Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My Friends Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor Leaving the Magnificent Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House

Looking around our table, my friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott astutely pointed out the relative scarcity of pizza at our table. Considering the Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap Room may have been the most eagerly awaited pizzeria to open in Albuquerque in years, you’d think a phalanx of foodies would  be devouring our weight in pizza…and while three pulchritudinous pies did grace our table, so did such eclectic fare as pho, chicken wings, roasted chicken and Chimichurri skirt steak a la plancha.   Despite the term “eclectic” on the pizzeria’s appellation,  the menu’s vast diversity actually surprised us.

It’s a testament to his tremendous creativity and talent that Chef Maxime Bouneou can still surprise diners who for nine years reveled in his fabulous Italian creations at Torinos @ Home, the restaurant he founded with his beautiful bride and partner Daniela.  Surprises at Torinos were usually of the “I can’t believe how good this is” variety.  At Eclectic, surprises fall under the “I can’t believe he can prepare this so well” category, emphasis on “this.”  Frankly we shouldn’t have been surprised at the diversity of dishes he prepares so well.  Maxime isn’t a great chef who prepares great Italian food.  He’s a great chef who can prepare virtually anything!

Daniela and Maxime Bouneou

Maxime’s pedigree as a chef is very impressive though more diners are acutely aware he wowed (absolutely blew away is more like it) Food Network celebrity Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives than know that in his native France, he worked in Michelin two- and three-star restaurants.  Maxime’s ability to coax unbelievable deliciousness out of everything he prepares isn’t just a matter of talent.  He and Daniela are committed to using the highest quality, locally procured organic ingredients wherever possible.  Moreover, he absolutely loves what he does and continually works at improving his craft.

Daniela is the yin to Maxime’s yang.  They complete one another with a work and life synergy few couples ever achieve.  It’s been that way since they met in Nice, France where she was working as maitre d’ at a four-star hotel and he was the hotel’s promising sous-chef.  They were married shortly thereafter and moved to Santa Fe where they launched Torinos @ Home in 2006.  While the kitchen has always been Maxime’s domain, Daniela runs the “front of the house” with an incomparable elan.  Her buoyant personality makes her the perfect hostess where she shines unlike no other in New Mexico.  To say the Bouneous were beloved is an understatement.

An Eclectic Dining Room

In February, 2016, Maxime and Daniela sold Torinos, an event their adoring patrons believed warranted an apron flying at half mast. For months, we all speculated as to where they would land and even if they would remain in New Mexico.  Fortunately the Bouneous have fallen in love with the Land of Enchantment and in early April, 2016 announced the forthcoming launch of their next restaurant venture, an undertaking they named “Eclectic. Urban Pizzeria and Tap House.”    For months, legions of Facebook friends anxiously awaited the next snippet of news about the Bouneous return.  Along with a Web site depicting construction progress, the Facebook page was both a big tease and an appetite-whetting medium.

On Saturday, August 27th at precisely 11AM, Eclectic opened its doors, a “soft opening” in which Daniela and Maxime may have set a one-day record for most hugs dispensed (although Tim Harris might have something to say about that).   Guests were as happy to see the Bouneous as they were to sample their culinary fare.  By Eclectic’s official September 17th launch date, it’s probably accurate to say many of us fed by the Bouneous for years will already have fallen in love with Eclectic, a restaurant which more than lives up to its name.

Spicy Eclectic Olives Mix

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House is located on Menaul, about three blocks east of University.  Because there isn’t a direct turn-in to the restaurant from east-bound Menaul, you’ll have to double back if you took the University exit.  And because the pizzeria doesn’t have vivid, eye-catching signage and its storefront is a bit recessed from the street, you might miss it if you’re headed west from Carlisle.  If you are headed west from Carlisle and you see Twisters, you’ve gone just a bit too far.  Though your inaugural effort to find Eclectic might engender increased familiarity with Menaul, you’ll never again pass it by.  Nor will you forget it.

Eclectic’s ambiance is industrial, but warm with blonde woods, distressed red bricked walls, hand-scrawled menus on the wall, a corrugated bar and industrial style polished concrete floors.  Table legs are made from metal pipes, the type used in plumbing.  Menus on clipboards hang from hooks on each table.  Large south-facing windows let in sunlight.  Seating is more functional than it is comfortable though we’ve lingered long and happily during our first two visits with no ill effect.  Even al fresco dining is available thanks to a pet-friendly patio that doubles the pizzeria’s seating capacity.  This is just one cool place to be, especially if you’re dining with friends.

Wings Hot and Tangy

31 August 2016:  My friends Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor who, because of this blog, enjoyed a kinship without ever having met, accompanied me on our inaugural visit.  Walking into the restaurant was like old home week, a reunion of new and old friends.  No sooner had we stepped in than we espied the charismatic Ryan Scott, his winsome wife Kimber and their precious angel Judah.  Daniela and Maxime greeted us all like long-lost family.  That’s pretty much how they treat everyone–and one of the reasons Eclectic will soon become Albuquerque’s favorite pizzeria and watering hole.  Well that and the food.  Oh, the food… 

While a disclaimer cautions that the menu is subject to change without notice, in our experience every item on that menu is an absolute winner, a perfect ten.  The first section of the menu is titled “Start With” and it included eight starters, each as appealing as the other.  There are ten pizzas on the menu, including a “build your own” option.  Save for the Reina Margherita, a vegetarian pizza, and the Quattro Formaggi, the pizzas are unlike any you’ll find in the city.  Instead of the de rigueur “meat lovers” pizza for example, you’ll find a Nordik pizza with smoked salmon and capers.  There are four items on the “Not A Pizza” section of the menu, entrees truly befitting the term “eclectic.”  Those include roasted chicken, fish and chips, Chimichurri skirt steak a la plancha and beer braised short ribs.  Three sides are also available as well as four decadent desserts.

Hot “PHO” YOU

31 August 2016: As we perused the menu, we enjoyed a bowl of spicy, eclectic olives (some with pits). Brine-cured green and reddish, the olives are meaty, fresh and rubbed with a pleasantly piquant chile.  It’s not often, if ever, the flavor combination of briny and piquant is discussed on this blog, but the combination is surprising (there’s that word again).  The piquancy level of the chiles is a degree or two of magnitude more intense than pimentos stuffed into olive centers (as in the olives used on martinis), but without compromising on aroma and flavor.  Bruce Schor graciously allowed me to eat the single Thai bird pepper that helped give the olives their piquancy.  It was an eye-opener.

