Joe’s Pasta House – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Once a year, despite my protestations and whining, I agree to take my Kim to the Olive Garden.  It’s a deal we have, albeit one that makes me feel like  Faust in the Christopher Marlowe play.  Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a  scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  In my case, the deal is  a visit to Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year.  I sure got the rotten end of that deal.

On a list of things I’d rather do, my annual visit to the Olive Garden for a meal of cheese glop or tomato torture ranks somewhere below visiting a proctologist or watching The View.  Kim likes the salad and bread sticks and I suspect derives a bit of sadistic satisfaction in hearing me mutter polysyllabic epithets about the “Evil Garden’s” food.   The cultural anthropologist in me finds it both amusing and tragic that teeming masses congregate for pathetic pasta, mediocre marinara and boring bread sticks.  It makes me long for a visit to Joe’s Pasta house in Rio Rancho.

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

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

Joe’s Pasta House is the antithesis of the Olive Garden.  In the words of Bruce Schor, one of my astute readers  (and not solely because our tastes in food are fairly similar), “Joe’s represents real Italian food of the real comfort variety.”  The operative word here is “real.”  Joe’s is most often thought of as old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurant, the type of which have survived the onslaught of their supposedly more sophisticated brethren, the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants;  the type of which remain so popular throughout the East Coast.  Perhaps that’s why Joe’s is so beloved in Rio Rancho, the city so many call “little New York.” 

To label Joe’s as strictly a “red sauce restaurant” is to do a disservice to one of the most comprehensive Italian restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant which transcends labels in that it showcases the cuisines of Italy’s three distinct culinary regions: north, south and central.  Joe’s also prepares the familiar Italian American dishes developed by Italian immigrants, occasionally spicing things up with green chile, a tribute to the adopted home of proprietors Joe and Kassie Guzzardi.

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

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

Joe Guzzardi is a peripatetic presence with a buoyant personality and charm to spare. He visits every table to make sure his customers are enjoying their dining experience. “Mi casa es su casa” seems to be his mantra–and he really means it.  I once overheard him tell a guest who didn’t like the entree he ordered, “this is my house.  We’ll make you happy.” before proceeding to recommend entrees with a different flavor profile than the dish the guest didn’t like.   Joe’s energy, enthusiasm and customer orientation are mirrored by an attentive, well-mannered and highly professional wait staff that is easily among the very best in the metropolitan area. 

While Joe manages the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, his pulchritudinous partner Kassie oversees the restaurants social media channels, search engine optimization, blog and Web site presence.   In a day and age in which it’s become fashionable for restaurateurs to tout their social consciousness, Kassie was a pioneer in forging relationships with local suppliers to ensure the highest quality, most socially responsible and healthy foods possible.  She’s understandably very proud that Joe’s won’t feed guests anything the Guzzardi family wouldn’t eat themselves.

If you’re not careful you can fill up on the complimentary bread and the best bruschetta in New Mexico

That means hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and to the greatest extent possible GMO (genetically modified organism) free pasta imported from Italy.  It means grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, humanely raised veal and sustainably-caught fish.  Pastas and sauces are prepared in stainless steel pots, healthier vessels by far than their aluminum counterparts.  Only non-hydrogenated oil is used and it’s changed out every day, the remnants given to owners of vegetable oil-powered vehicles.   Unfortunately Rio Rancho’s solid waste infrastructure is currently incapable of providing the recycling capabilities to fully comprehend all of Joe’s needs, but the restaurant recycles as much as possible.  

As for Joe’s famous red sauce (so good I’ve joked with Joe that he should serve it in a shot glass), the secret is in the tomatoes.  Joe’s uses only imported, vine-ripened, hand-picked Italian plum tomatoes which have a wonderful, natural sweetness.  Now, there are two schools of thought about preparing sauce.  Joe is a proponent of not simmering his sauces for hours on end as opposed to the school of chefs who employ marathon-long simmering sessions (which tend to render tomatoes very acidic).  That’s one of the reasons Joe’s red sauce is much lighter in color.   It’s much more delicious, too.

Hot Antipasti for two

It may be hard to believe that Joe’s Pasta House occupies the former digs of an International House of Pancakes (IHOP), but what’s not surprising is that the restaurant consistently earns flawless ratings on all its restaurant inspections.  It’s an immaculate and attractive restaurant.   Sophisticated stylings include an exhibition kitchen under the cover of a burnished copper awning. The restaurant’s walls are festooned by artwork provided by the Rio Rancho Art Association.

Faux Italian marble columns, a mural painted by a deceased beloved Rio Rancho city council member, real napkins and linen tablecloths let you know this is more than a casual dining restaurant even though the reasonable prices might belie that fact.  Until 2009, the great Bob Morris sang at the Pasta House, his elegant voice delivering beautiful Italian arias and romantic ballads on weekend evenings.  Bob now lives in Texas, but is much missed by frequent patrons and the staff at the Pasta House. 

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

Stuffed Eggplant

In August, 2013, Joe’s began featuring delicious, fine, imported foods and confections for those evenings in which you’re craving Italian cuisine, but don’t want to leave home.  Almost immediately as you step into the restaurant, you’ll espy shelves replete with imported olive oils, pastas, olives, salts, risotto, nutella, pastas, mustard, cookies and so much more.  It’s not quite the next best thing to dining at Joe’s, but Kassie assures me this is excellent stuff. 

November, 2015: For some restaurants, having a presence in the community means little more than having a brick-and-mortar storefront with an address.  For restaurants which become beloved institutions within their communities, having a presence in the community means being part and parcel of the fabric of the community–being involved on a day-to-day basis in promoting all that is great about a community.  It means not only providing outstanding food and excellent service to guests, but getting to know them and treating them like family.  It means listening to their guests, taking their feedback–good and bad–and using it to continue improving.  It means being a neighbor and friend.

Fried Lasagna

That’s what   Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho has done.  Joe’s isn’t just one of the two or three best Italian restaurants in New Mexico, it’s an exemplar of what it means to be part of a community.  Because of her involvement with the community, Kassie Guzzardi, the effervescent co-owner of Joe’s Pasta House, was selected by Yelp as one of 100 owners of top-rated businesses from the U.S. and Canada.  With that well-deserved honor, she ws invited to Yelp’s “Coast-to-Coast: Coming Together Because We Mean Business,”  a networking opportunity in which Yelp professionals  shared marketing techniques with their brethren.  There’s no doubt Kassie also taught even Yelp’s marketing experts a thing or two about what it means to be part of the community.

Perhaps the only thing at the Pasta House as warm as the Guzzardi’s hospitality is the bread which arrives at your table shortly after you’re comfortably seated. There may be nothing as comforting as a basket of sliced bread and yeasty rolls baked in-house–unless, of course, it’s a dish of seasoned olive oil and various herbs and spices in which to dip that bread.  Joe’s Pasta House goes even further with a complementary plate of bruschetta crowned with a mixture of rich, red tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic and other savory ingredients. At most restaurants you would pay handsomely for such a treat.

