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
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

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

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli

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

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

Meats, Cheeses, Breads, Condiments and so Much More

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

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

Italian Charcuterie Board

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

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

Pickled Board

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

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

Muffaletta with Farro Salad

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

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

Pastrami

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

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

BLT

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

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

Carbonara

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

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

Italian Mac & Cheese (Photo courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

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

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

Market Reuben (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

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

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

Italian Bread Pudding (Photo Courtesy of Larry McGoldrick)

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

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

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

M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

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

Limonata Italian Street Food Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Limonata

While contemplating a name for their second Duke City restaurant venture, Maxime and Daniela Bouneou wanted to convey the feeling of a refreshing and invigorating venue in which their patrons could relax and enjoy themselves. After deliberating several options, they ultimately decided on Limonata, the Italian word for lemonade. When Daniela proudly told her friends in Italy what the new restaurant would be named, they laughed, reminding her that Limonata is an Italian slang term for “French kiss.”

Though Maxime and Daniela may have become a bit more “Americanized” by having lived in the United States for more than a decade, Limonata has the look, feel and most importantly, tastes of a true Italian trattoria. Limonata was launched as the more informal and sassy younger sibling of Torinos @ Home, the sensational Italian ristorante many of the cognoscenti consider one of, if not the Land of Enchantment’s best for Italian cuisine. Limonata’s menu focuses on simple fare–Italian street food–at relatively low prices in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere and as the Bouneous envisioned, it’s a refreshing change of pace.

Place your order here and in minutes, deliciousness will be delivered to your table

Limonata is located in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district, one block south of Central Avenue on Silver. There’s a bit of delicious irony in that its next door neighbor is a French kiss of deliciousness, the second instantiation of P’Tit Louis Bistro.  Limonata is the eastern-most cornerstone in a contiguous complex that includes ‘Tit Louis and Ajiaco Colombian Bistro. Save for the Spanish tiled roof, the wider-than-it-is-deep building is wholly antithetical to the abobe hued stereotype of Duke City architecture. Limonata actually more closely resembles its residential neighbors than it does other area restaurants.

Step inside the welcoming edifice and you’ll be enveloped in a swath of warm colors and the architecture of a bygone era.  You’ll also be welcomed by a very courteous and professional staff, perhaps even Bill and (or) Brenda Ennis who acquired Limonata early in 2015.  With with experience in restaurants and baking, the Ennis family hasn’t skipped a beat.  Standards are still exceedingly high.  The front room, where you place your order invites browsing through the slate board on which the menu is scrawled in chalk. You’ll want to carefully study the glass display cases and their treasures. It’s a wonder there aren’t drool tracks on the glass because the tortas (Italian-style quiches) and pastries are mouth-watering.

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” enjoys a large house salad

The best part of waking up may just be breakfast at Limonata which offers cappuccino, espresso, lattes and cioccolata calda all’Italiana (Italian hot chocolate) as well as such breakfast favorites as granola, pastries, waffles and the New Mexican breakfast standard, the breakfast burrito.  Fresh lavender lemonade, fresh-squeezed orange juice and an array of San Pellegrino Italian fruit beverages are also available.  One of the welcome additions brought in by the new owners is an alluring assortment of sweet and savory crepes.  If it sometimes feels as if crepes are priced like gold, you’ll appreciate the reasonable prices of Limonata’s crepes.

Limonata’s goal is twofold–“make you happy” and “make you feel you are in Italy.”  Mission accomplished…or at least as much as it’s possible to do so in the desert Southwest.  A sun-bathed east-facing patio is the perfect venue for meeting up with friends and family for great conversation and (perhaps even better) food.  In the spirit of the true and authentic Italian trattoria, Limonata’s menu focuses on housemade pastas, fresh and locally sourced vegetables and produce, fine cheeses and delicious antipastos.  Because the menu offers such variety and deliciousness, repeat visits are a certainty.

