: This hand-tossed, thin-crust pizza features a housemade pizza sauce, mozzarella and your choice of ingredients in sizes ranging from personal to extra large (30% larger than the regular large). Gourmet toppings include anchovies, oven roasted chicken, artichoke and more.  Each pizza is baked to order in about fifteen minutes baking time per pizza.  Each pizza comes with a biscochito, an amuse bouche you don’t often see.  The personal-sized combination pizza (tasty pepperoni, hearty Italian sausage, black olives, crisp bell  peppers, red onions and mozzarella) is my favorite, an artisan-style pie that isn’t nearly as circular as what you might find at a chain, nor is the crusty rim of equal thickness throughout the circumference of the pie.  Not that it matters much because every morsel of the pie is an adventure in deliciousness.  At eight-inches, the personal-sized pizza is probably right-sized, but it’s so delicious you’ll want a larger sized pie to sate your pizza cravings.

The ingredients are of the highest quality and are absolutely terrific, but it’s the crust that will absolutely blow you away.  If you love your pizza crust imbued with the memory-inducing, olfactory arousing aroma of fresh bread just out of the oven, this is the pizza for you.  You won’t be leaving behind any of the crust from around the rim, nor will you be sharing it with the annoying pigeons scavenging around the outdoor seating areas waiting for a hand-out.  When it comes to olfactory arousing, the green chile crust is absolutely for you with just enough piquancy to get your attention, but moreover, the bouquet of roasted green chile.  The green chile crust includes some 18 ingredients while more than 20 ingredients go into both the blue corn and peasant crusts.

Blueberry, Cherry and Lemon Empanadas with Biscochitos

24 July 2016:  The housemade sauce is slathered on thickly and is quite good, a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce that complements other ingredients well.  The Italian sausage is not that benign sausage which tastes like so much hamburger meat; it’s sausage with a bit of attitude and a pronounced smokiness.  The pepperoni is nicely spiced; several thinly-sliced orbs generously applied throughout the pie.  The black olives and green peppers are fresh and delicious and the mozzarella is creamy and chewy.  My Kim’s favorite pizza is a make-your-own topped with sausage, Canadian bacon and extra cheese on a peasant crust.  It’s an outstanding pizza!

A sandwich board features six sandwiches built on the panaderia’s fresh-baked bread and uses only high quality meats, cheeses and fresh vegetables. Your sandwich can be built on sliced bread (including the fabled green chile bread) or sub sandwich bread.

Turkey sandwich adorned with fresh from the garden lettuce, tomatoes and more

in the November, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine I was asked to write an article showcasing the use of turkey for breakfast, lunch and dinner in  three Albuquerque restaurants.  My featured lunch selection was Golden Crown’s Turkey & Swiss sandwich (served with mayonnaise, Italian dressing, deli mustard, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and a kosher pickle).  It is an outstanding sandwich–and thankfully NOT named the “Albuquerque Turkey” as so many turkey sandwiches (particularly those offered by chains) seem to be.  Crafted on the Panaderia’s fabulous bread and adorned with vegetables grown on the premises on a hydroponic (a method of growing plants in water using mineral nutrient solutions with no soil) garden, the sandwich is accompanied by a biscochito and chips.

I also had the opportunity to introduce the world to Golden Crown in an article entitled “America’s Best Food Regions” published on the May, 2011 edition of Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine. Along with bloggers from other storied American food regions, I was given 500 words to explain why New Mexico’s “Chile Country” reigns supreme over other culinary regions. Naturally the Golden Crown was one of six purveyors of America’s most incendiary regional cuisine I wrote about.

Ham and Swiss toasted with avocado on the famous New Mexico Green Chile bread

Ham and Swiss toasted with avocado on the famous New Mexico Green Chile bread

It’s no surprise this humble bakery was also featured in the Unique Boutique section of the November, 2005 edition of New Mexico Magazine. In May, 2007, the magazine published a lengthier article profiling Pratt and his passion for baking. It’s no longer a surprise when the Golden Crown Panaderia receives national accolades….such as a designation as the “best place for a book stop” from Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine. The magazine extolled the green chile bread and urged readers to “buy a loaf and snack away during an extended session.”