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

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

Appetizers

Extreme care must be taken to ensure you don’t fill up on bread, great as it is. You also have to be doubly cautious so as not to fill up on Pasta House appetizers, some of which arrive in profuse portions which might constitute an entire meal elsewhere. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the Pasta House hungry!  The menu features several tempting appetizers and while such options as fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari are seemingly standard offerings at most Italian restaurants, live it up and try something unique to Joe’s Pasta House.  That something different might be the poppy seed shrimp, ten (yes, 10) jumbo shrimp sautéed with bell peppers, red onions and black olives in a tangy poppy seed sauce. It’s different and it’s delicious. 

15 January 2014: The menu offers six salads, most available in half and full sizes.  Our favorite is the Caesar salad which is classically interpreted then improved by Joe’s.  The traditional touches are large leaf Romain lettuce, shaved Parmesan cheese and croutons topped with Caesar dressing.   Joe’s touches include red peppers and a sole cherry pepper.  Caesar, after all, was Italian so these small additions are copacetic.  The Caesar dressing is applied lightly so you can enjoy the other salad ingredients.

Clams Casino

13 November 2012: Another unique appetizer is the hot antipasti for two, an entree-sized portion that features stuffed eggplant (with rich Polly-O Premium Ricotta Cheese from New Jersey), clams, calamari, shrimp and mussels baked and served with marinara sauce. The shrimp have that snap that signifies freshness and a sweet brininess that’s addictive. The marinara is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico–slightly sweet, barely acidic and wholly addictive, but it’s the eggplant that makes me want to sing like Bob Morris.  Prepared incorrectly eggplant can leave a “metallic” taste in your mouth that may last for days.  The Pasta House chefs know what they’re doing with eggplant!  By itself, it’s quite good, but the Pasta House tops it with melted mozzarella and bits of prosciutto. 

The eggplant is indeed exquisite.  It’s the type of dish which makes all your synapses fire as your taste buds try to discern the adventure of flavors going on in your mouth.  Texturally, the skin of the eggplant is soft, but not mushy.  The prosciutto is fairly mild and not nearly as salty as some prosciutto is prone to being.  The sauce is rich with tomatoes, basil, garlic and other spices.  This is an excellent appetizer, a wonderful way to start a meal. Regulars know the stuffed eggplant is standard fare on the daily buffet.  To offer his patrons more variety Joe removed the eggplant from his buffet and replaced it with another item.  That tactic lasted one day, a day he remembers for having made about 75 trips to the kitchen to prepare the beloved eggplant dish for his guests.

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp

17 January 2016: When we lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my Kim’s work-commute took her past pristine sandy beaches and spectacular blue waters. Alas, it also took her past several seafood processing plants, the malodorous emanations of which turned her off seafood for years. She won’t partake of seafood unless it is at the peak of freshness with absolutely no “fishy” smell.  She loves the seafood at Joe’s Pasta House.  It’s unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Her new favorite may be the clams casino. Created in a Rhode Island casino near the turn of the 20th century, clams casino (fresh little neck clams steamed in broth with garlic, red onions and bacon) are a magnificent mariner’s favorite.  The combination of crispy bacon and sweet clams is addictive.

10 August 2014: One of the menu items which best shows Joe’s versatility and creativity is the sweet and spicy shrimp dish, an appetizer which by name alone you might think would be a Chinese dish.  In actuality, Joe concocted this starter as a tribute to the predilection for piquancy among New Mexicans.  The piquancy is courtesy of a roasted pineapple Habanero sauce.  At about 350,000 Scoville units, the Habanero  pepper ranks as one of the most incendiary peppers on Earth.  Not always sufficiently appreciated is its citrus-like properties.  It’s those properties which complement the roasted pineapple so utterly well.  To temper the sweet notes of the pineapple, the sauce is also replete with garlic and red onions.  The eight large shrimp are superbly fresh and have a discernible snap when you bite into them.  They’re served over a bed of fresh spinach.

Mediterranean Style Calamari

Addictive is an apt description for a lightly breaded eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese, prosciutto and sauteed spinach, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese.  Eggplant is the bane of my kitchen, a dish I’ve never been able to prepare well (hence my aforementioned references to “metallic” taste), but Joe’s rendition comes highly recommended by a trusted fellow gastronome and friend Dave Hurayt who calls it “exquisite…more than a full meal.”  Dave knows what he’s talking about.  He’s a world-traveler who’s experienced the very best in Italian food throughout Boston, New York City and Italy.  Another friend, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver calls this the very best dish on Joe’s formidable menu.  My Italian sister-in-law says it’s just like her sainted mama used to make. 

29 August 2014: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read “fried lasagna?”  More than a few of you will probably cringe in terror at the thought of Paula Deene slathering up a perfectly good lasagna with butter then frying it.  History recounts that lasagna has actually been fried well before the popular pasta dish was even called lasagna.  In fact a First Century recipe describes “lagana” as thin sheets of wheat flour dough with crushed lettuce juice, flavored with spices, then fried.

Fried Breaded Meatballs

Fast forward some twenty centuries and innovative restaurants such as Joe’s Pasta House are preparing the most indulgent and delicious fried lasagna you can imagine.  As expected, your fork will penetrate past a blanket of molten cheese and sink down into layers of delicious strips of lasagna noodles and ground sausage resplendent in one of Joe’s famous red sauces.  Much less expected is the piquant bite, the genesis of which is actually the sausage.  It’s not New Mexico chile piquant, but it’s got a bite to it. 

12 July 2015:  In recent years the term “fusion” has been widely used to describe the blending of two or more cuisines to create innovative and sometimes quite delicious dishes.  Though Joe would probably dismiss the term fusion, he does marry Italian ingredients and culinary techniques with those of his adopted home state to create uniquely delicious dishes which bring great credit to both cultures.  Among them is the fried breaded meatballs, a special offered in July, 2015.

Ziti Alla Vodka

Ziti Alla Vodka

The name “fried breaded meatballs” in and of itself may not sound especially interesting or delicious, but at the hands of Joe’s kitchen staff, these meaty orbs are quite wonderful.  Take four traditional breaded and fried meatballs, top them with a New Mexico green chile spinach cream sauce and melted mozzarella and you’ve got a rich, indulgent, absolutely decadent adventure in deliciousness.  While dense and coarse, the meatballs are mostly meat, not some filler.  They’d be terrific by themselves, but the green chile spinach sauce elevates them to rarefied status…and that sauce.  Oh, that sauce.  Bill Gates isn’t that rich.

29 August 2014:  In recent years the seemingly de rigueur calamari appetizer has fallen out of fashion, largely because it’s almost always prepared exactly the same way–strips or ringlets of breaded calamari served with a side of marinara.  Joe’s dares to be different, offering a “Mediterranean style” calamari that brings personality and zest to an appetizer which too often earns the adjective “boring.”  At Joe’s, this is one exciting calamari dish redolent with tangy and invigorating flavors. The fried calamari is topped with warm feta cheese, capers, artichoke hearts, red onions and kalamata olives in a lemon-butter sauce. It’s even better than it sounds and thankfully Joe’s serves it in a characteristically large portion size because you and your dining companion will be vying for as much of it as you can get.

