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J.J.’s Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

J.J.'s Pizza on Menaul

J.J.’s Pizza on Menaul

“Locally owned and operated.”  It’s a concept I celebrate on my blog in paying homage to intrepid moms and pops who risk it all to compete with the ubiquitous corporate chains.  I trumpet the fact that locally owned and operated restaurants can be unpredictable, that they prepare food to order instead of thawing something out which was shipped from corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away, that you can get to know the great families who own them, that those families have very personal investments and take immense pride in their products.

Justin (JJ) Salazar’s ideas as to what constitutes “locally owned and operated” mirror my own.  In his words, local should mean that “a business is owned by someone who lives in town (not just a mailing address), that there is no parent company (franchise) taking the proceeds to another town, and that the owner works in the business.”  JJ knows that “nobody cares as much as an owner and that it does no good if the owner’s not in the store.”  He plans on passing on his business to his children so you know his heart is in his investment.

The interior of JJ’s

J.J. grew up in Albuquerque, just a couple of blocks from Central Avenue in the UNM area where he frequented Nunzio’s, then the undisputed best independent pizzeria in town.  As a teenager he was fascinated with the art and science of cooking, particularly the chemistry and processes that create different breads.  This knowledge served him well as he moved up the ladder from driver to general manager in one of the busiest Pizza Hut franchises in New Mexico.

His time at Pizza Hut served to intensify his appreciation for independent pizzerias, an appreciation he would nurture in California where he immersed himself in studying and training for the day he would launch his own independent pizza restaurant.  It would take borrowing from every source he could find before J.J. would realize his dream, the type of personal investment many mom and pop restaurant owners make in their restaurants.  The price of a dream can be very costly.

Before there were video games....

Before there were video games….

From the outside, J.J.’s Pizzeria resembles many other independent pizzerias with little of the flash and panache of the behemoth pizza chains which are ultimately more style than substance and whose copycat products reflect the impersonal investment of their parent chain.  When you walk in, don’t expect the typical rehearsed wait schtick of insincere chains.  J.J. himself greets you as he might a guest at his home.  It’s yet another aspect of independent restaurants I appreciate.

Positioned above the counter at which you place your order is a menu which at first browse resembles the menu of many a pizzeria.  Pizza is available in small (a personal size eight-inch beauty), medium, large and extra large sizes.  A panoply of specialty pizzas includes meat lovers options (including a barbecue beef pizza) as well as vegetarian friendly pizzas.  You can also construct your own from a phalanx of available ingredients.  Eleven different hot subs, calzones, salads and even spaghetti are also available.

The Ranchero Pizza at J.J.'s

The Ranchero Pizza at J.J.’s

On one corner of the restaurant are positioned three video games.  No, not the modern hand-held video games.  J.J.’s got the precursors of today’s innovative digitally enhanced multi-platform games.  These are the video games of the 1980s, the type of which could be found in drugstores, laundromats and game rooms two decades ago.  J.J. grew up playing these games and still has a soft spot in his heart for them.

So what makes J.J.’s pizza different?  It certainly starts with the crust.  Dough is made fresh from scratch in the store every day, a recognition that living dough makes better bread than frozen dough.  The crust has deep hues of brown and gold, the speckled char to which all great pizzas aspire.  The crust is baked in a Middleby Marshal PS260 pizza oven which cooks hotter meaning the dough never comes out doughy and all the toppings are cooked thoroughly.   Only 100 percent never-frozen, real mozzarella cheese is used on each pizza.

A large pizza: half Ranchero and half barbecue beef

A large pizza: half Ranchero and half barbecue beef

1 July 2009: During my inaugural visit, J.J. himself recommended the Ranchero (pictured above), a personal sized pizza topped with pepperoni, ground beef, bacon and green chile.  It was an astute recommendation from an obviously very proud owner.  The Ranchero is an excellent pizza!  It arrives at your table steaming hot and cooked all the way through.  The crust is pliable, with enough bend that it can probably be folded like New York style pizza.  It is a terrific crust, the type of which will remind you of great bread right out of the oven.  The sauce is thick, well-seasoned and hearty.  The ingredients, particularly the green chile, are top notch.  The green chile has a nicely roasted flavor and just a bit more piquancy than most Duke City pizzas.