31 August 2016:  If he’s not Albuquerque’s foremost authority on chicken wings, Ryan is certainly their most prolific “appreciator.”  My friend loves chicken wings, but not just any chicken wings.  They’ve got to be better than good.  When chicken wings earn the Ryan Scott seal of approval, you know they’re imbued with greatness.  Ryan loved the “get your hands dirty” sriracha-lime wings at Eclectic.  The unlikely combination of intense piquancy coupled with tangy, citrusy lime works surprisingly well with an optimum balance of two strong flavors.  These meaty wings are accompanied with a buttermilk ranch dressing so good you’ll want to spoon it out of the ramekin, but it’s wholly unnecessary on the wings.

Big Dips and Dough

31 August 2016:  “Don’t tell me Maxime does pho, too?”  If that sentiment wasn’t outwardly expressed, it was certainly contemplated.  Yes, Maxime does pho and it’s one of Daniela’s favorite items on the starters menu.  Listed as Hot “PHO” YOU, it’s a spectacular soup though it could be debated as to whether it is or isn’t pho.  Pho is technically a noodle soup and there are no noodles on this piping hot dish nor will you find the distinctive, aromatic essence of star anise, but those are technicalities.  Call this “faux pho” if you will, but you’ll also be calling it absolutely delicious.  Instead of the swimming pool-sized portion served at Vietnamese restaurants, Eclectic’s version is served in a small bowl with  ladle.  Maxime’s interpretation of pho is made with generous pieces of chicken, bamboo shoots, cabbage, nuoc mam, garlic and cilantro.  It will blow you away!

31 August 2016: My friend Sr. Plata was on the first day of a low-carb diet when he espied big dips and dough on the menu.  Needless to say, his low-carb effort was delayed by one day.  Served with focaccia bread sticks is a triumvirate of terrific dips: humus, smoked trout and goat cheese, each a magnificent complement to the best focaccia you’ll find in the Duke City.  If the notion of “smoked trout” dip channels memories of slick-talking salesman Dan Aykroyd hawking a Bassomatic, you’re probably not alone.  Don’t let that notion stop you from enjoying this magnificent dipping sauce.  Great as the dips are, the foccacia is fabulous–a precursor to the quality of the pizza crust to be enjoyed later.

Eat Your Brussels Carley (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

31 August 2016:  There are two versions of Brussels sprouts on the menu, one with bacon and one without.  Sporting the curious appellation “Eat Your Brussels Carley,” they’re delicious with our without the pork candy.  Named America’s “most hated vegetable” in a 2008 survey conducted by Heinz, Brussels sprouts are almost universally reviled.  Many diners hate them without ever having tried them (probably because they heard someone else express their disdain for this villainous vegetable).  Andy Griffiths even wrote an anti-tribute to Brussels sprouts.  Entitled “Just Disgusting!,” its lyrics posit: “Who wouldn’t hate them? They’re green.  They’re slimy.  They’re moldy.  They’re horrible.  They’re putrid.  They’re foul.  Apart from that, I love them.”  You’ll certainly love Maxime’s version!

Roasted Chicken (Photo Courtesy of Kimber Scott)

31 August 2016: For many gastronomes the very notion of roasted chicken elicits if not an outward yawn, an ennui.   Leave it to Maxime to enliven what is often a ho-hum dish.  A generously applied pasilla chile and lime rub precedes a deeply penetrating heat roasting in the brick oven.  The pasilla imbues the chicken with a unique flavor.  Pasilla, the dried form of the chilaca chili pepper, is an aromatic, brownish red chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness.  It’s increasingly finding favor among bold chefs such as Maxime who are skilled at building concordant flavors with diverse ingredients.  The roasted chicken is served with a green mango chutney which complements the chicken very well.

Build Your Own Pizza: Gorgonzola, Sausage

31 August 2016:  Eclectic’s “Build Your Own” pizza offers more options than just about any pizzeria you’ll ever find–and not just the boring “usual suspects” line-up of toppings.  The build your own starts with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Cantal (a raw cow’s milk cheese with a pleasant milky aroma and a nutty, buttery flavor that finishes just slightly acidic).  It’s the canvas atop which you can build your own masterpiece.  Bruce (to avoid confusion with the other Bruce (Sr. Plata), let’s call him Bruce 1.0) added pork sausage and imported Gorgonzola, both excellent choices.  The first thing you’ll appreciate about an Eclectic pizza is the aroma which precedes it out of the brick wood-burning oven.  The taste and texture deliver on the promises made by the aroma.  Waifishly thin, the pizza is imprinted with a pinto pony char and just a slight cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza.  Both the sausage and imported Gorgonzola are first-rate.

North Shore

31 August 2016: Who says pizza has to be based on tomato sauce?  Certainly not Maxime who also offers one based on cilantro-pesto and another based on buttermilk.  Yes, buttermilk!  Unable to decide from among five tempting options, I asked the more decisive (and infinitely cuter) Kimber to order for me.  Her choice, the North Shore (cilantro pesto, roasted chicken, smoked bacon, pineapple, cantal and mozzarella cheese) was outstanding!  The cilantro pesto has a real zip that impregnates the wondrous crust thoroughly.  As always, the combination of pineapple and bacon proved magical, the two disparate ingredients playing off one another in contrasting harmony.  The bacon is thick and smoky, wholly unlike the tiny bacon bits some pizzerias use.  The true test of pizza greatness, however, is how it holds up to refrigeration–essentially how good it is for breakfast.  The North Shore is just as good cold the next day as it was out-of-the-oven.  This is true pizza greatness! 

The Nordik Pizza

6 September 2016: “How about dinner.  I know a place that serves great Viking food.”  Those words, uttered by the immortal Police Squad Lieutenant Frank Drebben gave me pause to reflect on Viking food and whether or not any restaurant in America actually serves it.  Not even Google  the Infallible (doesn’t that sound like a Viking name?) could find a single Viking restaurant across the fruited plain.  If a Viking restaurant did exist, they’d be well advised to copy Maxime’s Nordik Pizza (buttermilk, smoked salmon, capers, red onion, cantal and mozzarella cheese).  Only a pizzaioli genius could conceive of such a masterpiece.  He hadn’t finished his first slice when my friend  Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, declared it second only to the Funghi & Tartufo from Piatanzi as his favorite pizza in the world.  It is indeed a delicious pie, albeit one not everyone will enjoy.  The smoked salmon, in particular, has an intensely smoky, fishy flavor and aroma. 