Manicotti Bolognese

16 November 2013:  Joe’s fried breaded butternut squash and ricotta ravioli is one of those seasonal appetizers which may have you wishing it was autumn all year round.   Four raviolis, each the size of an iPhone are served with a piñon cream sauce so rich and decadent, it should come with a warning.  As addictive as the ravioli are, they’re also so rich you couldn’t possibly eat more than two, but you’ll relish every single morsel.  The butternut squash and ricotta combination is a perfect blend of semi-sweet and savory, buttery and creamy.  The sauce features not only woodsy New Mexico piñon, but nutmeg and cinnamon to accentuate the squash.  This is one seriously good, ultra rich, ultra delicious appetizer.

Entrees

7 April 2007: The menu is broken into several sections: fresh salads, appetizers, local favorites, traditional favorites, house specialties, seafood favorites and grilled entrees. Within each section are various options, all sure to please the most discerning diners. From the “Local Favorites” section comes a Mediterranean Pasta entree as good as you might expect to find at an upscale Greek restaurant. This dish is crafted with artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese sautéed in a white wine butter sauce all served atop linguine pasta (or you can substitute penne). Available with chicken or shrimp, it is richly calorific and served in a deep dish. You’re sure to have some left over.

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

Traditional Gnocchi

9 January 2014: Another local favorite not commonly found in Albuquerque area Italian restaurants (but extremely popular in New York City and which we’ve also had in the deep South) is the beguiling Ziti alla Vodka, Ziti pasta with prosciutto and scallions in a vodka pink sauce.  The sauce appears to be  combination of the restaurant’s rich Alfredo sauce and its meatless marinara with a bit of vodka splashed in and the alcohol cooked out.  It’s inventive and unconventional, creamy and rich, sweet and savory…and absolutely delicious.  The pasta is slightly more than al dente and the scallions appear to have been added after the entree is put together, offering a nice contrast.  The prosciutto is sliced into tiny morsels and offers a startling taste and texture difference that you can’t help but take notice.  This is an excellent entree.

4 August 2007: One of the restaurant’s richest entrees is the Fettuccini Carbonara (pictured above) made with green peas, pancetta and a heavy cream sauce that will put weight on you just by looking at it.  There are two Albuquerque area restaurants whose carbonara I recommend highly–Paisano’s Italian Restaurant and Joe’s Pasta House.  The commonality is a subtle balance of rich flavors and perfectly prepared pasta crafted from complementary ingredients.

Baked Cannelloni

14 May 2016: Though it’s easy to characterize Joe’s Pasta House as a “red sauce” restaurant, in truth the restaurant excels at a variety of sauces, some complex and some simple, but all delicious.  During a visit in January, 2011, we happened upon the former, a special of the evening my Kim’s friend Rosalie Marella makes in Chicago.  The label “special” certainly fits.  It’s rigatoni pasta and pork ribs, (old-world-style tender pork ribs slow-cooked in Joe’s homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil, olive oil and Romano cheese served over imported rigatoni pasta), an Italian dish showcasing a simple, but magnificently executed tomato sauce.  Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this addictive dish is the interplay between the acidic tomato sauce and the rich, creamy, sharp flavor of the Romano cheese which Joe applies in perfect proportion to impart a discernibly magnificent contrast.

The pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty (porky?) enough for Fred Flintstone.  It’s easy to extricate the pork off the bone, but your inclination will probably be to pick them up and gnaw off that pork with your hands.  It’s a messy proposition considering the tomato sauce, but then that’s what napkins are for.  The rigatoni pasta is prepared at just slightly past al dente,  but certainly not nearly to the level of the squishy, mushy overdone pasta served at the restaurant at which I’m forced to eat once a year.

Rigatoni Pasta and Pork Ribs

23 January 2011: As smooth as degustation (a sensory (taste, smell, tactile, experience) appreciation of a meal, especially with good company) tends to be at Joe’s, there are some meals  which are thoroughly enjoyable while you partake of them at the restaurant, but not so enjoyable if you’re prone to indigestion later.  One of these is the Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp special, a sinfully rich dish of lobster and ricotta engorged ravioli topped with sauteed shrimp, fresh peas and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce.  It’s the brandy cream sauce which will get you.  It’s ultra rich, but also ultra-delicious which means you’ll probably polish off the entire plate. Then there’s the lobster.  Each ravioli (tablet-sized) is engorged with fresh, delicious and rich lobster meat.

13 November 2012: If ravioli is what you crave, there are a variety of ways in which you can have it at Joe’s.  It’s available as a breaded and deep-fried appetizer served with a mushroom cream sauce.  It’s available as an entree where it’s stuffed with cheese and topped with marinara sauce.  It’s also available off-the-menu as an entree called the Giovanni Special.  Invented by John, one of Joe’s long-time waiters, this dish is the mother lode for ravioli lovers.  It features six round cheese stuffed raviolis, three meatballs and two sausages topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella.  This is one of those dishes only regular guests know about.  We’ve had to describe it to members of the wait staff who have never heard of it; fortunately Joe knows precisely what it is.

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

13 November 2012: The Baked Cannelloni, homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella is akin to having one large ravioli. The season beef is an excellent counterpoint to the rich, melted mozzarella and the tangy sauce. Roughly the size of a baked potato, it’s a red sauce dish with the richness of an Alfredo sauce. As with all entrees at Joe’s, it’s an archetypal example of how good this specific dish can be.

16 November 2013: Every once in a while Joe’s will feature a special which proves just how much the restaurant’s cuisine has also been influenced by the Land of Enchantment.  Now, green chile on Italian pasta dishes isn’t exactly a novel concept in New Mexico, but rarely is it done as well as the Green Chili (sic) Chicken Ravioli, ricotta-filled ravioli topped with sauteed chicken and green chili Alfredo sauce.  The piquancy (discernible, but not overwhelming) and roasted flavor of the green chile are a perfect foil for the richness of the Alfredo sauce…and it is rich.  It’s also delicious, a fine departure from the tried and true sauce. 

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

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli

16 November 2013: In November, 2012, four time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison published an article entitled 5 Top New Mexico Spots for Divine Gnocchi on her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog.  Cheryl lamented that for years she tended to avoid gnocchi in restaurants because “most I’d sampled in such settings were heavy with a gluey quality I associate with eating paste in kindergarten.”  She elaborated that “gnocchi should be hearty but have an ethereal lightness about them, too.”  The traditional gnocchi at Joe’s would make my top five.  Traditional means the gnocchi are made from potato, not semolina flour as prepared at some restaurants.  Potatoes is the way gnocchi are made in the Piedmont region of Italy and it’s the way gnocchi tastes best.  At Joe’s the gnocchi are topped with a superb tomato sauce and topped with meatballs and Italian sausage.