23 August 2009: Being an independently owned and operated family business means you have the latitude to do what you want; you don’t have to follow the corporate regimen.  If you ask for a unique combination (within reason), JJ’s can prepare it for you.  You can, for example, ask for a half Ranchero (pepperoni, ground beef, bacon, green chile) and half barbecue beef and it will be delivered to your table.  The barbecue beef pizza is topped with handfuls of barbecue beef and red onion, each slice offering some of both.  The beef has a faint smokiness and is imbued with a sweet and tangy sauce.  It’s the type of beef which would go well in a barbecue beef sandwich–which is a good thing because the menu offers it as one of eight hot subs–ranging in size from five-inches to ten-inches–on the menu.

Meatball Sub

 

21 April 2015: The hot subs include turkey, Italian, roast beef, Albuquerque turkey, BBQ, club, ham and meatball.  If the meatball sub is any indication, JJ’s is no slouch in the sandwich department.  You’ll want the ten-inch meatball sub which arrives at your table sliced in half.  A generous number of meatballs smothered in a thick marinara are nestled in a lightly toasted roll and topped with shredded mozzarella.  There’s very little, if any, filler in the meatballs which are just slightly larger than bite-sized.  Because the marinara is so thick and tomato-rich, this may be the least messy meatball sub in town.  Not quite fully melted, the shredded mozzarella is a nice change from the gooey, molten blanket of cheese which usually tops meatball subs.  It’ll be hard to top this sub!

Albuquerque has a surprising number of very good independent pizzerias.  When J.J. Salazar entered the fray, he knew his product had to be a cut above in order to compete. It is!  If personal investment, a terrific product and owner involvement count for anything–and they should–J.J.’s Pizza will continue to win over a discerning Duke City market.

J.J.’s Pizza
4111 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 883-6962
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2015
1ST VISIT: 1 July 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Ranchero, BBQ Beef Pizza, Cinna-Munchies, Meatball Sub

J J's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub in Rio Rancho

If you’ve ever wondered why the term “pink elephants” has long been recognized as a euphemism for a drunken hallucination, credit author Jack London. In his autobiographical tome, he described himself as “the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.”

When we first heard of the Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub in Rio Rancho, we wondered if it, too, was  a euphemism for adult beverage overindulgence.  Frankly, the reason behind the name is almost as good as Jack London’s euphemism.  The sobriquet was bestowed upon co-owner Peter Apers by his mentor as he was teaching Apers to play the blues on guitar.  One of that mentor’s favorite television personalities was Caine, the David Carradine character in Kung Fu whom the Shaolin master called “grasshopper.”  Hence “Blues Grasshopper.”

The cozy, comfy confines of the Blue Grasshopper

In 2014, Livability.com named the Duke City as “America’s best mid-sized city in the country for beer.”  With nearly thirty brewery and tap room restaurants (as of this writing), Albuquerque metropolitan area  cerevisaphiles certainly have their pick as to where to imbibe their favorite beer.  Initially the Blue Grasshopper served beers from other local breweries, but with the advent of a new year (2015), they now have their own beer on tap. 

So besides its name, what distinguishes the Blue Grasshopper from all the competition?  Two things come to mind immediately.  The first is the nightly live entertainment showcasing the best in local talent in several genres: pop, rock, jazz, country and more.  The second is pizza, nine twelve-inch pies prepared in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy.   There isn’t much else on the menu and what there is might best be described as “bar snacks.”

Bar Snack

As long as there have been bars, pubs, taverns, bodegas and beer halls, there have been bar snacks, the type of which are served at the Blue Grasshopper.  Salty and flavorful, these bar snacks are intended to make you want more adult beverages.  A bowl of these bar snacks features pretzel sticks, hard and dry pumpernickel and rye bread pieces; and cheesy, salty and garlicky bite-sized pieces of goodness that will tide you over until your pizza is out of the oven. 

Although you can choose all the ingredients with which to build your own pizza, the nine pies on the menu will sate most of us.  Pies range from the simple (cheese pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella) to the gourmet (chicken pesto with pesto sauce, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and chicken).  Hatch green chile can be added to any of them.  All pizzas are made-to-order.

