Pizzeria Luca – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Can there truly be too many pizzerias? Perhaps only among pizzeria owners who don’t want much competition might you hear that ridiculous notion about one of America’s essential food groups. Take for example one monopoly-minded pizzeria owner in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania who had a resolute belief that there was too much competition in the area and determined to do something about it. It apparently didn’t dawn on him that by serving a better pizza or lowering prices, his business might improve. Instead, in the tradition of villainous scofflaws everywhere, he decided to sabotage his rivals.
Alas, his exploits only proved fodder for late night talk show hosts who lampoon stupid criminals. In perpetrating his nefarious misdeed, the perfidious proprietor of the poor-performing pizzeria created such a ruckus that his intended victim quickly investigated and discovered a bag full of mice had been deposited in his drop ceiling. As luck would have it, two uniformed officers were dining at the presumably palatable pizzeria at the time. They quickly apprehended the would-be rodent rapscallion and charged him with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, harassment and cruelty to animals. There’s no indication as to whether his room mate at the local hoosegow was Mr. Murphy or whether the competitor’s pizza was served for dinner.
So, just how many pizzerias are there? With more than 65,000 pizzerias (58 percent of which are independent and 42 percent of which are chains) in the United States, pizzerias make up nearly seventeen percent of all restaurants in America and gross over 30 billion dollars per year, accounting for greater than ten percent of all food service sales. Independent pizzerias account for 52 percent of those sales totals. In 2005, the average store earnings for all pizzerias was nearly $450,000. The “big four” pizza chains–Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesars–represent nearly 37 percent of industry sales at nearly $11 billion per year. The top fifty pizza chains across the United States own 42 percent of all pizzerias and control greater than 48 percent of all pizza sales.
According to PMQ Pizza Magazine’s “Pizza Power Report” for 2010, Americans consume approximately 3 billion pizzas per year. That translates to a whopping 100 acres of pizza each day–an astounding 350 slices per second over each of the 86,400 seconds in each day. 93 percent of Americans eat at least one pizza per month with the most popular ingredient being pepperoni. The United States has an average of one pizzeria per 4,350 people across the fruited plain. Surveys indicate 45 percent of pizza orders are take-out, 36 percent are delivery and 20 percent are dine-in. Sixteen percent of all pizzas ordered across the country were ordered on-line.
In its 2010 Food and Wine edition, Albuquerque The Magazine chronicled its search for the best pizza in the Duke City area, reviewing and rating some 37 independent restaurants (and subjecting themselves to take-out pizza from five chains). That’s barely scratching the surface. Urbanspoon lists 151 pizza restaurants in the metropolitan Albuquerque area which translates to one pizza restaurant for every 6,012 residents (based on the 2011 census estimate of 907,775 as of 2011). That pales in comparison with the 2,070 pizza restaurants in New York City or the one pizza restaurant per 3,600 residents in Miami.
According to Slice, a Serious Eats blog, there are 21 regional styles of pizza. In the Duke City, perhaps the most prevalent regional style–or at least the one most often claimed–is New York-style characterized by having a puffy, bread-like, outer crust which quickly tapers down to a very thin, crisp middle). When Pizzeria Luca, a locally owned company which launched in October, 2011, purported to offer a traditional “East Coast Italian pizzeria experience” in an upscale yet casual environment, it was interesting to note that the pizza itself is certainly not New York style nor does it resemble any of the East Coast pizzas with which I’m familiar. It’s only the look and feel that bears a resemblance to Metropolis.
Pizzeria Luca is ensconced in a shopping center on the far Northeast Heights not too far from the Duke City’s first Jinja restaurant and the über popular Trader Joe’s. From the outside the pizzeria is fairly inconspicuous despite the prevalence of the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag. Step inside the doors and you might indeed get the impression that you’ve stepped into a cosmopolitan setting that will tell you you’re not in Kansas any more. It’s a setting quite unlike that of any other pizzeria in Albuquerque.
The restaurant’s high-ceilings bear the popular exposed industrial-style ductwork that seem to express modernity. The height of the ceiling seems exaggerated because the back wall more closely resembles an external wall with its distressed brick and faded Pizzeria Luca signage, two vintage touches. Floors are tiled in large red and white squares not unlike nostalgia restaurants. To your left is a serpentine wine bar whose cynosure is a semi-circular wine tower sporting some 56 different wines from Italy, Washington and California (none from New Mexico as of this writing). A flat screen television seems somewhat out of place next to the wine tower. Televisions, by the way, can also be found in the pizzeria’s restrooms though if you don’t know this, you might freak out to hear the voice of the opposite gender as you walk in. Walls are adorned with movie posters. The musical stylings of Italian crooners of the 1930s are piped in via the restaurant’s sound system.
The menu offers seven appetizers including an antipasto and littleneck clams in a white wine-based broth. Nine salads (insulate), mostly of the designer variety are also available as are five panini sandwiches available in half or full sizes. The sandwiches are crafted from house-prepared meats served on fresh baked bread. Five pasta dishes adorn the menu not including a “doggie plate” consisting of a housemade meatball with dry kibble. There are seven pizza options as well as a “build your own pie” option which starts with mozzarella and marinara. You can also have a large slice if you prefer.
14 March 2017: One of the very best appetizers served at any Italian restaurant in the metropolitan area is Luca’s Zuppe di Vongole (littleneck clams in white wine, butter and spicy plum tomato sauce). There are only eight or nine clams in the dish, but this appetizer can be quite filling by itself. That’s because the broth has so much personality you’ll keep your spoon busy. You’ll also use the accompanying garlic bread to sop up as much of that broth as you can. The clams themselves are fresh and clean, but they’re brought to life with the acidity of the spicy plum tomato sauce, garlic, oregano and other seasonings.