While the pasta dishes are infused with flavor, it’s apparent the chef’s culinary skills are as plentiful as are the portions.  Joe’s Pasta House is by no means a one-trick pasta.  In August, 2009, the menu was upscaled with the addition of an admirable cavalcade of chops: Porterhouse steak, French style pork chops, lamb chops and more.  These are chops the type of which you might expect to find in Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders.”  If Joe has his way, perhaps Rio Rancho should be called “City of Big Chops.”  Lamb chops.  Pork chops.  Porterhouse steaks.

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

15 January 2014: The Colorado lamb chops are cloud-like luscious and redolent with grilled flavor.  At about an inch thick, they’re the antithesis of the tiny, emasculated chops so many restaurants serve and each order includes four prepared to your exacting specifications.  At medium rare as the chef recommends they be prepared, the flavorful juices flow as you cut into them.  As with much of the lamb served in restaurants, the inherent gaminess associated with lamb has been somewhat bred out which is why medium rare works so well.  These chops are tender and succulent with just the slightest hint of fat for additional flavor.   They’re also not served in the “Frenched” style with the bone “handle” for easy handling.   The lamb chops are served with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes and a ramekin of delicious gravy made from pan drippings.

Porcine perfection can be found in the form of juicy French cut grilled pork chops in a Chianti mushroom sauce.  Chianti is a full and rich red wine that couples well with the mushrooms to imbue the inch-thick chops with a complementary flavor that doesn’t detract from their native pork flavor in any way.  Two chops for under twenty dollars is an additional bonus. 

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

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

In February, 2013, Joe’s Pasta House began offering a “Fish Fry” as its Tuesday night weekday special.  If you’re from the Midwest, you know that fish fry is practically a religion.  Consider the dining room tables at Joe’s your altar as you enjoy two pieces of hand-breaded, cold-water, wild-caught flounder served with a garden salad, fried potatoes and a house made tartar sauce!  The fish is fried in 100% vegetable oil.  Meat lovers have their own special day, too.  On Wednesdays, the special is all-natural, slow-roasted, Black Angus Prime Rib served with garden salad and mashed potatoes!  Liquid smoke doesn’t exist within the same zip code as this slow-roasted slab of beefy deliciousness. 

15 January 2014: The prime rib is available in ten- and twelve-ounce sizes.  It’s become so popular that you’re well advised to get to Joe’s early (the prime rib special is available from 4PM to 9PM) because once it runs out, you’re out of luck.   Because of the demand, Joe’s roasts some four prime rib roasts.  It’s easy to see why the prime rib is so popular.  It’s very tender, cutting almost like butter and revealing a perfectly pink center (at medium) with rich juices flowing copiously onto your plate.  As with great prime rib, the “crust” is seared to perfection.  Seasoning is earthy and natural, accentuating the terrific grass-fed flavor of the beef.   The accompanying horseradish sauce has some bite, but not so much that it detracts from the starring attraction. 

Veal Parmigiana

15 January 2014: You can add a dinner or Caesar salad with your entree for a pittance or top your steak with sauteed sliced mushrooms, melted mozzarella cheese or sauteed sweet onions for just a bit more.  If you’re tastes are more inclined toward surf and turf, you can also top any of your steak or chop entrees with garlic scallops.  Because scallops are delicately flavored and sweet, you might think garlic would overwhelm those qualities, but that’s not the case.  The garlic kisses the scallops softly so as not to change their flavor profile.  This is a surprisingly nice dish.

4 April 2014: During my years in New England, I consumed boatloads of creamy, comforting, delicious seafood bisques and chowders from Maine to Connecticut.  Nothing in the world compares to a thick, sweet, creamy bisque served at a waterfront restaurant with the advantage of being able to use freshly caught, just off the boat seafood.  There’s also no equal for enjoying such a repast while the salty sea air and balmy ocean breeze lulls you into a state of blissful relaxation. 

Seafood Bisque

Seafood Bisque

Joe’s Pasta House has none of those advantages, but somehow manages to serve a seafood bisque which transports me back to so many wonderful afternoons on the wharf at Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The bisque isn’t always on the menu, but when it is, it quickly sells out.  That’s because Rio Rancho may be a landlocked city several hundred miles from the sea, but its citizenry knows great seafood.  A large soup cup is brimming with fresh crab, mussels and clams sharing a creamy home with carrots, scallions, celery and a single crostini.  The seafood is unbelievably fresh and surprisingly plentiful with sweet crab being especially cherished.  The bisque is creamy and thick and is served at the perfect height of steaminess.  See where it ranks among my favorite soups in New Mexico here

10 August 2014: Blessed with 5,000 miles of coastline, Italy is a nation which cherishes the frutti di mari (fruits of the sea).  Pairing pasta with luscious seafood is virtually a culinary sport for Italian chefs.  There are hundreds of potential variations for something which sounds as simple and basic as a seafood stew or zuppa di pesci.  Italian chefs have learned to exercise restraint to balance the briny seafood with the delicate pasta.  A great seafood stew isn’t about mixing a net full of seafood with a bowl of pasta.  It’s about complementary ingredients melding together well. 

Italian Seafood Stew- Zuppa di Pesci

Joe’s version of seafood stew is a wonderful balance of fresh seafood  with perfectly prepared pasta served in a large boat…er, bowl.  The seafood–shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, lump crab and Atlantic salmon–are so fresh you might forget you’re in a landlocked state and not dockside.  The seafood is served atop a linguini pasta in a tomato basil bullion which allows all ingredients to sing.  A sweeter sauce or one more acerbic would not have gone so well with the delicate, delicious, briny seafood, but the tomato basil brings out the seafood’s natural flavors.  Joe served this dish on the first Sunday in which his magnificent restaurant opened for lunch. 

29 August 2014: One of the most traditional “red sauce” entrees is the almost anachronistic veal parmigiana which the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants don’t even deign to put on their menus.  Veal parmigiana is a circa 1960s favorite of Italian restaurants throughout the East Coast where it’s referred to simply as “veal parm.”  Perhaps one of the reasons this wonderful dish has fallen out of favor is because it’s not always prepared well.   At Joe’s, the veal parmigiana is the stuff of which dreams are made.  The veal is lightly breaded and perfectly prepared.  It’s fork tender and delicious with a blanket of molten Parmesan and Mozzarella and rich, tangy red sauce providing a delicious cover 

Linguini Pasta with Fried Breaded Clams and Scallops

12 July 2015: While I was raving effusively about Joe’s red sauces, my Kim once retorted “if you love them so much, you should marry them.”  I tell her she was being ridiculous.  The state of New Mexico prohibits polygamy.  You know when I eschew a red sauce dish at Joe’s, what I order instead has got to be very special.  Special is a good way to describe the linguini pasta with fried breaded clams and strips, a weekend special during the second week of July, 2015.  A very delicate pasta is tossed with red and orange cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and Romano cheese then topped with fried breaded clam strips and scallops.  Fried clams are extremely rare in the Land of Enchantment.  Leave it to Joe to prepare them in the manner and style of my favorite New England clam shacks.  Even if they weren’t the sublime clam bellies I prefer, the clams transported me back to Essex in Massachusetts.  Joe’s has a way of transporting diners to better places and states of satisfaction.