Make Your Own Pizza

6 September 2016:  As a self-admitted mad scientist in the kitchen, experimentation with ingredient combinations brings me as much joy as frustration, as many successes as failures.  When the ingredient combinations don’t complement one another, it’s “curses, foiled again!”  Dazzling Deanell, on-the-other-hand, seems to have a Midas touch.  She always seems to know what to order at restaurants and, as we discovered at Eclectic, she knows how to put together a perfect pie.  The make your own beauty pictured above includes roasted red peppers, black olives, mushrooms and sausage.  Sounds pretty standard, right?  Not when the sausage is so magnificently fennel-kissed with notes of pleasant piquancy.  Excellent ingredients make for an excellent pizza.  Sausage will evermore grace any pizza we order at Eclectic. 

Paysanne

6 September 2016:  When my Kim espied a pizza named “Paysanne,” she thought the menu’s creator may have misspelled “Paisano”, an Italian term for compatriot.  While that might make good sense, the pizza’s actual name really is “Paysanne” and if there’s one term which defines Maxime’s genius it might be this one.  Paysanne describes meals prepared simply.  Even Maxime’s most complex dishes and most creative combinations aren’t a mishmash of designer ingredients thrown together.  Take the namesake “Paysanne” pizza, for example.  It’s constructed with buttermilk, smoked bacon, mushroom, red onion, olives, cantal and mozzarella cheese.  Simple, right.  It’s simply delicious, a flavorful feast for the eyes and taste buds.

Beer Braised Short Ribs

2 September 2016: My father-in-law loved short ribs, maybe even more than Adam did.  He would have flipped over the beer braised short ribs at Eclectic.  Martha Stewart once declared “there is perhaps no purer beef flavor than that of a short rib.”  Ironically, short ribs were once disdained by chefs as “poor man’s food.”  Under the right hands, however, this fairly modestly priced cut can be coaxed to rich, unctuous tenderness and complexity thanks to a basic braise.  At Eclectic, the short ribs are served sans bone, but somehow they retain the silken richness of bone-in short ribs.  Braised in beer, cherries and Pasilla chiles, the ribs are available in three sizes: small, medium and large.  The medium is the size of a small roast with huge flavors.

Rhubarb Cobbler

2 September 2016: With only five desserts on the menu, you’d think it would be easy to decide which one to order.  Under Maxime’s deft touch, they’re all bound to be great.  Bread pudding not being an option made the choice easier for me.  With fresh memories of the sumptuous peach cobbler at The County Line Restaurant there could only be one choice.  Served in a cast iron pan, the rhubarb cobbler is superb!  With a lip-pursing tartness, the rhubarb is counterbalanced by the sweetness of the ice cream and the savoriness of the pie crust.

Friends of Gil: Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Bruce Schor

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria may be the new kid on the block, but it may already be the answer to the supplications of pizza lovers across the Duke City for a transformative pie, one that’s not merely very good, but truly outstanding.  As Ryan pointed out, however, pizza may not even be the best item on the menu.  Repeat visits are a must!

ECLECTIC URBAN PIZZERIA AND TAP HOUSE
2119 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 322-2863
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2016
1st VISIT: 31 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy eclectic olives mix, Wings hot and tangy, Hot “PHO”YOU, Big dips and dough,Eat your Brussels Carley, Roasted chicken, North Shore, Beer Braised Short Ribs, Rhubarb Cobbler, Nordik Pizza, Paysanne Pizza

Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House 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.” 

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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.

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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

Slice Parlor – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Slice Parlor on Montgomery Just East of Eubank

British soul superstar Adele recently revealed to fans in Los Angeles “I can’t eat pizza anymore guys, how bad is that?”  She then proceeded to answer her own question about how bad it is: “It’s worse than Romeo And Juliet! If only Shakespeare was alive, he could write about it!”  So what would cause an admitted pizza fanatic give up pizza?  After having vocal surgery in 2011, she’s been advised to protect her voice and as Adele explained “because it’s got cooked tomatoes on it which are bad for your throat and give you acid reflux. How bad is that, that I can’t eat pizza, can you get over that?”

As a lifelong Catholic lacking the self-restraint to abstain from pizza for even the duration of Lent (that’s forty days for all you secularists), Adele’s perseverance prompted a bit of introspection.  Just what would it take for me to give up pizza?  Hmm, perhaps intense torture–such as being forced to watch an hour of The View–would do it.  Nah, as a guy motivated more by the carrot than by the stick, pizza would have to be replaced by something even better, if only it existed.  As with most Americans, pizza sauce runs through my veins and my blood type is P (for pizza) Positive.

House Calzone

In June, 2011, Duke City pizza aficionados celebrated the launch of yet another purveyor of our favorite pie.  Purporting to make “the finest and most authentic New York style pizza in Albuquerque,” Slice Pizza set up shop on Central Avenue in the heart of Nob Hill.  Aptly named, Slice’s slices are about the size of personal-sized pizzas at other pizzerias.  Full pies come in two sizes–eighteen-inches and twenty-four inches, virtually guaranteeing you’ll be taking half a pie or more home.  The menu showcases the versatility of pizza which is no longer just canvas for tomato sauce.  Slice also offers pesto pizza and “white” pizza (whole-milk mozzarella and dollops of ricotta cheese), both sans tomato sauce.  Gluten-free and vegetarian pies are also available.

Five years after launching its flagship Nob Hill parlor, Slice took its talents to the Northeast Heights, opening a second location on heavily trafficked Montgomery Boulevard.  Situated in a converted post office, the new slice of pizza heaven can accommodate some 100 diners if you include its commodious patio.  Diners who enjoy adult beverages with their pizza will appreciate the two-dozen beers on tap as well as a nice wine list.  They’ll also appreciate that Slice’s next door neighbor is slated to be another instantiation of the Marble Taproom.  As we don’t indulge in adult beverages when we’re driving, we got our jollies watching the wait staff jauntily traverse from table to table, their pace equaling that of the speed walkers at the Olympics.

Veggie Blanco (One Slice Cut in Half)

Our introduction to a slice from Slice was in the form of a Veggie Blanco (white pizza with garlic and feta) not something we normally order (my Kim actually asked me to order a regular Blanco (white pizza with fresh garlic and Italian sausage) but my attention was focused on an Olympic event on television).  Even cut in half vertically, each half of the slice is approximately the size of a slice at other pizzerias.  The sparsity of the feta made us pine for the sausage we could have been enjoying had my mind been on pizza and not on the beach volleyball event.