The Golden Crown Panaderia leaves no stone unturned in providing the highest possible in quality products and produce. In 2010, the Morales family began cultivating its own herbs and vegetables for use on its salads, sandwiches and pizzas. In a temperature controlled indoor environment, utilize state-of-the-art aquaponic techniques to grow several varieties of lettuce as well as fresh basil which resonates with flavor on pizza. The garden is somewhat of an anomaly in that so much of the equipment throughout the bakery is an anachronism, veritable antiques which function under the master bakers to create culinary masterpieces.

Chris Morales proudly shows off the Golden Crown’s herb and vegetable garden from which they craft fresh salads.

Before the advent of propane-powered chile roasters, New Mexicans either roasted chile themselves or they took it to their favorite baker.  With advance arrangements, the Moraleses will still provide this service for loyal customers.  Under the skillful hands of the Duke City’s very best bakers, the chile is roasted far more evenly than it is on a gigantic rotating drum–and without the abuse to which the chile is subjected in the tumbling process.

At 81 years young (as of this writing on July 24, 2016), Pratt Morales still has the energy of a man half his age.  He bikes distances that would tire out people generations younger if they drove those distances.  His youthful exuberance and energy are resultant from having a passion for what he does.  He loves being a baker so much that he often wakes up at three in the morning and walks to work so he can get started on his next sculpting project or bread innovation.  We should all love our jobs as much as he does.

My friends and frequent dining companions Sr. Plata, Bill Resnik and Paul Lilly with Pratt Morales, a baker’s baker.

The Golden Crown Panaderia is a rarity–a bakery-slash-restaurant that does both well.  Pratt and Chris Morales have made this panaderia an Albuquerque institution and in the process, have become part of the fabric of the Duke City’s unique cuisine culture themselves.

Golden Crown Panaderia
1103 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-243-2424
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 24 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Bread, Tres Leche Cake, Biscochitos (Traditional, Chocolate and Cappuccino), Specialty Pizza, Turkey & Swiss Sandwich, Combination Pizza, Blueberry Empanada, Cherry Empanada, Lemon Empanada, Roast Beef Sandwich

Golden Crown Panaderia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pasion Latin Fusion – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine on Lomas

In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
Tammy Mollai

Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show has some nerve!  In an episode which first aired in March, 2014, the tough-talking British mesomorph had the audacity to tell America that Pasion Latin Fusion wasn’t the beautiful, graceful swan with which many of us had fallen in love.  Although he didn’t directly call Pasion an ugly duckling paddling about aimlessly, Irvine certainly intimated that things at Pasion weren’t as rosy as some of us may have thought. 

The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000,  Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence.  To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows.  If you’ve ever been to Pasion Latin Fusion, words like failure, dysfunction and drama won’t ever come to mind.  Since its launch in 2011, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, much moreso than reviews for other “failing” restaurants featured on Restaurant: Impossible.

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible show

Chef Elvis Bencomo shows off some of the design work completed by the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show

While the Food Network’s preview synopsized the issues at Pasion as “tension between Monica and their main investor, Elvis’s brother, and a menu that’s leaving customers confused and frustrated,” the most obvious revelation when the episode aired is that Elvis, Monica and Orlando Bencomo are extremely likeable and extraordinarily passionate about their restaurant.  If the Food Network came to Pasion expecting the dysfunction and drama of a soap opera, they instead got a true feel good story accentuating the love of a beautiful family. 

Robert Irvine’s renovation of Pasion was much more than cosmetic though that’s what visitors will notice first.  The interior has been wholly transformed from a milieu of dark jumbled gracelessness into a bright, airy and intimate two-level dining room.  The menu has also been revamped, both in content and in style.  All menu items are now clearly described so there’s no room for confusion.  Some fourteen items make up the “Latin tapas” section of the menu with another five entrees on the “Platos Principales (main courses) menu, but they’re so varied and good you won’t need more.