The Margherita

If you want the pizza that started it all, you’ll order the Blue Grasshopper’s version of the Margherita (tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sliced fresh tomato).  It’s a pretty basic pizza which would be improved with even more fresh basil.  The crust has a light char and is is chewy, but formidable enough to hold up against the weight of copious ingredients. The combination of tomato sauce and fresh, sliced tomatoes is a nice touch as is the cheese blend.

Copious ingredients is what you’ll find on Greg’s Special, a pie topped with pepperoni, spicy Italian sausage, black olives, green olives, Hatch green chile, tomato sauce and mozzarella.  What a pleasant surprise to enjoy both black and green olives with all their similarities and dissimilar flavor properties.  The Hatch green chile has a nice roasted flavor and just enough piquancy to be discernible.  The olives, green chile and tomato sauce are all acidic with only the mozzarella and crust to temper those properties.  Still, it’s an excellent pizza.

Greg’s Special

Launched in October, 2014, the Blue Grasshopper occupies the space which previously housed a Quizno’s Sandwich Restaurant.  No vestiges of the previous tenant remain in the  formerly narrow and long retail strip center space which has been expanded to 2,000 square-feet with a seating capacity of 60 or so. Long gone are the sandwich assembly stations and bread ovens. In their place is a single pizza oven imported from Italy.  It’s a pizza oven from which emerge pizzas cerevisaphiles and pizza aficionados will enjoy.

Blue Grasshopper Brew Pub
4500 Arrowhead Ridge Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 463-3169
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 February 2015
# OF VIS
ITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Margherita Pizza, Greg’s Special, Snack Mix

Blue Grasshopper on Urbanspoon

Giovanni’s Pizza & Subs – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Giovanni’s, arguably the very best New York style pizza in the Duke City

Frequent and lengthy business trips to California in 1997 nearly ruined me forever for a food that belongs on America’s food pyramid (never mind the government’s nutritional aspects)–pizza.  Despite an open mind and willingness to try anything, the heretical toppings adorning Golden State pizzas quelled and quashed what I had thought to be an everlasting love.  Even today, I’m traumatized by nightmares of pesto impregnated  crust desecrated with sushi grade sashimi, artichoke and the designer vegetable de jour.

Returning to the Land of Enchantment with the taste of pizza parodies fresh on my mind, it was weeks before I could bring myself to even contemplate partaking of the pie Italians (and those who wish they were) consider sacred.  Then we discovered Giovanni’s Pizza & Subs, a neighborhood pizzeria in the finest tradition of East Coast pizzerias.  Giovanni’s is one of several Duke City area pizzeria claimants to proffering “New York style” pizza. In my estimation and that of several Metropolis transplants of my acquaintance, it’s also the very best.

The “I love me” walls at Giovanni’s

New York Yankee memorabilia, framed Mafioso movie photos and an “I Love Me” wall replete with dozens of favorable review clippings and awards told us this restaurant might be more than just another “New York style” claimant.  Could the fact that the pizzeria’s proprietors, the Zito family moved to Albuquerque from Italy via Queens possibly portend the best of both the birthplace of pizza and the city in which it is incomparably crafted?  As they say, the proof is in the pie.  On paper–or rather, on the walls–there are accolades a plenty attesting to the greatness of Giovanni’s.

In its annual food and wine issue for 2010, Albuquerque The Magazine undertook the enviable quest of selecting the very best pizza in Albuquerque.  The magazine staff ordered a pepperoni pizza at each pizzeria visited, rating it on taste, appearance, authenticity and creativity.  A pizza “playoff” ensued among the five finalists with each one serving a specialty pie of their choice as well as a pepperoni pizza.  The premier pizza in Albuquerque, the very best from among nearly 40 pizzas rated,was Giovanni’s.  That surprised virtually no one who knows and appreciates pizza greatness.

Sicilian style crusted pizza topped with garlic, onion, Canadian bacon and green chile (on one side)

Later in the year–November 10, 2010, in fact–Giovanni’s made it to the national spotlight.  USA Today asked local experts to name just one great pizza parlor in each state and the District of Columbia.  The New Mexico selection was none other than Giovanni’s Pizzeria.  According to USA Today, “local foodies agree that Giovanni’s Pizzeria in Albuquerque makes the best pies. This is New York style thin-crust pizza crispy with a blackened spot or two and a good, yeasty taste.  But being New Mexico, green chile shows up frequently as a topping.  Specialty pizzas include the New Mexican with chicken, ricotta, garlic, red onions and green chile.  Both dough and toppings are made fresh daily in house.”

