Can you imagine New Mexico Magazine‘s scintillating culinary liaison Cheryl Alters Jamison declaring to the world that Texas chili, that cumin-laden “con carne” bowl of red (insert your favorite epithet here), is superior to New Mexico’s red and green and that our chefs are shamelessly usurping Texas culinary traditions? Not even as an April Fool’s Day joke would she do that…and if she did, her husband Bill would probably have her committed.
In May, 2013, an Italian culture minister committed a near treasonous act in declaring that “In Italy we haven’t eaten well for a long time, unfortunately. We have chased after the trends, the French, moving away from our idea of cooking.” The latter portion of that comment was especially perfidious to proud Italians, whose cuisine the international culinary community (and especially French propaganda) have long decried as inferior to the haute (and haughty) French cuisine.
It would certainly be understandable if the cultural minister had bad-mouthed the Olive Garden, but certainly not the authentic and incomparable cuisine prepared in ristorantes, trattorias, osterias, pizzerias, paninotecas, caffes, saladates and gelaterias across Lo Stivale (the boot). If the emissary of eating doesn’t like the Italian food prepared in its country of origin how much less would he like Italian food as interpreted by those upstart colonists in the United States?
Should said cultural minister ever visit New Mexico, there are a number of Italian restaurants to which I would be proud to introduce her. One of them is Pranzo Italian Grill in Santa Fe. Google Pranzo and you’ll quickly note that on a scale of one to thirty, it warranted a score of only “17.” Wouldn’t taking the condescending cultural minister to Pranzo be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, proof enough that Italian food in America is even worse than Italian food in Italy?
Delve deeper into that score of “17″ and you’ll find that the 63 reviews from which that score was gleaned are rather old. Numerous changes have transpired since those reviews, the most significant of which is the return to the kitchen in April, 2013, of executive chef Steven Lemon, the restaurant’s founding chef twenty-five years ago. Chef Lemon left Pranzo after six years to cut a rather diverse swath across the culinary landscape in New Mexico, earning a reputation as a stickler for quality and value. His most recent venture prior to returning to Pranzo was as proprietor of the outstanding Cafe O in Pojoaque.
The Pranzo Italian Grill (affectionally known as the “PIG”) is one of the anchor tenants of the Sanbusco Market Center, one of Santa Fe’s most unique shopping centers. Pranzo, which translates from Italian to English as “lunch, luncheon, dinner or repast” and can be used as both a noun and verb, is located in the heart of the historic Railyard District, scant minutes from the Railrunner Terminus and six blocks from the Santa Fe Plaza. Launched in 1987, it was purchased by restaurateur Michael O’Reilly in 2005. Under his direction, Pranzo has earned a Wine Spectator award for excellence every year since 2006. Broadway and jazz are featured in the Geist Cabaret on Fridays and Saturdays.
Pranzo boasts of one of the most knowledgeable and attentive wait staffs in Santa Fe. They’ll gladly interpret the menu–on which each item’s Italian name is used–for you if the descriptive sub-titles aren’t sufficiently explanatory. I learned, for example, why a particular pasta is named “Strangle the Priest.” There are actually three legends behind this quaint name for a pasta, the most plausible being that gluttonous priests were so enthralled by the savory pasta that they ate too quickly and choked themselves, sometimes to death.
As you peruse the menu, a basket of Fano artisan farm bread is delivered to your table. No ordinary bread is this. Fano is a New Mexico treasure, one of the very best bakeries in the state. At Pranzo, baguettes are sliced thick to best take advantage of the hard-crusted exterior and soft innards. It’s the perfect bread for dredging up the three olive oils in stylish decanters on your table–red chile, garlic and herbs. All three have very pronounced (and very addictive) flavors and are available for purchase.
Chef Lemon is one of a handful of chefs in New Mexico who makes his own Burrata cheese. Burrata, an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture and as rich a cheese as you’ll find. In fact, in Italian Burrata actually translates to “buttered.” It bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.
Chef Lemon pairs this magnificent cheese with mandolin-sliced pears resembling thinly cut waffle chips. The near cloying sweetness of the pairs is punctuated by a light drizzle of olive oil and black pepper. This starter is served with slices of perfectly prepared crostini (made from that wondrous Sage Bakehouse bread). The melange of flavors is magical. Your taste buds will delight in the taste explosions of ingredients which go so well together.
As of May, 2013, the only pasta made on the premises is spaghettini, but eventually every pasta will be housemade. That’s another Chef Lemon touch. On the Polpette Di Pranzo (housemade meatballs, braised tomatoes, garlic confit and basil), the spaghettini is “supporting cast” to the very best restaurant meatballs we’ve had in years. On the plate, this entree looked like your garden variety spaghetti and meatballs, but the meatballs are definitely the featured item. They’re wholly devoid of that “filler” taste of most meatballs in that the flavor of fresh, high-quality beef is accentuated. The sauce formed by the combination of braised tomatoes, garlic confit and basil elevates the spaghetti.
After learning the legend of the “strangle the priest pasta,” you might have no choice but to order the Strozza Pretti, a sinfully (appropriate) rich dish that might just land on your short list of favorite pasta dishes. The pasta itself is an elongated form of cavatelli split vertically. It’s a very good pasta, but not good enough by itself to make priests so gluttonous as to choke. Fortunately you don’t have to eat it by itself. Pranzo serves the pasta with beef cheeks, basil and Grana Padano, a grainy Italiana cheese made into a sauce so rich you might not be able to finish your entree. The beef cheeks are fabulous.
Desserts at Pranzo are to be celebrated. My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, will love the Italian bread pudding which is so good it might make his bread pudding hall of fame. It certainly became one of my favorite bread puddings on first bite. Topped with an amaretto espresso creme Anglaise and served with a side of F.X. O’Reilly Vietnamese Cinnamon ice cream, it’s a deeply rich, wonderfully flavored bread pudding. The amaretto espresso flavor is especially prominent with deep licorice notes.
On further reflection, Pranzo Italian Grill is not a restaurant who which I’d take the Italian cultural minister. It’s unlikely she’d be able to recognize its greatness. Fortunately New Mexico’s diners are much more savvy.
Pranzo Italian Grill
540 Montezuma Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$