26 July 2015: With a veritable compendium of a menu, not to mention specials that live up to that distinction, you’re bound to find something you’ve never had before or haven’t had in quite a while.  For me, the entree fitting the latter is Veal Saltimbocca, veal scallopini with red onions, garlic, mushrooms and prosciutto topped with melted mozzarella and served with a pesto cream sauce.   In Italian, the term saltimbocca means “to jump in the mouth,” supposedly a reference to the  dish being so good that it literally jumps into the diner’s mouth.  This isn’t just hyperbole; it literally is that good.  The tender, moist veal is pounded into thin medallions that would be excellent by themselves.  The herbaceous pesto renders them even more delicious.

French Cut Pork Chops

26 July 2015: It seems ironic that a proud Italian restaurant would serve French-cut pork chops…and no, “French cut,” in this case, has nothing to do with cutting women’s underwear so as to emphasize a woman’s thigh.   You don’t have to be a Francophile to understand that “French-cut” means to slice food lengthwise into long, thin strips.  Easily three-quarters of an inch thick, Joe’s pork chops are grilled and topped with a Chianti mushroom pan sauce you might be tempted to lap up when you’re done.  The chops are grilled to your exacting specification and at medium, have plenty of moistness while retaining a fork tenderness.  This is a white meat dish sure to appease all carnivores. 

17 January 2016:  Jonesing for a steak on a Sunday morning, we rattled off one steakhouse after the other before it dawned on me that the Joe’s weekend dinner special for January 15, 16 and 17 was a grilled New York Strip steak topped with sauteed mushrooms, sweet onions and melted Provolone cheese served with battered onion rings.  No steakhouse would have done it better.  Better than a one-inch cut and easily twelve-ounces, it is a moist and tender slab of beef prepared to your exacting specifications (for optimum juiciness go for no more than medium-rare).  The sauteed fleshy fungi are earthy and sweet, counterbalanced by the melted molten blanket of Provolone.  Then there are the onion rings, a stack of golden fried orbs and for great measure, wonderfully prepared asparagus spears.

Grilled New York Strip Steak

17 January 2016: All along the coast of Italy, frutti di mare which translates from Italian to “fruit of the sea” offers a beloved multi-seafood soiree.  The myriad of seafood flavors at Joe’s includes shrimp, clams, calamari, mussels and scallops over a best of linguine in your choice of spicy marinara sauce or garlic butter white wine sauce.  At Joe’s the “spicy” marinara sauce isn’t so spicy or piquant that it detracts from the freshness and sweetness of the seafood.  If anything, the marinara brings out those qualities.  There’s a netful of seafood in each swimming pool-sized bowl of the fruits of the sea.  The next time someone tells you there isn’t good seafood in the Duke City area, bring them to Joe’s and order this dish for them.

There is so much to love at Joe’s Pasta House, an Italian restaurant several orders of magnitude better than the heavily trafficked Olive Garden to which I’m subjected once a year. In 2013 that fact was acknowledged when Joe’s Pasta House was selected by readers of Albuquerque The Magazine as the “best Italian restaurant” in the metropolitan area.  That’s proof that Joe’s has become a dining destination drawing diners from throughout the Duke City area and beyond. In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine readers voted Joe’s “Top Five” in four different categories: Best Italian, Best Wait Staff (the pulchritudinous Randi and vivacious Victoria are our favorites), Best Place to Overindulge and Best Buffet.

Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich

While Joe’s Pasta House has earned popular acclaim from a faithful customer base, Joe’s culinary skills aren’t always as critically acclaimed.  Rarely will you hear his name mentioned in discussions about the best chefs in the metropolitan area.  Some of that is based on the misbegotten perception that red sauce dishes aren’t as sophisticated and challenging to prepare as the “high-brow” dishes served in “Northern Italian” restaurants.  Another reason is Joe’s self-effacing nature.  He’s not one to crow about his skills and is modest to a fault.  When we lavished praise on his phenomenal rigatoni pasta and pork ribs dish, he dismissed it as “just another dish we ate at home growing up in New York.”  If only every chef was as modest…and talented. 

14 May 2016: We’re convinced there’s nothing Joe can’t do.  Want pizza?  The housemade Sicilian-style pizza, available on the daily lunch buffet, is terrific.  Two or seven slices of pizza and a serving or five of the eggplant parmigiana and you’ll be smiling for a week.  The lunch menu also includes a third-pound burger and a number of hero sandwich, the best of which may just be the Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich, a beauteous behemoth as good as any sandwich in New Mexico.  Greatness is destined for any sandwich lucky enough to be made on the exceptional bread which comes fresh from Joe’s bread ovens every day.  Nestled between the pillow-soft bread are generous slices of delightfully seasoned salami and sharp, creamy cheese dressed your way.

Frutti Di Mare “

Desserts

Not surprisingly, the Pasta House also has a stellar dessert tray with palate-pleasing options galore: German chocolate cake, chocolate cake, lemon cake, chocolate cannoli, red velvet cheesecake and oh, so much more. It’s all tempting and likely all delicious. Only the tiramisu and cannoli are prepared in-house.  Other desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor.   Both the tiramisu and the cannoli are absolute must-have desserts.  In the inaugural Taste of Rio Rancho (held in 2014), the tiramisu was acclaimed the City of Vision’s very best dessert.  I was fortunate enough to have served as a judge along with my friend Larry McGoldrick.  When the tiramisu was brought to us, we knew there aren’t many desserts in New Mexico as good as Joe’s terrific tiramisu.

The Italian Dream Cake will inspire nocturnal smiles.  It’s rich, creamy and delicious.  The cannoli is among the best in the city, replete with rich ricotta brought in from New Jersey.  The lemon cake zings with a nice tanginess while the German chocolate cake is the perfect marriage of coconut, pecans and chocolate.  Desserts are decadent, delicious and dreamy.

Joe’s magnificent tiramisu, the very best in Rio Rancho

Though they’re absolutely indefatigable ambassadors for their establishment, Joe and Kassie also rave about other restaurants in the City of Vision, an act of class so very typical of this dynamic couple who win the hearts and stomachs of their guests one delicious dining experience at a time. 

10 AUGUST 2014:  By popular demand, Joe’s Pasta House is now open on Sundays from 12PM to 7:30PM.  Treat yourself to the Albuquerque area’s favorite Italian restaurant where you’ll be well taken care of by the most professional staff in New Mexico.