The Redesigned Interior of Pasion Latin Fusion Cuisine

Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of  Elvis  and Monica Bencomo, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors.  The third in the family triumvirate who own and operate Pasion is Orlando Bencomo, Elvis’s brother and main investor in the restaurant.  Orlando, a veteran of Afghanistan, runs the front of the house.  If the Food Network exposure gave any of them a big head, you certainly can’t tell.

Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina.  Get the picture?

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna | Coconut | Habanero | Passion Fruit Sorbet

Fire and Ice Tostada Tuna

Monica, the statuesque occasional hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago, but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Together Monica and Elvis have not only made beautiful food together, they actually enjoyed working together when Monica ran the front of the house. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasión Fruit Salsa

Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain especially now that Pasion has been renovated.  It is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. A sole fireplace suspended from the ceiling is both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening.  Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.

The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items have combined those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.

Duck Taquitos Green and Yellow Chile | Pickled Vegetables | Mexican Cotija Cheese

Duck Taquitos

Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.

29 March 2014: Latino tapas are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You can make a meal out of the tapas.  Three per person is what our server advised, but he probably based that on my “svelte” physique.  One of those tapas (if it’s on the menu) should be the pasion fruit salsa with chips.  In New Mexico, chips and salsa are pretty de rigueur, so much so that it’s a rare salsa which can distinguish itself.  The pasion fruit salsa is unique, a combination of piquancy, tropical fragrance and tanginess.  It’s a welcome respite from the usual with chips.  Now, if you like your salsa to provide the flavor element of pain, this salsa won’t do it, but it does pack enough heat to titillate your tongue.

Carnitas Tacos

29 March 2014: Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Fire and Ice, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero-coconut sauce and passion fruit sorbet served with tortilla chips.  The habanero-coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut.  The passion fruit sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche.  Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients.  This is genius!

29 March 2014: In the 1980s, restaurants such as Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the West Beach Cafe in Venice, California started a trend still going strong today when they introduced duck tacos.  Being a trend doesn’t equate to being good, however.   Unlike so many others, the duck taquitos at Pasion are worth the build-up and hype.  They’re, in fact, sensational!  There’s only one thing wrong with the three rolled taquitos engorged with pickled vegetables and slow-simmered duck meat seasoned with Caribbean spices topped with yellow and green chile sprinkled with Mexican Cojita cheese.  If there are two of you, splitting that third taqito could end up in the type of drama the Food Network would appreciate.

Caribbean Chicken Adobo

29 March 2014: Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Quesadilla Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches.  Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé  as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based.  At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a hybrid corn-flour tortilla.  Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.” 

22 October 2015: For many New Mexicans the term “chicharron” conjures images of deep-fried cubes of crispy pork cracklings.  We enjoy them in much the way other people eat popcorn.  In parts of Texas and Mexico, chicharrones are more akin to menudo or strips of wiggly, squiggly pork tripe.  Only in Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas had we previously seen chicharrones fashioned from seafood (mariscos).  Leave it to Elvis to introduce Albuquerque to this uniquely delicious entree.  The combination of crispy mixed seafood (African white fish and calamari), pickled vegetables and small mango cubes is a winner, elevated to rarefied air with a habanero tartar sauce so good and so bold and assertive, you may just ask for a second ramekin.

Chicharron de Mariscos

16 July 2016: Absent from the revamped menu are several favorites, but my sense of loss is mitigated by the addition of Caribbean Chicken, among the very best I’ve ever had.  Caribbean chicken isn’t synonymous with jerk chicken.  In fact, Pasion’s Caribbean chicken doesn’t have a piquant punch.  Its flavor profile is derived from non-jerk Caribbean adobo spices and from having been wrapped and roasted in banana leaves which seal in freshness and flavor.  This is outrageously good chicken–two thighs and two legs.  The chicken is served with a white rice and mashed ripe plantain mound, a surprisingly good combination.