Not solely a pizza parlor, Slice also offers three calzone options including a “build your own.”  To the house calzone (homemade dough with fresh ricotta, premium mozzarella and Italian sausage), we added Canadian bacon and black olives–as well as quite a bit of saltiness.  Unlike many calzones which are roughly the size of a flattened football, Slice’s version is somewhat thinner, not as puffed up.  It’s roughly the size of half a standard (16″) pizza and nearly as thick as a Chicago-style pie.   The sauce, which contains Parmesan cheese (a dairy-free option is also available), is rather thin and a bit on the bland side.  We were able to finish only two of the four slices, leaving two for dinner.  These calzones will make your calzones (Spanish for underpants) feel more than a bit tighter.

Calzone Slice

My Kim didn’t get much argument from me that the best item on the Slice menu is the gelato from Van Rixel Brothers. That could be said about almost every restaurant in which Van Rixel gelato is offered.  What’s so great about this gelato?  Aside from having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream, texturally it’s also much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor.  High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally (the Van Rixel Brothers are Albuquerque-based), not shipped from afar. Two winning flavors are Venezuelan passion fruit and mango and smoked sea salt and honey caramel.  If only their portion size was equal to that calzone.

Now with two locations to serve Albuquerque, Slice Parlor serves slices as big as a half moon and pies the size of Jupiter.  Give Adele a month without pizza and she’d probably consume a whole pie.

Slice Parlor
9904 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 363-7261
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 August 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Venezuelan Passion Fruit and Mango Gelato, Smoked Sea Salt and Honey Caramel Gelato, House Calzone

Slice Parlor Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bricklight Dive – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Brickyard Dive, a UNM area favorite

If we really are what we eat, I’m fast, cheap and easy.

Fast, cheap and easy. That would certainly describe the stereotypical college diet, especially for freshmen. On their own for the first time, freshmen eat what they want when they want it. They load up their trays with junk food in heaping helpings so mountainous it would make Dagwood Bumstead envious. They fuel marathon study sessions with sugary snacks. Exercise consists of sixteen-ounce curls, clicking the remote and fork lifts. It’s no wonder the “freshman fifteen” myth–the belief that many college students pack on 15 pounds during their first year at school–exists.

A study out of Oregon State University concluded that college students are not eating enough fruits, vegetables and fiber in their diets (not even close) and that both male and female students derived more than 30 percent of their calories from fatty foods. Not since an internet security company revealed that the most common computer password is “123456” has such an obvious nugget been divulged. Anyone who’s attended college knows that students pretty much survive on anything they can get their hands on. It’s also much easier to drive through the nearest grab and gobble emporium than it is to walk into a store and purchase fruit.

The interior of Bricklight Dive

Now, if there’s at least a smidgen of truth in some stereotypes, you can take this one to the bank: the five food groups that form the building blocks for that stereotypical college diet are pizza, burgers, French fries, sandwiches and beer. Statistics—and I’ll provide only one–will bear this out. According to PMQ Pizza Magazine, the top-rated pizza trade publication, 25 percent of all college students order pizza three or four times per month while 17.5 percent order it five times or more. That’s a lot of pie!

Similar to many, if not most, institutions of higher learning, the University of New Mexico (UNM) area is practically glutted with providers of the aforementioned five food groups. UNM’s Anderson School of Business might attribute that to savvy businesses being in close proximity to where their target demographic lives. Within blocks of UNM, you’ll find dozens of inexpensive eateries including at least a half dozen independent and corporate purveyors of pizza. Many of them stock beer, the adult beverage of choice for students (some of whom would make beer the school mascot if they could).

Housemade pita chips with an olive tapenade

It’s easy to understand the concept of captive markets (and students, many of whom don’t have vehicles, are precisely that), but what accounts for the fact that UNM area restaurants are heavily trafficked by an older, more affluent demographic decidedly not of the student persuasion? Could it be we’re all trying to relive our collegiate experience? Do we like communing with younger, cooler crowds? Is it possible that restaurants in the UNM area are really that good? For me, it’s all about the latter. The UNM area has some very good restaurants providing outstanding value for the dollar. Moreover, they don’t all fall under the five food group categorization.

The Brick Light District, a long-established area boasting of both residential and commercial development and a very hip Bohemian vibe is a hub for several popular eateries. Directly across the street from UNM on Harvard between Central and Silver, the area is named for the street’s brick sidewalks and a pedestrian-friendly, relaxed pace exemplified by its logo, a turn-of-the-century (20th) cyclist leaning on his bike. It’s the quintessential college area for hanging out.

La Bella: Chicago-style Italian Beef with giardiniera and au jus; side of Caesar salad and pickle

In January, 2011, restaurant impresario Peter Gianopoulos launched a fast casual Italian restaurant in the District offering three (four if you count the occasional burger special) of the five collegiate food groups: pizza, sandwiches and beer. Fittingly its name is the Bricklight Dive. The “Dive” part is figurative because this quaint eatery hardly qualifies as either disreputable or run-down. If anything, this 1,200 square-foot Dive shouts fun, especially when the city’s ubiquitous winds allow use of the expansive outdoor patio.

Painted in “tagger” style directly over the exit to the porch are the words “manzetta” and “porchetta,” two of the restaurant’s sandwich options. The menu (even the one on the Web site) resembles the black-and-white composition notebooks college students of last century used. Flat screen televisions flank the slate board menu on which featured fare is scrawled in multi-hued chalk. On the day of our inaugural visit, two notices were inscribed on the community board: “ Chicken, pot, pie…my three favorite things” and “Ass, grass or cash. No one dines for free.” Anywhere else, these aphorisms would constitute workplace harassment; in a college dive, it’s all good fun.

Prima Pizzetta: Natural Pepperoni, Fire-Roasted Hatch Green Chile, Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella and Goat Cheese

The menu has a distinctive approach to calling attention to its priced-right-for-students structure. At the top of the page listing salad and pizzetta (a small pizza) options is the hand-scrawled note “Eat for $7.25” with the price crossed out, supplanted directly below with the even more reasonable $6.00. On the next page, porchettas, bruschetta, manzettas and panino started off at $6.25 but are marked down to $5.00. This discounted price approach works for used car sales and it works in college area restaurants. When school is in session, throngs of diners converge on the restaurant. It’s not quite as hectic on slow, sleepy Sunday mornings when students are in…church (?).