JOE’S PASTA HOUSE
3201 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-3333
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 25
RATING: 25
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pesto, Mediterranean Pasta, Hot Antipasti for Two, Lasagna, Cannelloni, Giovanni Special, Fetuccini Carbonara, Zita Alla Vodka, Gnocchi, Butternut Squash and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli,  Tiramisu, Cannoli, Italian Cream Cake, Green Chili Chicken Ravioli, Colorado Lamb Chops, Prime Rib, Seafood Bisque, Veal Parmigiano, Fried Lasagna, Calamari Mediterranean Style, Sweet and Spicy Shrimp, French-Style Pork Chops, Veal Saltimbocca, Fruitti De Mare, Steamed Clams Casino, Grilled New York Strip Steak, Rigatoni Pasta and Pork Ribs, Salami and Cheese Hero Sandwich

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Mimmo’s Ristorante & Pizzeria – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mimmo’s Ristorante And Pizzeria on Coors

My sisters present quite a dichotomy. On one hand, it’s as if they’ve never set foot in the Land of Enchantment. Case in point: In a recent family instant messaging session, they discussed our mom’s delicious red “chili.” A disgrace, I know. Our mom, a spry octogenarian, has never made “chili,” but has always prepared some of the best “chile” in Taos county. You can almost excuse one of my sisters as she’s lived in Texas for many years, but my other sister is married to a guy from Hatch. On the other hand, you can take the girls out of New Mexico, but you can’t take New Mexico out of the girls. On Valentine’s Day, my sisters took our mom to Buca Di Beppo, a mediocre chain restaurant serving “family style portions” (if you’re a family of NFL offensive linemen). Only in New Mexico do hordes frequent Buca di Beppo when there are so many better options available—options such as Mimmo’s Ristorante & Pizzeria.

From the outside, Mimmo’s has the look and feel of a typical casual Italian restaurant, but step inside and you can’t help but notice right away that this venerable restaurant has a devoted following.  If long lines and crowded tables portend an excellent meal, then Mimmo’s is one of the Duke City’s premier Italian dining establishments.  On busy nights hungry patrons queue up from the restaurant’s entrance to the host’s station to get their names on a list for the next available table.  Mimmo’s has no pretensions to being a trendy Northern Italian restaurant.  This is a classic Southern Italian and Sicilian restaurant with more than a touch of New York City thrown in.  It’s reminiscent of the “red sauce” Italian restaurants on the East Coast which is appropriate because its roots are deeply New York.  Mimmo’s is a family restaurant in the classic sense of the word, too.  It’s not uncommon to see several tables pushed together with family members of several generations sharing a bountiful repast.

Mimmo’s capacious dining room

Set your expectations high at Mimmo’s.  It’s not the type of restaurant for which you have to dress up, but you’ll be treated better than at most of the so-called four-star restaurants or those stereotypical chain Italian restaurants with their saccharine service and family-style portions.  Even if your visits are spaced out by several months (or years), the wait staff will remember having served you before–or at least they’re professional enough to give that impression.  The nattily attired–white shirts, black slacks and ties–wait staff is unfailingly polite, accommodating and energetic.  Most of the wait staff has been with Mimmo’s for years.

Even before you’re seated, your olfactory senses will respond to the arousing authenticity in the air as the aroma of seasoned sauces wafts toward you.  You’ll want to grab the nearest menu and find the genesis of those enticing emanations.  As in many Italian restaurants, portions are generally “right-sized” only if you’re famished (meaning the portions are humongous).  Your order is at your table within minutes after you order with a significant number of orders being for the special of the day.

Silver Trays Brimming with Red Sauce Favorites

Popular among couples with children and diners looking for good value is Mimmo’s lunch hour buffet, an all-you-can-eat feeding trough brimming with pizza, salad, soup and pasta.  Similar to many buffets, items are kept warm under serving lamps, but they’re turned around rather quickly by the ever-vigilant wait staff.  The frequent replenishment of buffet items ensures freshness and that hot items stay hot.  The buffet allows you to craft salads your ways with a variety of fresh ingredients and thick, creamy salad dressings.

The menu is a veritable compendium of Southern Italian and Sicilian favorites–heavily sauced pastas of all types as well as pizzas resplendent with all the usual ingredients and then some.  Some of the restaurant’s entrees are accompanied by salad, garlic bread, vegetables and spaghetti while pasta entrees include your choice of salad or soup and garlic bread.  It’s not uncommon to leave Mimmo’s with a doggie sack or two.  The make-your-own-salad allows you to be as creative and generous as you wish.  For me, that means as much blue cheese dressing as it’s humanly possible to carry.  Beneath all that blue cheese are some of the freshest salad ingredients to grace a salad bowl in Albuquerque.

Underneath all that blue cheese is a pretty good salad

In 1949, Louis P. De Gouy wrote The Soup Book which included nearly 800 recipes for thin and thick soups, hot and cold soups, instant soups and soups taking hours to prepare.  He called good soup “one of the prime ingredients of good living.  For soup can do more to lift the spirits and stimulate the appetite than any other one dish.”  Some of the soups at Mimmo’s have that effect on diners, especially the tomato soup which is creamy and delicious.  Served piping hot, it’s the type of soup which can quell the cold of winter.

2 May 2010: Mimmo’s cream of mushroom soup has the distinction of having more mushrooms than any soup of this genre we’ve ever had–especially considering some cream of mushroom soup only seems to hint at the proximity of mushrooms.  Fetid fungi can be tasted in every single sip of this soul-warming soup, some mushrooms covering much of the spoon.  It’s an earthy, soul-warming soup as comforting as you’ll find anywhere.

Affettati Misti For Two

23 April 2016: Mouth-watering appetizer options abound, including an antipasto which could easily make a meal for one.  That would be an appetizer called affettati misti (mixed cured meats), an antipasto comprised of salami, proscuitto, olives, ham, Swiss and provolone cheeses and an assortment of pickled vegetables that may include tomatoes, carrots, celery and more.  It is one of our favorite antipastos in Albuquerque even though it’s more than doubled in price in the years we’ve been ordering it.  The affettati misti is meant to be shared and even at that, it might fill you up if you’re not careful.  It’s served with a sliced loaf of delicious, crusty bread which can be used to craft sandwiches from the cold-cuts or dipped into a mix of Balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Some say the secret to great Southern Italian food is in the sauce.  Mimmo’s seemingly has a sauce to satisfy any palate–Carbonara, Marinara, Alfredo, Fra Diavalo, Bolognese, Béchamel and others.  None of the sauces are subtle either in flavor or in profusion.  Pasta-based entrees tend to swim in sauce, which is not entirely a bad thing because the sauces are fairly prototypical examples of Italian sauces done well.

Rigatoni and Scallops Amatriciana

The carbonara sauce, for example, is very rich.  I’ve had carbonara on the East coast that was so rich, you couldn’t finish it thanks to a profusion of pancetta and a deluge of heavy cream.  Mimmo’s carbonara approaches that level.  One of our favorite sauce-based entrees has been the Gamberi Fra Diavalo, shrimp served in a sauce which translates to “Brother Devil.”  The sauce earns its sobriquet because it’s not only delicious, it’s fiendishly piquant thanks to the liberal use of incendiary peppers.  At Mimmo’s, this is one sinfully delicious entree.