16 July 2016: The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet, savory and sour goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.

Pastel de Queso: Goat Cheese Style Cheesecake Drizzled with Mango Caramel

16 July 2016: The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, ranking number ten on Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten best bread puddings in New Mexico. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding though a scoop of vanilla ice cream may help quell the heat for visitors who may not be used to it.

29 March 2014: Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is the Pasion Platano Cake, a banana custard cake topped with passion fruit mousse.  It’s rich, sweet and tangy in every bite.  The lip-pursing tartness isn’t quite lemon-like, but it’ll excite your mouth more than a handful of pop rocks.  Notes of cinnamon and vanilla occasionally sneak the tanginess of the passion fruit and the gentle sweetness of the banana.  If it sounds as if there’s a lot going on in this dessert, that’s because there is.  There’s a taste adventure in every bite.  

Aztec Bread Pudding Con Cajeta with a hint of Red Chile and a Milk Caramel Sauce

Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion.  That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and  unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years.  It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine. 

Note:  Because Pasion Fusion Restaurant changes its menu with some regularity, some of the items described on this review may not be available when you visit.  No matter what’s on the menu, if Elvis is in the building, your meal will be great.

Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7880
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2016
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa, Chicharron De Mariscos

Pasión Latin Fusion Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli

Greek mythology recounts the story of Tantalus, progeny of a divine parent (Zeus himself) and a mortal one.  Uniquely favored among mortals by being invited to share the food of the gods, Tantalus abused that privilege by slaying his own son and feeding him to the gods as a test of their omniscience.  The gods immediately figured out what Tantalus had done and in their rage condemned him to the deepest portion of the underworld where he would be forever “tantalized” with hunger and thirst.  Though immersed up to his neck in water, when Tantalus bent to drink, it all drained away.  When he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

For years, Duke City diners have been tantalized by the promise of signage beckoning us to visit “delis” only to realize, much like the gods of Olympus, that all is not as it appears.  A sign does not a deli make nor do products from peripatetic distributors.  As with Tantalus, we’re left to pine for the authenticity of a true deli, the type of which Albuquerque has not seen since the bygone days of Deli Mart.  Savvy diners may not be able to vanquish the ersatz delis to the underworld, but we can banish these pretenders to the realm of chain restaurants we choose not to frequent.

Meats, Cheeses, Breads, Condiments and so Much More

By strict definition a “deli,” an abbreviated form of delicatessen, is a term meaning “delicacies,” “fine foods” or “delicious things to eat.”   Over time delicatessen and its diminutive form came to represent the store, restaurant or combination thereof in which these delicacies, fine foods and delicious things to eat are sold, either for take-out or eat-in.    For many of us who have lived in large cities, the term deli is synonymous with Jewish deli while for others a deli proffers specialty foods indigenous to Italy, Poland (see Red Rock Deli) or other European nation. 

The hard-liners among us will never accept  that Schlotzky’s, Jason’s, McAlister’s and others of that ilk are delis despite what their signage may say.  Nor will we ever be duped by the deception of diners daring to call themselves delis.  It goes without saying that we don’t believe a deli should  feature products burnishing the labels of Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Kirkland, Butterball or even the ubiquitous Boar’s Head.  An authentic deli should preferably cure, salt, dry and cut its own meats and make at least some of its cheeses–and if it doesn’t do that, it should procure and sell only the finest, most authentic meats and cheeses available.

Italian Charcuterie Board

With the December, 2014 launch of M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli, Albuquerque once again has an authentic Italian deli in the tradition of delis for which hard-core deli aficionados have pined for far too long.  It’s a deli in which I’d proudly break bread with Dave Hurayt, Bruce Schor, Bob Sherwood and Gary Feaster with whom I’ve commiserated about the absence of an authentic deli in Albuquerque.  Best of all, it’s a deli with a pedigree that promises authenticity and deliciousness. 