22 April 2012: Our inaugural visit to the Dive was prompted by the promise of “amazing Chicago style Italian beef.” It’s a promise we’ve heard before, but rarely outside of Chicago is it delivered upon. In the Windy City, Italian beef is practically a religion, albeit one in which the faithful worship at high counters on which we prop our elbows, careful to avoid excessive spillage of shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy on our attire. The menu describes the “La Bella” as “tender Italian beef, giardiniera, garden herbs, fresh Italian baguette.” By Chicago standards, it’s a middling quality Italian beef. The beef isn’t cut nearly as thinly as true Italian beef and it isn’t nearly as “moist” even though dipping it into an “au jus” made it moreso. The giardiniera is crisp and has a briny quality, but it’s chopped a tad too big to be sandwich friendly. This sandwich comes with your choice of housemade pita chips or a Caesar salad, both of which are quite good. Frankly, for the price, you’d have to say the Italian beef sandwich is quite good, too.

Pizzetta Bianco: Mozzarella, Spinach, Prosciutto and Garlic on an Artisan White Crust

In other restaurants purporting to serve pizzetta, the resultant pie resembles something prepared in an Easy Bake oven (a functional toy oven popular in the late middle 20th century). Typically its crust is dry and brittle, ingredients are desiccated and burnt and sauce is indiscernible. At the Bricklight Dive, the pizzetta is an individual-sized Neapolitan-style, thin-crust pizza made on white or wheat crust and topped with natural ingredients. It’s also better than many more highly regarded pizzas in town (and it’s not the college student in me talking here).

22 April 2012The Prima is constructed with natural pepperoni, fire-roasted Hatch green chile, slow-cooked tomato sauce and mozzarella (on top of which I requested goat cheese). More oblong than it is round, the pizzetta is indeed thin-crusted, but formidable enough to support the high-quality ingredients generously heaped upon it. The green chile has more piquancy than at some New Mexican restaurants.  With a crust that’s both crispy and soft and ingredients that are of surprising quality considering the price, this pizzetta will not only fill you up.  It’ll please your palate.

Italian Lover’s Pizzetta

22 April 2012:  The Pizzetta Bianca (mozzarella, spinach, prosciutto and garlic on an artisanal white crust) may be even better courtesy of the interplay of ingredients with salty (prosciutto), creamy and pungent (mozzarella), lightly astringent (spinach and garlic) qualities. Thin doesn’t mean you won’t have left-over pizzetta to take home, and if you do, you’ll find the pizzetta is almost as good cold as it is out of the oven.  Over the years diners have discovered that tomato sauce isn’t requisite in order for a pizza to be delicious.  This is a cheap-eats example of a pizza sans tomato sauce that works very well.

7 August 2016:  It’s easy to walk into the Bricklight Dive and focus solely on the menu you’re handed, but you owe it to yourself to study the specials of the day.  That’s where we found the Italian Lover’s Pizzetta (basil pesto, artichoke, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, goat cheese and candied walnuts).  More than any of the ingredients on their own, what we loved was the interplay of specific ingredients.  Candied walnuts and goat cheese, ingredients more often found on salads, make for nice pizza toppings, especially the candied walnuts which bring a sweet-savory dimension to a mostly savory pie.  Artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, two other salad standards, also form a good flavor counterbalance.  All in all, many Italians will indeed love this pizzetta.

Bruschetta Trio

7 August 2016: As a canvas for ingredients, there may be nothing better than bread.  On its own, bread is a favorite food for virtually every culture.  When topped with other ingredients, it’s even better. The Bricklight Dive offers six different bruschetta options, toasted artisan garlic bread slices with inventive toppings. Select any combination of three from among six options.  Our favorite, thanks to the interplay of flavor combinations that work well together is topped with Bartlett pear slices, goat cheese and candied walnuts.  Again, these are ingredients often seen on salads.  Another trio of toppings you’ll enjoy if herbaceous notes appeal to you is the bruschetta topped with Genoa salami, basil-walnut pesto and sliced tomatoes.  Balsamic-marinated mushroom, roasted red bell pepper and havarti for another terrific topping combination.

7 August 2016: The menu features three porchetta (slow-cooked and hand-pulled, housemade Italian-herb rubbed pork) sandwiches served with a pickle spear and your choice of our pita chips, lemon-Caesar salad or Tuscan potato salad.  About three dollars south of a ten-spot, the sandwich is crammed full of tender, herbaceous and sweet pork.  The “Verde,” topped with Hatch green chile and creamy havarti is my Kim’s favorite.  The havarti tempers the Hatch green chile’s piquancy, not something New Mexican fire-eaters will enjoy, but the most prominent flavor on this sumptuous sandwich is the Italian herbs with which the pork is rubbed.  You wouldn’t kick any of the accompanying sides off the plate, but because you have a choice, opt for the lemon-Caesar salad, a surprisingly tasty choice.

Porchetta Verde

Even if you can’t relive the good times of your college days, on occasion you should still eat like a college student. With restaurants such as the Brickyard Dive, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Bricklight Dive
115 Harvard SE, Suite 9
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-232-7000
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 August 2016
1st VISIT:  22 April 2012
# of VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pizzetta Bianco, Pizzetta Prima, La Bella (Italian Beef Sandwich), Pita Chips with Olive Tapenade, Caesar Salad

Bricklight Dive 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

Saggio’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pope John Paul II and other glitterati.

Pope John Paul II and other glitterati on the walls at Saggio’s

Where in New Mexico can you go to see his eminence Pope John Paul, II pontificate to Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn? Where can you go to see nattily attired cowboy John Wayne cavorting in a cerulean swimming pool with the material girl herself?  Where can you find Beetlejuice perched on a saguaro, looking on as other luminaries (including the Beetles and the Supremes) enjoy the pristine waters by the intersection of Central and Cornell Avenues? Only on the imaginative trompe-l’oeil murals which festoon the walls at Saggio’s can you engage in such fantasy.

The fantasy world begins on the restaurant’s Cornell Avenue frontage.  Approaching from the south, you might not even know you’re approaching Saggio’s because the name on the brick and mortar facade is “Lupo Rosso” which translates from Italian to “red wolf,” perhaps a tribute to the University of New Mexico Lobos whose uniform colors are cherry and silver.  Where you might expect windows, instead you’ll see a montage of sports images: Lobo legend Brian Urlacher hoisting the George Halas trophy overhead, Mia Hamm celebrating the United States gold medal win in soccer and Cassius Clay standing defiant above a vanquished Sonny Liston.