Antipasto Platter

Launched on June 26th, 2012, Limonata–open from 7AM to 5PM Monday through Friday and 8AM to 5PM on Sunday–has something for all tastes, including one of the most vegetarian-friendly menus in town. Best of all, breakfast and lunch are available all day long.   Whether it’s a loaded breakfast burrito, a bowl of granola and yogurt or something as simple as toast and jam, you can’t help but start your day off in a good mood.  You’ll sustain that good mood all day long if you take home as many of Limonata’s macaroons as you can carry.

It’s been my experience (Gutiz comes to mind) that when a restaurant offers an outstanding chocolate croissant (also known as pain au chocolat), you’d better order one before they’re all gone. Don’t wait to decide if you want dessert or not. Order the chocolate croissant and don’t worry about saving the best for last. This is a life-altering chocolate croissant, on par with those at the aforementioned Gutiz. The croissant itself is very delicate and flaky. It’s also buttery, but not overly so. The chocolate is an adult chocolate, not the cloying kid stuff and there’s just enough of it.

Marionberry Pie

During a May, 2016 visit to Limonata, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my good friends Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick, the dazzling Deanell  and that culinary bon-vivant Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver.  It was the inaugural visit for all three of them and the first time Larry and Deanell got to meet Sr. Plata.  It’s been my experience that great food is made even better by great company and sparkling conversation.  That’s an unbeatable combination.  So were the unbeatable combination of dishes we ordered, dishes which quickly won over our little gastronomic group.

31 May 2016: One of the many not-to-be-missed entrees at Limonata is the antipasto platter, a beautifully plated wooden cutting board piled generously with diverse ingredients, each one seemingly titillating different taste buds. The grilled vegetables–red peppers, grilled zucchini and eggplant–are nicely pickled so that their natural flavors are accentuated, not masked. One of the platter’s many highlights are the pickled cipolline onions. Cipolline onions are saucer-shaped Italian pearl onions with a uniquely sweet and mild flavor. They are positively addictive.  So is the goat cheese which Deanell found delightful on or independent of the focaccia, half a loaf of which is served with each antipasto platter.  The meats–mortadella and prosciutto–on the antipasto platter are an excellent foil for the vegetables.  The mortadella, a generously sliced pork sausage, will remind you that to ever equate it to American baloney is an insult.  The thinly-sliced, salt-cured prosciutto is nicely marbled for flavor richness.

31 May 2016:  It’s a given that if a menu features something this gastronome has never previously tried, it’ll be crossing my lips in short order.  Limonata’s dessert case included one such item–marionberry pie which I jokingly referred to as “Marion Barry,” for the disgraced former mayor of Washington, D.C.  Marrionberry is a cross between Chehalem blackberry and Olallieberry blackberry.  If that doesn’t help much, think of it as sweeter and not as tangy as blackberries.  At any regard, it’s a delicious pie, densely packed with berries sandwiched between a flaky crust (alas rendered somewhat flaccid by being microwaved). 

31 May 2016: According to The Kitchn, one of the ten food items which defined the 1970s was salad bars with Green Goddess and Ranch dressings.  We’ve come a long way since the disco era.  Salads are much more diverse and imaginative while retaining many of the healthful properties that have long made salad a dietary staple.  Limonata’s large house salad is a bounty of the garden, a plate brimming with organic baby green mix, grilled zucchini and eggplant, red bell pepper, tomatoes, chicken mix, cipollini onions and a shallot vinaigrette.  It’s a far cry from the relatively plain, iceberg lettuce-laden salads of yesteryear.  Best of all, it’s both good for you and delicious to eat.

Limonata is a fabulous Italian trattoria with an inspired menu served in the European fashion.  Though separated from Route 66 by one mere block, a visit may transport you to Italy.

Limonata Trattoria
3222 Silver Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-0607
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2016
1st VISIT: 3 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chocolate Croissant, Antipasto Platter,  Lavender Lemonade, Large House Salad

Limonata Italian Street Food Caffe on Urbanspoon

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