Where Mimmo’s truly excels is in the pizza department with a pie that is better than we’ve had at pizzerias raved about by the cognoscenti.  Don’t let the buffet pizza be your measuring stick for the greatness of Mimmo’s pizza.  Order one of the menu standards (the Mediterranean pizza is terrific).  Better yet, have Mimmo’s craft one for you with the ingredients of your choice.

Baked Ziti

2 May 2010: Make it Sicilian style, a rectangular pizza with a thick crust.  Its body is similar in texture to focaccia bread, save for the wonderful crunch on the bottom.  Some Sicilian pizza is upwards of an inch thick and is almost casserole-like.  Not so at Mimmo’s where the pizza is probably just over half an inch thick including toppings.  The toppings are unfailingly fresh and delicious and even though the green chile isn’t particularly piquant, it’s got that unmistakable roasted flavor New Mexicans love.

Sicilian pizza is very popular in the New York area–even though there’s no way you can fold it in half vertically the way many New Yorkers like.  It’s stiff enough to be held by the rim without it drooping over and spilling ingredients all over you, but only the bottom is crunchy.  The rest is like soft focaccia.  Mimmo’s pizza sauce is applied thickly, but it’s redolent with Italian spices (garlic, oregano) and is better than the restaurant’s Marinara sauce.  If possible, a Sicilian pizza from Mimmo’s might taste even better after being refrigerated (and it’s fabulous just out of the oven).  Considering there are bound to be leftovers, that’s a great thing.  A large pizza will generally tide you over for lunch and dinner with a slice or two left over for breakfast.

Garlic Bread

29 March 2008: The wait staff raves about Mimmo’s Quatro Formaggi (four cheese) pizza.  Atop a thin, chewy canvas and a thin slathering of oregano and basil blessed tomato sauce is a rich blend of mozzarella, fontina, gorgonzola and parmesan cheeses.  This is a pizza so rich you’ll want to cut that richness with other toppings.  Two which do the job well are meatballs and garlic.  This pizza is not too heavy or crust-laden so the focus is squarely on the ingredients.  Because it is so rich, two people may not be able to finish an entire pie.

2 May 2010: Perhaps the richest entree at Mimmo’s is a special–mushroom stuffed ravioli with scallops absolutely buried under a thick carbonara sauce.  This is most definitely a two meal ordeal, a pasta dish so rich you can feel your arteries hardening.  As my friend Bill Resnik would say, it should come standard with an angioplasty.  My gosh, this is a rich dish!  Okay, you’ve got the point–it’s rich.  It’s also very good, addictively so.  The mussels are sweet, fresh and tender.  The mushrooms are earthy and fleshy and the carbonara sauce is redolent with pancetta.

Limoncello Cake

24 April 2016: Baked ziti, a classic Italian-American hybrid showcasing a medium-sized tubular pasta baked with a “chunky” meaty sauce is a specialty at Mimmo’s. Served in a casserole dish, this rendition is very reminiscent of baked ziti as it’s prepared and served in the East Coast. That means it’s served piping hot with a blanket of molten cheese melted atop layers of pasta and rich, red sauce. Rhee Drummond, the Food Network’s “Pioneer Woman” likens baked ziti to be “almost like a lasagna that forgot to use lasagna noodles. Messy. Gooey. Decadent. Ridiculous. In every sense of the word.” That’s how you’ll find the baked ziti at Mimmo’s.

24 April 2016: It speaks volumes about a restaurant that is willing to change the way it serves a dish to accommodate a customer. For one thing, it says that restaurant has a customer first policy that engenders customer loyalty and repeat visits. Secondly, it means dishes are prepared to order; they’re not waiting under some heat lamp for a server to pick them up. On a Sunday, for example, the special of the day was spaghetti all’ Amatriciana with scallops. Explaining my lack of dexterity with spaghetti noodles, I asked if the dish could be made with rigatoni instead. Our server didn’t even bat an eye. The dish arrived as requested—a mound of rigatoni with bits of pancetta, a slathering of olive oil and red hot peppers in a slightly piquant sauce. New Mexico chile lovers will appreciate this dish. 

Chocolate Cannoli

24 April 2016: Mimmo’s offers some terrific desserts, all shipped fresh from Roma Food Enterprises in New Jersey.  The cannoli are generously stuffed (on the premises) with rich ricotta embellished with chocolate chips.  The shell has a crispy, light texture but it doesn’t crumble when you press your fork down on it.  Best of all, you can have either the traditional cannoli or a chocolate-coated cannoli and both are good.

Our favorite Mimmo’s dessert is an Italian cream cake (sometimes called Italian Wedding Cake) so rich and luscious, you can gain weight just looking at it.  It is an edible work of art, three layers of heavily iced white cake sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, topped with caramel and edged with toasted coconut.  No two recipes of Italian cream cake are alike.  Mimmo’s version is a winner.

Mimmo’s has the look and feel of a neighborhood Italian restaurant in New York or Boston.  It’s a little piece of Italy in Albuquerque.  You’ll remember the friendly service almost as long as you’ll fondly recall the well-sauced meals.

Mimmo’s Ristorante & Pizzeria
3301 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 831-4191
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LATEST VISIT: 24 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 14
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Affetati Misti, Sicilian Style Pizza, Quatro Formaggi Pizza, Cannoli, Italian cream cake, Tomato Soup, Cream of Mushroom Soup, Gamberi Fra Diavalo, Baked Ziti, Spaghetti All’Amatriciana, Lemoncello Cake

Mimmo's Ristorante and Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dion’s Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dion’s in Rio Rancho on a snowy winter morning

Toga! Toga! Toga! Ever since the misfit Delta Tau Chi fraternity threw the most debaucherous toga party ever in the 1978 “teensploitation” comedy Animal House, the toga party has been ingrained in the college party culture. The genesis of the toga party goes back much, much further than Animal House.  Toga parties, in fact, precede collegiate life in the fruited plain by many hundred years. The first toga party was actually organized in ancient Greece by the Greek god Dionysus, the deity of the grape harvest, wine-making and wine, of ritual madness, fertility, theater and religious ecstasy (that’s quite a job description, even for a god). Dionysus literally had a cult following of men and women who worshiped him. Together this vagabond group became some of history’s first true party animals, holding orgiastic celebrations where they danced to frenzied music and behaved like crazed BYU basketball fans. It was during this revelry that Dionysus invented both the toga party and the first drinking games.

You might not know it but the Dion’s Pizza franchise that has become ubiquitous in the Duke City area, is actually named for that rapscallion god Dionysus (albeit a shortened version of that infamous name). Obviously when founders John Patten and Bill Scott contemplated naming options for the New York Pizza restaurant they purchased, they wanted to celebrate the wine experience they planned for their planned Greek restaurant.  They certainly didn’t want to celebrate the John Belushi-like characteristics of the god Dionysus. During the transitional period between pizza restaurant and Greek restaurant, they continued to make pizzas and quickly discovered that pizza was what their customers craved.