A meeting of creative minds: Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo

A life-sized ceramic status of Cassius Clay (before the world recognized him as Muhammad Ali) with all his triumphant sinew and muscle stands in front of a vintage Mercedes Benz yellow cab, its front and side panel serving as a sidebar in which some of the best cheesecake, cannoli and cake desserts in town are showcased.  You’ll also find life-sized statues of Babe Ruth, the New York Yankees’ Sultan of Swat and of Marilyn Monroe, laughing as her skirt billows upwards from a subway vent’s blast during the filming of the immortal The Seven Year Itch.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to select Saggio’s as one of the city’s most visually captivating milieus. There’s something to capture your eye no matter where you turn. Hanging plants drape down from the ceilings as do several LCD televisions (normally tuned to seasonal sporting events) strategically placed for optimal viewing.  The entire restaurant is replete with trompe-l’oeil, an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects really exist, instead of being mere, two-dimensional paintings. It’s a must see!

A Mercedes Benz Yellow Cab houses some of the best cheesecake in town

Years ago, a humble UNM area pizzeria named Nunzio’s, named for family patriarch Nunzio DiGregorio, used to prepare the best pizza in my universe as I knew it before moving to Massachusetts and experiencing East Coast pizza nirvana.  Ambitious efforts at expansion failed and the Nunzio’s trademark and recipes were sold. Ultimately, the DeNunzio family reopened under the name Saggio’s and still serves very good pizza.  In 2010,  Northeast Heights (2600 Juan Tabo, N.E.) residents could once again share in the Saggio’s experience with the opening of Fastino’s, a sort of scion of Saggio’s reborn and rechristened.

In 2005, Saggio’s was selected “best pizza” by Albuquerque the Magazine readers in the magazine’s inaugural “best of” issue. It repeated in 2007, yet in its annual food and wine issue in 2010, Saggio’s was selected as only the third best pizza in Albuquerque.  At each pizzeria rated, the magazine staff ordered a pepperoni pizza and rated it on its taste, appearance, authenticity and creativity.  After tallying points, the top five had a pizza “playoff” in which the finalists served the specialty pie of their choice as well as a pepperoni pizza.  Placing third is quite an achievement.

The Three Stooges

The Three Stooges on a wall at Saggio’s

In large part because of the restaurant’s experiential aspects, I’ve had Saggios as one of my top rated pizza restaurants in town for years and though an usurper or two has unseated it, it’s still one of the best in town.  This is the only pizza I’ve ever dreamed about (to the detriment of my pillow). Over the years Saggio’s has grown beyond being “just another” pizza restaurant as it now offers various pastas, salads, calzones, foccacia sandwiches and wonderful desserts, all of which are available for dining-in or carry-out.  Saggio’s is open seven days a week until at least ten o’clock in the evening.

It’s hard to get past the wonderful slices–still battleship large and featuring some of the best crust of any pizza I’ve ever had. The crust tastes, and more importantly smells, like fresh baked bread. It’s a delicious canvass for whatever ingredients you pile on it.  Pizzas are available in traditional Neapolitan crust or in a pan-baked Sicilian-style crust.  Two slices will make up an entire meal. Some claim slices are better than entire pies and this pizza isn’t quite as good served cold, but I’ve got no complaints. Saggio’s pizza makes no claim to New York or Chicago style. Each pizza is crafted with the utmost of care as if your repeat patronage is paramount.

Four slices of Saggio's pizza.

Four slices of Saggio’s pizza.

In addition to standard pizza offerings, Saggio’s gourmet pizza array is as impressive and diverse as you’ll find anywhere in the Duke City. The Thai chicken pizza features a captivating sweet and spicy peanut sauce that compares favorably to the sauces served at some Thai restaurants.  If you’ve ever been stranded in the culinary wasteland that is the Phoenix airport where the best dining option is probably California Pizza Kitchen, you might be familiar with Thai chicken pizza.  The California Pizza Kitchen is renown for their innovative pizzas, some, like the Thai chicken pizza, which are quite good.

Saggio’s version is much, much better.  Slathered onto a crusty ten-inch canvas is a spicy ginger and peanut sauce along with whole Spanish peanuts and grilled chicken.  The ginger-peanut sauce is reminiscent of some of the best peanut sauces we’ve had in Thai restaurants.  It’s not incendiary spicy, but does have a tongue- and taste bud tingling bite.  Gourmet pizzas are hand-crafted with your choice of tasty crusts: traditional, Rosemary whole wheat, basil pesto and chile.  Each gourmet pizza is ten-inches (or about the size of two slices) and is intended to serve one or two people.  Gourmet offerings are the Margherita, Portabello, New Chicken Alfredo, California Vegetarian, Florentine, Mediterranean, Spinach and Barbecue.

The Thai Chicken Pizza at Saggio's

The Thai Chicken Pizza at Saggio’s

Panini and focaccia sandwiches are crafted on Italian bread baked fresh daily with herbs and spices in the dough. Each sandwich is piled high (an exaggeration just about anywhere else) with specialty meats, provolone cheese, Romaine lettuce, roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes. Sandwiches are served with a pasta salad.  Among the sandwich offerings, the Napoli, a meatball sandwich on focaccia bread includes some of the best meatballs and sauce marriage I’ve had since Massachusetts some 30 years ago. The meatballs actually taste like meat, not some gritty filler. The sauce is a sweet and zesty marinara flavored with garlic and basil.

The football sized calzones are the among the very best in the city with a garlicky tomato sauce that imbues each calzone with richness and spice. They are baked in your choice of toasty crusts: traditional, Rosemary whole wheat, basil pesto and mozzarella. A family of four could probably share a calzone; that’s how large they are. The four meat (sausage, pepperoni, bacon, Italian beef) calzone is made with rich ricotta, pesto and mozzarella.

The Napoli, an excellent meatball sandwich

The Napoli, an excellent meatball sandwich

Frank Sinatra would love the Lasagna My Way because it truly is made the way you want it. The lasagna starts with noodles, ricotta and mozzarella then you choose two ingredients (meat or vegetarian) and a sauce. The meat selections include turkey, Black Forest Ham, sausage, Italian beef, chicken breast, proscuitto and shrimp) while the sauce options are marinara, Alfredo and basil cream with Roma tomatoes. It’s an excellent lasagna, easily large enough to feed two people or one UNM Lobo defensive tackle.

The pasta menu features many of the “usual suspects” but it really showcases some uniquely prepared entrees such as a tuna arrabiata and an incendiary shrimp diablo, a dish not for the faint of heart or the timid of taste bud.  One of my intrepid readers recognized me as a fellow masochist when it comes to spicy food and urged me to try it.  He described it as coming in a variety of heat levels though he gets his extra spicy (spicy or medium is probably the norm for most).  This is indeed an eye-opening (maybe eye-watering) pasta dish, its heat coming from a surfeit of sauce impregnated with those potent pepper flake seeds, but it also has a discernible garlic flavor as well.  The shrimp are bigger than some lobster tails I’ve seen.  They’re also sweet and succulent.