USA Today didn’t ask just any uncredentialed local expert to name New Mexico’s best pizza, nor was that task assigned to some nameless, faceless writer in New York City.  Giovanni’s pizza was recommended by Sally Moore, author of Culinary New Mexico, “the ultimate food lover’s guide” and one of my most trusted sources for information on New Mexico’s specialty food stores, cooking classes, wineries, bakeries, tortilla makers, food festivals and restaurants.”  Earlier in the year, USA Today trusted Sally to name New Mexico’s very best burger as well.

A beautiful slice

National notoriety is nothing new for Giovanni’s which has been named one of America’s Top 100 Independent Pizza restaurants more than a dozen times by Pizza Today, a highly respected trade publication which honors the industry’s highest grossing independent pizzerias.  Giovanni’s is as close to an authentic New York style pizzeria as you’ll find in the desert hamlet of Albuquerque, a practitioner of pizzeria perfection considered by many to be the best of its genre in the city.  It holds a special place in my heart because it restored my love of pizza.

Giovanni’s is renowned for its specialty pizzas, some of which aren’t offered anywhere else in the city.  The White Pizza (pizza bianca) features three heaping layers of cheese (mozzarella, Romano and ricotta), a rendition more than slightly different from the white pizza made famous in Connecticut which is crafted with fresh topneck clams, garlic, Romano cheese and olive oil–no tomato in sight.  Giovanni’s white pizza is almost too rich with its surfeit of  oleaginous cheese.  Better tasting and better for you is the green pizza, a spinach pie with a thick layer of Popeye’s favorite vegetable (Gilligan’s, too).

A large pizza with garlic, green chile, black olives, onions and Canadian bacon

Giovanni’s traditional pizzas are baked on a thin crust topped with ingredients of your choosing and baked in an oven until the crust has more than a hint of pinto pony char and the cheese has fully melted.  Thin crust here doesn’t mean some emaciated model-thin gourmet pizza crust you can almost see through.  This is New York style thin crust which means you can fold it in half horizontally and eat it sandwich style as they do in Metropolis.  It means a crust that you’ll have to hold from  both the top and from its tapered bottom.  It’s a challenge to hold in all the ingredients because Giovanni’s ingredients are piled on generously.  Unlike at some pizzerias, you don’t need to mount an expedition to find some of the ingredients you request.

Giovanni’s sausage, Canadian bacon and pepperoni are excellent while the garlic enriched tomato sauce is prominent without detracting from other ingredients.  More often than not, the green chile on your pizza will actually bite you back, an increasing rarity even among restaurants serving New Mexican food.  During a 2006 visit, a wandering vagabond came into Giovanni’s and asked for a slice of our green chile pizza.  Never one to deny a hungry man, I gave him two.  One substantial bite later and he was begging for water.

An Italian Burrito

6 February 2015: Italy meets New Mexico in a unique to Giovanni’s specialty called an Italian Burrito.  As explained by a server, it’s essentially a calzone shaped like a burrito.  That, and the beauteous char marks, are where the similarities end.  Instead of a tortilla wrapped around sundry New Mexican ingredients such as ground beef and beans, it’s a pizza crust wrapped around sausage, green peppers and green chile with a thin and watery tomato sauce more reminiscent of tomato sauce than marinara.  This burrito deserves a more substantial sauce or alternatively a thick dipping sauce.  The crust is a highlight.

Dessert options are limited, but who needs a compendium of confections when you’ve got some of the very best cannoli in New Mexico.  The cannoli is homemade–cylindrical tubes engorged with a sweetened, rich ricotta cheese sprinkled with confectioners sugar and decorated with semi-sweet chocolate chips.

Homemade cannoli, among the very best in town

Giovanni’s warrants and receives a salute from the many airmen from nearby Kirtland who patronize this restaurant heavily.  It’s the life’s blood of the nondescript and dying shopping center in which it is tucked away.  Were it anywhere else in the city, it might be plying its pizza to overflowing crowds.

Giovanni’s Pizza & Subs
921 San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-1233
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 6 February 2015
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Pizza, Cannoli, Italian Burrito

Giovanni's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon