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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2015
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
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