Shrimp Diablo, not for the faint of heart or timid of taste bud

A sub-section of the pasta menu is called the “Matrimonio de A’More,” a play of words meaning a “marriage of love.”  That aptly describes the melding of mix and match pastas and sauces which complement one another very well.  You are invited to select your choice of fresh-cooked pasta (spaghetti, penne, fettuccine, shells, linguine, bowtie) and sauce: Marinara, Alfredo, Cilantro Pesto or Basil Pesto (olive oil, Roma tomatoes and fresh basil).  All sauces are housemade daily on the premises.

The pasta dishes are served in humongous bowls, about the size of the bowls of pho served at many local Vietnamese restaurants.  Each is accompanied by a piece of warm, home-style Italian foccacia bread.  The spaghetti with meatballs dish will easily feed two.  The star of this dish is the meatballs, succulent orbs of deliciousness.  The pasta is prepared at just beyond al dente.  As with several of the pasta dishes at Saggio’s, the sauce is almost an embarrassment of excess; the sauce practically drowns the pasta and overwhelms the pasta a bit.

Spaghetti with meatballs

28 July 2016:  Obviously sympathetic with the student budget, Saggio’s offers a lunch size menu which is served all day long.  You need not be a student at the University to avail yourself of the bargains found therein.  Unlike some bargain-priced lunch menus where portions are on the parsimonious side, Saggio’s lunch size menu portions are prodigious.  If you’re used to calzones being the size of a semi-inflated football, you won’t get that, but you’ll still get a formidable calzone.  It’ll fill you up, not overfill you.  You’ll also do a double-take in reading the composition of that calzone: Pepperoni, Canadian Bacon, Italian Sausage, Italian beef, Ricotta, Mozzarella and Pesto all topped with Marinara.

If, like me, your first inclination is to wonder how you’re going to have to choose from among all those ingredients, you’ll be happy to hear they’re all to be found in each and every lunch size calzone.  With all candor, my server apprised me that the calzones are pre-made (and are certainly reheated upon order).  Texturally, the calzone is a bit on the chewy side, a challenge for the plastic fork and knife to penetrate and cut.  Once you’re able to “breach the hull” you’ll delight in all those meats and cheeses.  Amazingly, the calzone is served with a side Caesar salad.  Every item on the lunch size menu is well south of ten dollars.

Lunch-Sized Calzone

Desserts are deliciously decadent creations made by Eli’s Cheesecake Company of Chicago, a Windy City institution. Offerings, all nattily displayed in the unique Mercedes Benz yellow cab include several extraordinary cheesecakes–the phenomenally tasty turtle, the luscious key lime, magnificent Mississippi Mud and the moccachino cheesecakes among them plus some of the best chocolate cannoli in town.  Perhaps it’s solely my imagination, but it seems you can have a different cheesecake every visit to Saggio’s. 

You can also find Eli’s Cheesecake at Fastino’s, the fresh fast food concept owned and operated by the Saggio’s braintrust.  Housed in a former Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits, Fastino’s is tailored more for the gobble-and-go culture than for the stay, scarf and study confines of Saggio’s.  A cavalcade of vehicles snakes through the convenient drive-through at all hours in which Fastino’s is open.  Slices of pizza and sandwiches are the most popular draw, but a number of surprisingly gourmet-style pasta dishes (such as Cajun lobster ravioli, Shrimp Puttanesca and Veal Saltimboca) and salads are also available as are a number of breakfast sandwiches.  The restaurant, though much smaller than Saggio’s still boasts those realistic murals by Scott Kuykendall.  

Cinnamon-Chocolate (left) and Turtle Cheesecakes

Cinnamon-Chocolate (left) and Turtle Cheesecakes

During any given visit to Saggio’s, you just might run into University of New Mexico Lobo athletes and their coaches.  This is the quintessential college area restaurant, but it’s frequented not only by students.  Everyone in Albuquerque knows about Saggio’s and most love its pizza.
Saggio’s

107 Cornell, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-255-5454
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 25
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cheesecake, Chocolate Canoli, Thai Chicken Pizza, Sausage Pizza, The Napoli, Shrimp Diablo, Lasagna, Lunch Size Calzone

Saggio's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Olive Branch Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Olive Branch Bistro in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights

The depiction of a dove in flight with an olive branch in its beak is common in early Christian art and tradition.  The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit while the olive branch is seen as a symbol of peace.  Christian tradition, as chronicled in Genesis 8:11, describes a dove carrying an olive branch to signal the cessation of flooding throughout the world after forty days and forty nights of rain: “And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” 

Greek mythology mentions the olive branch numerous times, including during a tale of a competition between Athena, the goddess of the wisdom and Poseidon, the god of the sea.  With both immortals vying to become the patron deity of Athens, the victor and recipient of the city itself would be determined by which of the immortals bestowed the city with the best gift.  Poseidon stuck his massive trident into the ground to create a well of briny sea water, a fairly useless gift.  The wise Athena then planted a simple yet infinitely more useful  olive tree beside the well.  Athena’s gift was judged to be superior, earning her the title of patron deity of the city.

Athena and Poseidon Watch Over You As You Dine

A large mural on a dining room wall at the Olive Branch Bistro in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights depicts both deities as well as the Parthenon, the temple on the Athenian Acropolis.  It’s not every restaurant in which two imposing Olympian gods watch over you as you partake of traditional and contemporary Mediterranean cuisine.  Then again, not every restaurant has the history and heritage of the Olive Branch. if you’re scouring your memory banks for recollections of the Olive Branch, you need go no further than March, 2016 when the restaurant opened its doors at the site which, for the previous 34 years, housed the beloved Duke City institution, the India Kitchen.