Trust the ownership triumvirate of John Haas, Katie Gardner and Jeff Spiegel to do for their Italian market and deli what they’ve done for their restaurant. The trio launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in 2013 and accolades quickly piled on (including “Best New Restaurant” honors from Albuquerque The Magazine readers and being named one of the top 100 neighborhood restaurants in the US by Open Table).  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli is located about 150 feet away from its elder sibling in the Montaño Plaza shopping center.

Pickled Board

Ensconced within Lilliputian digs, M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli embodies the axiom “little place, huge flavors.”  Add huge aromas and you might feel you’ve been transported to a small corner New York City Italian deli.    You’ll be amazed at just how much is crammed into such a small space.  Seating for about ten guests is to your immediate left and right as you walk in.  Because of space constraints, the deli’s take-out business will be a robust part of the operation.  The rest of the space is devoted to mouth-watering Italian products, many of which are created on the premises. 

In fact, the talented staff at M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli bakes its own breads (sourdough, rye, whole wheat, baguette, ciabatta, foccacia), makes its pastas and sausages, cures many of its own meats (prosciutto, cotto, sopressata, mortadella, etc.) and makes its cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, etc.).  What isn’t made on the premises is procured from trusted, high-quality sources.  On the shelves you’ll also espy jars of fresh herbs (basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.) while refrigerated deli cases showcase pickled goods (eggplant, sweet or spicy cucumbers, cardamom carrots, giardinera, Sicilian green olives, Macedonian peppers and more).  Your taste buds might go into sensory overload, not to mention involuntary salivation.

Muffaletta with Farro Salad

Optimally, you’ll be able to score one of the four tables for a unique eat-in experience that will allow you to browse and sample as you wait for your meal which, by the way, is so much more than sandwiches.  First on the menu are three Italian charcuterie boards, all of which are accompanied by house-made artisan bread.  After you peruse the four enticing appetizers and three scrumptious salads, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose from among seven featured sandwiches, including a build-your-own option and all served with one side.  You can opt instead for one of three pastas.  Either way, you might not have room left for one of the three luscious desserts.

If, like me, you believe Italian delis start and end with meats and cheeses, you’ve got to try one of the three Charcuterie Boards (Salumi Board, Pickled Board, Cheese Board).  In America, the ancient European culinary art of charcuterie has recently started to become a highly revered and well-practiced art.   Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli not only offers charcuterie, it is a charcuterie!

Pastrami

14 December 2014: The Salumi Board offers three options: pick two, pick three or pick four from among the meats.  An outstanding option is the spicy coppa (short for capicolla), a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat with a taste and texture similar to prosciutto.   If you’re a Sopranos fan, you might recognize capicolla by its slang name “gabagool.” By any name it’s delicious.   Speck, which is cured with such spices as juniper berries, nutmeg, garlic and bay leaves before being cold-smoked, is another terrific option.  It wouldn’t be a salumi (Italian cold cuts) board without Toscano salami, a dry, salami with large bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns surrounded by leaner meat which provides a robust, distinctive but not overpowering flavor.  It goes without saying you’ll also want prosciutto on your board.  Accompanying these meats are slices of Italian bread, an addictive onion jam, house-made mustard, tomato relish and probably the very best spicy pickles you’ll ever have.

12 April 2015: M’Tucci’s pickled board is the very best we’ve had in New Mexico though there aren’t that many to compare with.  Available in quantities of two, three or four pickled vegetables, it’s essentially a vegetable plate even vegetable-haters will love.  Usually served with a local goat cheese, we lucked out during our April, 2015.  Because the deli had run out of what is undoubtedly an outstanding goat cheese, a Bucherondin de Chevre, a luscious and creamy French goat cheese was substituted.  Pierce the Bucherondin’s rind and you’ll enjoy a near-buttery soft, creamy and mild goat cheese that complements pickled vegetables very well.  Our pickled board included sweet and hot pickles, carrots and eggplant, all of which were oh, so delicious with distinctive notes in each.  Those pickles are absolutely addictive!

