The 1924 publication of Edgar Rice Burrough’s fantasy novel The Land That Time Forgot regaled readers with the notion of what might happen when contemporary humans stumble upon a lost world in which evolution has progressed much more slowly. Step into Caruso’s Italian Restaurant on Menaul and you just might be entering Albuquerque’s version of the Italian restaurant that time forgot. Ask friends or family to name ten or even fifteen Italian restaurants in Albuquerque and it’s likely Caruso’s won’t be on that list. Remind them Caruso’s isn’t on their list and their likely response will be “oh yeah, I forgot about Caruso’s.”
At more than four decades of age, the venerable Caruso’s doesn’t have the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate the Duke City’s Italian restaurant scene. This august family owned restaurant is showing signs of age and its menu reflects the defiance of a proprietor who holds fast to tradition against a tide of trendy chains which serve portions which would bloat a bovine and whose saccharine service is as transparent as glass. Caruso’s doesn’t feature the latest Northern Italian culinary concept nor does its wait staff belt out operatic arias while you dine. Caruso’s operates largely the same today as it did back in the mid 1970s when it launched.
So, how does Caruso’s manage to stay in business and who frequents this anachronism of a restaurant? Let me answer the second part of the question first. Generations of Duke City diners frequent Caruso’s. Adults whose own parents brought them to Caruso’s bring their own children to the restaurant. They come for the family-oriented tradition, the great value, personable service…and they come for the food. During a visit in April, 2013, we were both shocked and thrilled to see three teenage boys (no parents in sight) having lunch at Caruso’s. What would compel Generation-Z (born 1995-2012) youth not to follow their peers to a more trendy restaurant? We asked one of them who promptly explained how much he loves the sandwiches and pizza at Caruso’s.
The menu is relatively small with two pages of standard Italian culinary creations such as rigatoni, spaghetti, manicotti and pizza as well as fried chicken. After more than forty year of serving the Duke City dining public, Caruso’s most popular entree remains spaghetti followed by lasagna and pizza. The ground sausage is homemade and the meatballs are more meat than they are filler. Order an entree of spaghetti and meatballs and you transcend the years with the evocation of olfactory memories of your first experience with good spaghetti. A rich red sauce with just the right amount of garlic and oregano make it so.
Telephone solicitors calling the restaurant often ask to speak with Mr. Caruso, but the restaurant is actually named for the legendary operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. Several black and white images of the Neapolitan crooner hold a place of honor on the restaurant walls while the back page of the menu defines and describes various facets of an Italian opera. The red, white and green colors of the Italian flag are prominent on the restaurant’s signage, another indication that this is no American chain. Red and white checkerboard tablecloths decorate every table while the requisite wine bottles festoon ledges on the red brick interior walls.
The pizza is substantial with a quarter inch thick crust that holds up well against an onslaught of pepperoni, green chile, onions and sausage (the number four special). It, too, evoked memories of the great pizzas of my youth. There’s nothing fancy about it, no fru fru ingredients, just good crust, a great tomato sauce and fine ingredients. The few pieces left over from dinner will taste just as good the following day.
Entrees are accompanied by an old-fashioned salad. Old-fashioned means iceberg lettuce and lots of it. The only other components to this salad are a single slice of salami and the dressing of your choice (the house Italian is quite popular). There is nothing nouveau or trendy about this salad that time has forgotten, but it’s simple and it’s good. So is the accompanying bread. It’s thick, fresh and served with those small plastic tubs of butter which are annoyingly difficult to open.
Old-fashioned would also describe the veal parmigiana, an entree which time (or at least many restaurant menus) has forgotten. Caruso’s uses a medium sized veal cutlet and breads it rather thickly then tops it with its house red meat sauce and melted mozzarella. The breading sticks very well to the cutlet, perhaps one of the reasons this parmigiana is a bit on the desiccated side. The veal parmigiana is served with a side of spaghetti with meat sauce (marinara is available if you ask for it).
Out of curiosity after seeing it destined for quite a few other tables, my Kim ordered the fried chicken during our second visit. An order of fried chicken means a half bird–thigh, leg and wing. The chicken is breaded rather thickly and doesn’t have as much white and dark meat as we would have wanted, but the meat we were able to extricate from the bony carcass was juicy and delicious. The fried chicken is normally accompanied by French fries, but you can ask for spaghetti instead.
As long as there are families with traditions and memories, restaurants such as Caruso’s Italian Restaurant will never be completely forgotten. A family can eat very well more cheaply than they would at some chain burger restaurants.
Caruso’s Italian Restaurant
5626 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2013
1st VISIT: 25 August 2005
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pizza, Spaghetti with Meatballs