Before there was an Olive Branch Bistro, however, there were a couple of food trucks prowling the mean streets of Albuquerque plying their mobile kitchen wares for the teeming masses.  One of those food trucks, the Greek Geek specialized in seven-inch pita pizzas and gyros.  The other, Hot off the Press, earned a following on the deliciousness of their Cubano and grilled mac and cheese sandwich.  Ryan Seabrook (Greek Geek) and the duo of Michelle Haskins and Karen Seabrook (Ryan’s mother) joined forces to launch the Olive Branch.  Instead of kitchens on wheels with no permanent seating for their guests, the triumvirate now offers 58 seats for guests and a kitchen in which the walk-in refrigerator eclipses  their previous working spaces

Bread and Olive Oil

Though sporting a Montgomery address, the Olive Branch Bistro is set back quite a ways from the heavily trafficked street (which sometimes doubles as a racecourse).  Its signage doesn’t beckon you either.  In fact, unless you’re looking for it (or at least looking for the India Kitchen), you might not find it.   Fortunately Heidi Pinkerton, the second most prolific contributor (behind my friend Larry McGoldrick) to Zomato waxed poetic about her inaugural experience: “Lamb, lamb, lamby lamb…oh my goodness, the best lamb that I have had in Albuquerque!”  Heidi had me at “lamb.”

Lamb, the other red meat, isn’t as prominent on the menu as you might expect for a restaurant specializing in Mediterranean food.  There’s plenty of beef and chicken, too, as well as several items in which meat doesn’t play a part at all.  The menu is a sort of “best of” compilation of items once offered at the Greek Geek and Hot Off The Press.  That means there’s something for everyone.  The “House Favorites” section of the menu, for example, showcases favorites from the Hot Off The Press days such as twice burnt tacos and the original Cubano.  The Grilled Sandwich section pays tribute to other Hot Off The Press creations such as the Grilled Mac and Cheese.

Italian Nachos

The “Mediterranean” section of the menu lists a number of Greek Geek favorites such as lamb and chicken gyros.  The menu also offers a number of burgers, salads and the incomparable seven-inch pita pizzas made famous by the Greek Geek.  The menu purports to offer an “irresistible blend of Mediterranean and American cuisine” with “recipes inspired by authentic Mediterranean dishes brought back from Greece, Turkey and Italy, with a touch of Albuquerque.”  If that doesn’t have you reaching for your car keys, you should see the housemade desserts, all made from scratch “with love.”

As you peruse the menu and wrestle with the many choices available, a basket of bread with olive oil is brought to your table.  It wasn’t the “peasant bread and a floral-olive oil” Heidi Pinkerton described in Zomato, but that’s probably an anomaly.  It may, in fact, have been fortuitous for us that the bread was somewhat stale because we didn’t polish it off quickly and ask for more.  On the other hand, the bread and olive oil were the restaurant’s opportunity to make a good first impression and it didn’t do so.  Luckily everything else made up for it, but we were dubious.

Lamb and Chicken Gyros

Italian Nachos (tortilla chips, Mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, green and black olives, pepperoncini and balsamic vinegar) would make a good impression on any discerning diner.  Unlike the Mexican and New Mexican nachos to which we’re all accustomed, Italian Nachos are an adventure into the unexpected, offering a flavor profile of contrasting and complementary ingredients that go very well together.  The salty richness of the cheese pair is a nice counterbalance to the pickled, lip-pursing tanginess of the pepperoncini.  You might be surprised at just how different green and black olives taste.  Then there’s the Balsamic vinegar which has both acidic and sweet notes.  You’ll scoop up these nachos with alacrity. 

Gyros, the traditional Greek fast food wrap stuffed with meat, vegetables, and Tzatziki, are served open-face style at the Olive Branch.  A large, flat pita served warm is topped with the restaurant’s signature lamb or chicken, black olives, tomatoes, feta and your choice of traditional or spicy Tzatziki sauce.  For a blend of flavors, ask the accommodating staff for both lamb and chicken.  Both are good.  If you like sharp, tangy feta, you’ll appreciate the large chunks which adorn the gyro.  For me, there can never be enough Tzatziki, that sauce made from Greek-style yogurt, diced cucumbers, dill weed and a small amount of vinegar.  Make sure you ask for a second portion, and make it the spicy version which packs a punch.

The Kraken

“Release the Kraken!”  If everything you ever learned about Greek mythology comes from the campy 80s movie Clash of the Titans, you probably believe the Kraken is a mythological sea monster released by Zeus to destroy Argos for its insolence.  In actuality, the Kraken is nowhere to be found in Greek myths.  Its origins are Nordic.  In any case, you’ll be happy that the Olive Branch has released The Kraken (the restaurant’s signature lamb piled on a ground beef patty topped with feta, spicy or traditional Tzatziki sauce and pepperoncini) on its burgers menu.  The combination of a ground beef patty and lamb brings out the best in both, but my favorite elements on this behemoth creation–where its personality comes from–is the spicy Tzatziki and lip-pursing pepperoncini.  The Kraken is served with fries (out-of-a-bag and nothing special).

The dessert menu is scrawled on a strategically placed slate board you’ll ponder throughout your meal.  It features such intriguing items as a ricotta cheesecake, baklava and pecan pie, again all housemade and made from scratch “with love.”  You can certainly taste the love in the Loukoumades, a type of Greek doughnuts (or more closely resembling donut holes).  Where traditional Loukoumades are generally  served with honey syrup and cinnamon, the Olive Grove takes creative liberties.  The Olive Branch injects chocolate and caramel into the center of a Loukoumades and tops them with even more chocolate and caramel.  What could be better.  Well, maybe one with key lime in the middle or one with cherry and peach.  Served piping hot, they’re a delightful treat.

Loukoumades

Another Olive Branch specialty is the restaurant’s chocolate cheesecake.  Delightfully dense cheesecake on a Graham cracker crust–what’s not to like?  Chef Ryan Seabrook admits to not liking chocolate, but to enjoying this cheesecake which he told us “tastes like ice cream.”  It does indeed, albeit room temperature chocolate ice cream that doesn’t melt.  Sweet and delicious as these desserts may be, they pair well with the restaurant’s pomegranate-lemonade, a thirst-slaking beverage that’s sweeter and not as tangy as regular lemonade.

Chef Seabrook checked up on us several times during our visit.  He’s an engaging fellow with an aim-to-please customer orientation that’s reflected on the restaurant’s wait staff.   Because everything is made to order, a meal at the Olive Branch is nicely paced, not rushed. There’s something to see on every one of the restaurant’s walls, including tea towels with recipes for Greek standards.  Then, of course, there’s the mural of the Olympic gods watching over you as if to make sure you finish everything on your plate.

Chocolate Cheesecake

It’s not every food truck that translates well to a brick-and-mortar operation.  The Olive Branch Bistro has the pedigree and following to be successful, perhaps even to experience the longitude of its predecessor, The India Kitchen.

Olive Branch Bistro
6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2291
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 4 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chocolate Cheesecake, The Kraken, Gyros, Italian Nachos, Loukoumades

The Olive Branch Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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