BLT

14 December 2014: The sandwich menu includes several familiar favorites such as the Cubano, BLT, Pastrami and Muffaletta, but while M’Tucci’s pays homage to traditions which spawned these sacrosanct sandwiches, it does not attempt to duplicate them.  The muffaletta, for example, is not an exact replica of the muffaletta you might have at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, but it’s an outstanding Italian inspired sandwich in its own right.  The canvas for this superb sandwich is housemade ciabatta which is generously topped with housemade capicola, mortadella, salami, an olive tapenade and house-smoked mozzarella. It takes two hands and a wide-open mouth to handle this mighty, meaty, magnificent sandwich.  The yin to the muffaletta is a ferro salad  (fresh grape tomatoes, walnuts, Tucumcari feta, pickled red onions on a lettuce leaf), one of the four available sides.

14 December 2014: Pastrami paramours often consider it heretical for pastrami sandwiches to be topped only with a good deli mustard with a dill pickle on the side.  Before they become apoplectic at learning M’Tucci’s pastrami (made on the premises) sandwich is made with herbed goat cheese, fresh red onions, a housemade mustard on housemade rye, they had darned well better try it.  It’s unlike any pastrami this aficionado has ever had and it’s a bit lean (fat is flavor) for my tastes, but it’s still a pretty good sandwich with that herbed goat cheese really standing out.  This sandwich pairs well with oven-roasted herbed potatoes, red potatoes seasoned with rosemary, thyme and fresh garlic. 

Carbonara

12 April 2015: For years, the benchmark against which I’ve measured all BLTs in New Mexico has been the TBL, a Gecko’s Bar & Tapas original stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread.  It took more than a decade to find a BLT that’s better.  Like the TBL, M’Tucci Market’s version is also an original.  In its standard form, it, too, is made with applewood smoked bacon though for a mere pittance, you can substitute bourbon-glazed bacon.  Splurge!  It’s the best bacon we’ve had in New Mexico, better even than the red chile-honey glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe.  The BLT (butter leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, blue cheese aioli and wheat bread made on the premises) is all a sandwich should be though the hard-crusted bread scrapes against the roof of your mouth just a bit.  The blue cheese aioli is rather mild which is perfectly fine because it lets the bacon shine.  The lentil salad (pickled onion, carrot, zucchini, rosemary, sage, thyme and Tucumcari gouda) is an excellent accompaniment.

12 April 2015: While judging the Taste of Rio Rancho in February, 2015, my friend Mario D’Elia, the uber-talented executive chef for the Albuquerque Isotopes, commiserated that guanciale (an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks) isn’t that widely used in Albuquerque restaurants, Chef Maxime Bouneou at Torinos @ Home being one of the few to use it.  Add M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli to what will hopefully become a trend.  M’Tucci’s makes its own guanciale and it’s terrific.  The guanciale is perhaps my favorite ingredient in a Carbonara dish constructed of superb ingredients (housemade cured egg yolk, Pecorino, sage, pepperoncini flakes, shallots and tagliatelle made on the premises).  The tagliatelle (long, flat pasta ribbons) is fortified with an unctuous, but not overly excessive, sauce.   The portion size is relatively modest, but being so rich, Carbonara isn’t a pasta dish on which many diners can over-indulge.  This is a great one!

Italian Mac & Cheese (Photo courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, has (as of this writing) visited MTucci’s Italian Market & Deli some 48 times.  It’s easy to see why he loves this restaurant so much–as well as why your humble sesquipedalian blogger needs to increase the frequency of his visits.  The Italian Mac & Cheese (Rosemary ham, Morbier Mornay, handmade penne, fresh Mozzarella, Aleppo pepper bread crumbs) warrants a visit or ten all by itself.  After one forkful Larry declared it the best mac and cheese he’s ever had.  High praise indeed.  There’s a lot to love about this skilletful of deliciousness and inventiveness.  Instead of the usual half-and-half mixture of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, the Mornay sauce is made with Morbier, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which, interestingly, is fashioned with a black layer of tasteless ash.  The Morbier not only coalesces the penne, some of it melts into a delightfully oily pool at the bottom of the skillet.   Chunks of Rosemary ham imparts resinous, savory and sweet qualities that blend magnificently with other ingredients while the Aleppo peppers (about 10,000 on the Scoville scale) lends a pleasant piquancy.