27 November 2011: The antipasto, a piccole piastre is described on the menu as an artisan cheese plate with salami, olives, fresh fruits and baked rustic bread. It’s the fresh fruits that make it some what unique for Albuquerque. Four slices of lightly toasted bread with shaved cheese and parsley flank a bed of mixed greens drizzled with a light balsamic dressing atop of which and within you’ll dig out sliced strawberries, olives, raspberries, salami slices, more shaved cheese, a whisper-thin slice or two of prosciutto and slices of hard cheese. As with all good appetizers, it serves very well to make you look forward to your entrees in hopes they’ll be as good, if not better.
30 November 2013: Mushrooms are one of those foods that are all too often “typecast.” For the most part, chefs tend to accentuate their woodsy-earthy qualities. While these qualities make them a delicious accompaniment to complementary foods, a few chefs take mushrooms in a separate direction and prepare them with a flavor profile almost antithetical to their woodsy-earthy notes. One way not often seen in the Duke City is sautéed seasonal mushrooms in a lemon-caper sauce, a dish called fricassee di fungi. Thinly cut mushrooms are sautéed in a rich butter and garlic sauce with lemon juice and plenty of capers. The natural woodsy-earthy flavor profile of the mushrooms prevents this dish from being too tart or tangy, just enough to be discernible. It’s a delicious partnership.
27 November 2011: The pizzas are as clever as the antipasto platter with inventive ingredient combinations festooning each fourteen- or sixteen-inch pie. Even the Margherita, the pizza which started it all, is unique for Albuquerque in that it’s made with mozzarella di bufala (fresh water buffalo mozzarella). For turophiles, only the tasty, creamy, milky buffalo mozzarella will do on pizza in which mozzarella is called for. At my request, the accommodating pizzaioli added it to the Calabria (Prosciutto di Parma, shallots, Fontina, truffle oil and marinara) I ordered. That meant two of my very favorite pizza ingredients in the world–buffalo mozzarella and Prosciutto di Parma–were available in one pie in Albuquerque.
19 March 2017: Our initial impression of the Modena (Italian sausage, pepperoni, crimini mushrooms and roasted garlic) from 2011 was that it was a very good pie with much to like about it. While first impressions are often lasting, they can be superseded by subsequent impressions. When my Kim ordered that pizza six years later, she wondered how our initial impressions could have been so wrong. Our second Modena lacked personality. From the crust to the ingredients, the seasonings didn’t assert themselves much. The garlic, basil and oregano were barely discernible. Even the roasted garlic cloves were rather anemic. The sole saving grace was the buffalo mozzarella Kim requested though there wasn’t nearly enough to sate her.
19 March 2017: What the Modena lacked in personality, the Pesto (pesto sauce with buffalo mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts) pie more than made up for it. Pesto is, however, not everyone’s cup of tea. If you like the aromatic properties of basil, you’ll appreciate the basil-olive oil marriage. Toss in a handful of piñon with its own woodsy fragrance and you’ve got the essence of invigorating freshness. The third component on the pie is sun-dried tomatoes with their tangy acidity and fruity sweetness. Alas, a larger portion of buffalo mozzarella would have added an almost (but not quite) sour taste to complement the other flavors.
30 November 2013: While the menu makes a big deal out of the restaurant’s signature macaroni and cheese menu, don’t be surprised if your server doesn’t. Ask what the best pasta dish is on the menu and you might be surprised to hear “macaroni and cheese,” which is called something else–something more elegant and enticing–on the menu. On the menu it’s called Luca Signatura Speciale and it’s a triumvirate of imported cheeses with truffle oil topped with prosciutto and homemade bread crumbs. The cheeses accentuate the sharp and pungent qualities of cheese without compromising on richness. It’s an adult macaroni and cheese, as far removed from Kraft macaroni and cheese as the Lobo Lair is from San Diego State University boosters.
14 March 2017: The menu offers two ziti dishes–Ziti Pollo (ziti pasta with grilled chicken and green chile; tossed in basil cream sauce, topped with mozzarella and baked) and Baked Ziti (with meat sauce or marinara, ricotta, Parmigiano and mozzarella cheese). Served in a casserole dish, Luca’s 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 Luca.
14 March 2017: The Eggplant Parmesan is simply magnificent–three medium-thickness eggplant medallions topped with marinara sauce and house-fresh mozzarella. You can easily puncture the light and crispy breading with a spoon, but there’s nothing mushy about the interior of this dish, just a silky smooth, delicious eggplant. The sauce is redolent of tart and juicy fresh tomatoes, a perfect foil for the melted mozzarella. Fittingly, the Eggplant Parmesan is served with a side of spaghetti and a piece of garlic bread.
27 November 2011: Dessert options include some of the “usual suspects” such as cannoli (traditional or chocolate) and tiramisu. The tiramisu is made in-house and doesn’t really distinguish itself (remember, Albuquerque is home to several restaurants proffering truly outstanding tiramisu–Torinos @ Home, Joe’s Pasta House and Farina Pizzeria, for example). The cannoli is similarly just okay, nothing about which to write home.
Perhaps because of the wine bar, Pizzeria Luca is most decidedly a restaurant in which young urban professionals will feel right at home, toddlers in tow. It’s the type of pizzeria which will many will call home away from home, a hang-out type, making it a good candidate for expansion–and indeed the ownership group is planning on several sites in the Albuquerque area. That’s a great thing for the Duke City because as everyone knows, you can’t have too many pizzerias!
8850 Holly Avenue, N.E., Suite J
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 March 2017
1st VISIT: 27 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Antipasto, Calabria, Modena, Cannoli, Tiramisu, Fricassee di Funghi, Luca Signatura Speciale, Eggplant Parmesan, Baked Ziti, Zuppe di Vongole