A combination pizza from Dion's

A combination pizza from Dion’s

Nearly four decades later, it is still pizza which draws patrons to this amazingly popular restaurant, but pizza is far from all Dion’s has to offer its loyal patrons. Nor can it be said any longer that Dion’s is strictly a “local” favorite. In addition to multiple locations in the Albuquerque metropolitan area (including Bernalillo, Los Lunas and Rio Rancho), Dion’s can be found in Las Cruces and Santa Fe. In recent years, Dion’s has expanded beyond the Land of Enchantment with restaurants in Lubbock, Texas as well as Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado. Dion’s has become not only the most successful pizzeria in Albuquerque, it’s one of the most lucrative in the fruited plain.

In its January, 2015 report Pizza Magazine Quarterly revealed that only four states across the fruited plain love pizza less than New Mexico does  (another quality of life category for which we can be grateful for Mississippi).  With only 1.55 pizza joints per 10,000 residents, the Land of Enchantment ranks 46th in terms of number of pizzerias.   Worse, only 38.4 percent of those pizzerias are independent.  There is one local chain regarded as one of the most successful local chains in the fruited plain.  Dion’s ranked number 37 on the magazine’s list of the top fifty pizza chains in America.  From a monetary perspective, however, the magazine noted that Dion’s makes more money per restaurant than any other pizza chain in the country.

The Duke City (Photo courtesy of Bill Resnik)

In those 30 years plus of operation, Dion’s has established a near cult following of devoted patrons, many of them families. Dion’s is so popular that in its tenth anniversary edition, the long defunct Abq magazine named it to its “Hall of Fame” in recognition of the restaurant garnering more “Best of” votes than anyone else in the pizza category.  In its annual reader’s choice issue, readers of Albuquerque The Magazine (an unrelated successor to Abq magazine) continue to lavish high praise for Dion’s, a perennial contender, if not winner, of the magazine’s “best pizza in the city” honors.

There’s much to like about Dion’s.  The restaurant is immaculate and service is efficient and friendly.  It’s staffed with energetic and smiling employees who seem to enjoy what they’re doing.  There’s a viewing area from which children (of all ages) can watch the pizza-makers in action.  Seating is plentiful and there’s even a drive-up window where you can pick up your call-in orders.

Roast Beef Sub

Today Dion’s has twenty-one locations including eleven in Albuquerque.  Ever ambitious, this regional powerhouse has designs on becoming “the most admired regional restaurant brand in the country.”  Dion’s employs over a thousand employees, many of them teenagers.  Among the secrets to Dion’s success and continued growth are fundamental rules established at the onset, rules by which each Dion’s restaurant still operate today:

  • Always use the finest ingredients.
  • Never change ingredients simply to get the cheapest price.
  • Only serve pizza, salads and submarine sandwiches that we are proud of.
  • Hire the best people.  Promote team players and cooperation.
  • Give the customer exceptional quality, service, cleanliness and a teamwork environment.

In its 2010 Food and Wine edition, Albuquerque The Magazine published the results of its search for the best pizza in Albuquerque.  At each pizzeria, 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.  Dion’s placed fifth from among nearly forty Duke City area pizzerias.  Alas, my vote is much harder to get.

Italian Sub with Chips and Ranch Dressing

That highly touted pizza is, in my honest opinion, very inconsistent–often very good but not as transformative as my fellow New Mexicans believe it is.  Too many pizzas during too frequent visits  have been generally soggy with a surfeit of drooping, greasy cheese. My friend Mike Muller, a Dion’s devotee, claims that the quality of the pizza depends on which store you visit and who’s making it. My retort is that a restaurant which isn’t consistent visit after visit is one I won’t visit very often.

Still, I do credit Dion’s for its dough which we occasionally purchase for our take-and-bake dinners. The dough is made from scratch daily and serves as a nice canvass for whatever ingredients with which you top them.  For dining in, pizzas are available in 12-, 14- or 16-inch sizes.  Available toppings are pepperoni, Italian sausage, smoked ham, ground beef, chicken, bacon mushrooms, black olives, pineapple, red onions, fresh tomatoes, green chile, jalapeños, bell peppers and anchovies.

Meatball and provolone sub with chips

Dion’s venture into the realm of gourmet pizzas is a popular draw, though my experiences with these so-called gourmet pizzas have also met with mixed results. A Kansas City pizza features a barbecue sauce so insipid renders the pie’s name a misnomer.  As a devotee of Kansas City barbecue, my expectations for s sauce bearing that bastion of barbecue’s name are high indeed, and Dion’s pizza failed to meet those expectations.  So did the Duke City (turkey, Cheddar, green chile and Parmesan) which practically put my taste buds to sleep–and that’s not just from the tryptophan.

Dion’s sandwiches are the restaurant’s most redeeming item and a far better reason to visit than the pizza.  Served submarine-style on original white or wheat hoagie-style baguettes baked fresh daily, the sandwiches are available in six- and ten-inch sizes.  Green chile is available upon request on all sandwiches and there’s no charge for an ingredient which improves everything it touches. Sandwiches are served with Greek dressing, a dill pickle spear and crinkled potato chips which you can substitute with fruit for a mere pittance.

Greek Salad

The sandwich board choices are Turkey & Swiss, Pastrami & Provolone, Roast Beef & Provolone, Ham & Swiss, Meatball & Provolone, Veggie (green chile and Cheddar) and an Italian sub. Sandwiches are adorned with lettuce,  red onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise and deli mustard. The Italian sub, the restaurant’s specialty is engorged with ham, pepperoni and Genoa salami and is studded with Asiago cheese, Kalamata olives, bell peppers, red onions, lettuce, mayonnaise and deli mustard.  It’s a terrific sub, a deli-class sandwich made with premium ingredients.

There are two facets to each sandwich which makes them special.  The first is the baguettes which are lightly toasted in a conveyor oven to give them a crispy exterior while retaining a pillow soft contrast inside.  The conveyor oven melts the cheese but doesn’t warm the beef to a mushy consistency and somehow manages to keep the vegetables crisp and fresh.  The second facet is the Greek dressing which is simply terrific, so much so that you’ll want a second portion so that every morsel of sandwich you bite into is infiltrated by the tanginess of this excellent dressing.  Save Dion’s ranch dressing for salads, but always use the Greek dressing on the sandwiches. 

Dion’s salad is a perennial winner of “best salad” honors during the Alibi’s annual “Best of Burque” balloting.  With that tangy Greek dressing or the rich and creamy Ranch dressing, even plain lettuce would be delicious.   The Greek salad (iceberg lettuce, black olives, feta, tomatoes, croutons and Dion’s mix) is one of the best of its kind in Albuquerque, so good you might reflect on what might have been had Dion’s become a Greek restaurant instead of the state’s most popular pizza restaurant. 

Dion’s Pizza
4200 Montano, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)898-1161
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 05 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 26
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Greek Dressing, The Italian Sub, Greek Salad, Ranch Dressing

Dion's on Urbanspoon

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