7 June 2016:  When she hangs out with Larry and me, Dazzling Deanell  is like a delicate flower among two wilted weeds.  She not only graces our table with beauty, wit and charm, she always seems to order the right things.  Take for example, the Market Reuben (fresh market-cured corned beef, homemade sauerkraut, red chile mostarda on rye bread) she ordered during our June 7th visit.  Even as she ordered it, she declared the Reuben at O‘Hare’s Grille and Pub in Rio Rancho to be her favorite Reuben then conceded that M’Tucci’s version will probably be even better.  She has the gift of prophecy!  This is a fantastic Reuben, one she paired with a glorious beet salad.  The housemade rye is the perfect canvas for the other components.  The red chile mostarda (which has nothing to do with mustard and more closely resembles a relish) is a magnificent blend of fruity sweetness, piquancy and tanginess.  As we enjoyed the sandwich, we discerned a flavor similar to cloves (or perhaps crushed lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread spice cookies), but weren’t quite sure what its genesis was.  We surmise it may have come from the roasting of the corned beef itself.  The corned beef is even better than M’Tucci’s pastrami and that’s saying something.

Market Reuben (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

14 December 2014: There are only three desserts on the menu and if they’re all as good as the two we chose, you’re sure to sate, if not titillate, your sweet tooth. The molded cheesecake topped with a fig jam renewed my faith in cheesecakes which of late have all been plagued by a boring sameness.  The crostata, a delicate Italian tart enveloping buttery butternut squash infused with sage is nearly as good.  Somewhat small by contemporary dessert size standards, they’re not to be missed.

12 April 2015: Not that long ago you could practically count on one hand, the number of Italian restaurants offering cannoli as a dessert option.  For the most part, it’s been pretty standard–tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta and often, mascarpone.  “Radical” versions sometimes included chocolate toppings.  Yawn!  During our visit in April, 2015, M’Tucci’s served a cannoli pila (an Italian term meaning “stacked” or “piled”) that was essentially a deconstructed cannoli.  Instead of the standard stuffed shell, bits of shell were topped with a mascarpone-ricotta mix topped with a cherry-walnut compote.  It’s a deliciously different way to enjoy one of the most popular of Italian desserts.

Italian Bread Pudding (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

7 June 2016:  When Larry first tried M’Tucci’s Italian bread pudding, it immediately rocketed to the coveted number one spot on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame.  It was so good that both he and Deanell regretted not having ordered one each instead of sharing a portion.  One of my life’s greatest regrets is not having driven over immediately as soon as they told me (months ago) how fabulous this bread pudding is.  There are several reasons it’s so good.  First, the bread isn’t the mushy, squishy mess so often used on bread pudding.  It’s a housemade foccacia.  Secondly, it’s not cloying as bread pudding is oft to be.  Third, it’s made with premium ingredients.  The version to which I was introduced included blueberries and piñon and was topped with a seasonal melt-in-your-mouth gelato.  This is transformative stuff!

Pop culture enthusiasts will remember the scene from the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan experienced delirious joy from her sandwich at New York City’s revered Katz’s Deli. Similar reactions at M’Tucci’s are sure to be repeated and when they are, you can tell your server “I’ll have what she’s having.”

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli
6001 Winter Haven Road,  N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2016
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Italian Charcuterie Board, Pickled Board, Pastrami Sandwich, BLT, Muffaletta, Carbonara, Farro Salad, Lentil Salad, Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes, Cheesecake with Fig, Crostata with Butternut Squash, Cannoli Pila, Italian Mac and Cheese, Market Reuben, Italian Bread Pudding

M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

1 2 3 6