“Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone..”
—Stanley Tucci as Segundo in Big Night
With a name like M’Tucci’s Kitchina, you might wonder if the Italian restaurant on the intersection of Coors and Montano is named for Academy Award nominated actor Stanley Tucci. After all, Tucci co-starred in Big Night and Julie & Julia, arguably two of the very best food movies in recent years. The “Kitchina” part of the restaurant’s name is obviously a whimsical play on “cucina,” the Italian term for kitchen, but is spelled more similarly to Kachina, the Hopi ancestral spirits. In any case, if the amusing name and fun, casual ambiance doesn’t hook you, the food certainly will.
Step into the expansive dining room and the playfulness hinted by the restaurant’s name continues. Our immediate impression was “Laissez les bon temps roulette” (let the good times roll) as in New Orleans Mardi Gras. That impression was gleaned from the colorful Mardi Gras-like masks on several walls and a life-sized alligator on another. Then there’s the pergola–large enough to accommodate a table of four–with an ominous lizard crawling down the roof. There’s something to pique your interest everywhere you turn.
The colorful masks (which are easily mistaken for those widely seen in New Orleans) are Venetian, a staple of the Carnival of Venice. The alligator…well, he’s there because co-owner Katie Gardner likes him. The chandeliered pergola is designated for feting guests celebrating a special occasion. When we commented on the restaurant’s “wildly eclectic ambiance” Katie explained that she’s a wildly eclectic person. She’s also very experienced in running successful restaurants, having owned eleven of them along with her husband in New York City…and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
Succeeding where other restaurants have failed will certainly be a challenge. M’Tucci’s is situated in the digs formerly occupied by The Mill of New Mexico, Tomato Café and Spinn’s Burgers and Beer. It’s a tough location exacerbated by the fact that its storefront, while facing heavily trafficked Coors Boulevard, is obfuscated by distance, traffic flow and other shops. A very active Facebook presence and (mostly) glowing reviews by print and online media (including Cheryl Alters Jamison for New Mexico Magazine) have helped tremendously, but word-of-mouth from satisfied guests (especially those returning) is a major catalyst for drawing new guests. In October, 2013, scant months of its July launch, M’Tucci’s finished as runner-up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants as the “best restaurant on the west side.”
Katie and her husband Jeff Spiegel moved to Albuquerque, his hometown, in 2007. Eventually they started to miss the hustle and bustle of the restaurant business and launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in July, 2013. The “M’Tucci” in the restaurant’s name is in honor of Richard Matteucci, a friend of Jeff’s. A framed black-and-white photo of Jeff, Richard and an unidentified frolicker celebrating a (very) good time hangs among the bric-a-brac. You’ve got to love an owner who shares in his fun.
While the ambiance bespeaks of fun and whimsy, the menu includes some seriously good dining options, some heretofore unseen in the Duke City. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this modern contemporary Italian restaurant which offers playful takes on classic dishes as well as a bit of local flavor (it’s virtually impossible to have a menu in New Mexico without red and green chile). Six Neapolitan-style pizzas are prepared in a wood-burning pizza oven. The bar menu, which varies daily, includes tapas-style small plates.
The visionary behind the menu is John Hass, executive chef and member of the restaurant’s ownership triumvirate. John’s interpretation of traditional foods often involves their deconstruction, refining and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes with which you’ve grown up, but they might not be exactly as you John is already so highly regarded that he was named “best chef” runner up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants 2013. Traditional items he prepares might not be exactly as you may remember them. They’ll be better! The ricotta stuffed cannelloni dish, for example includes both marinara sauce and New Mexico red chile which is why it’s sub-titled “Enchiladas Italianas” on the menu.
5 October 2013: You won’t need cold weather to luxuriate in the warmth and deliciousness of the Borlotti White Bean Soup, M’Tucci’s answer to the seemingly de rigueur pasta fagoli. This superb soup is constructed from Haas-made (get it?) sausage, arugula, carrots and fennel in a steamy chicken broth with just a sprinkling of Parmesan. It’s Italian comfort food at its finest even without pasta or tomatoes. The Borlotti white beans are terrific with a “meaty” flavor, creamy texture and nary a hint of sweetness. The sausage is a bit coarse, but has excellent fennel enriched flavor. A bowlful will cure whatever ails you.
Fittingly, the house bread comes from America’s breadbasket. That’s one of the nicknames for the state of Kansas which is renowned for its high quality wheat production. It’s an excellent bread! A basketful of the staff of life includes six lightly toasted and buttered baguette slices. A hard exterior crust belies a pillowy soft inside with plenty of air holes. It’s the type of bread for which you risk filling up quickly, but can’t stop eating because it’s so good.
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells laments “Menus shouldn’t need explanation. Menus should BE the explanation. That’s the point of writing things down.” In far too many restaurants, you practically need a degree in Egyptology to understand the hieroglyphics placed in front of you. As creative as they are with food, many chefs lack creativity with words. This translates to overly confusing, overly wordy menus. Kudos to Chef Hass and the M’Tucci staff for publishing menus diners can actually understand.
19 April 2014: One of the most exquisite appetizers on the M’Tucci’s menu is the fried brie. Call it a finely choreographed symphony of simple flavors which go so well together. A wedge of soft brie is sheathed beneath a crisp, light, golden crust. It’s intended to be spread onto thinly sliced, pomegranate glazed grilled baguette. From there you’re on your own. You can then add crisp apple slices, strawberries and even mixed greens, a brie sandwich of sorts. The warm silkiness of the brie amplifies the tanginess of the apples and strawberries and the bitterness of the greens.
5 October 2013: One of the more interesting items on the Antipasti menu is the quaintly named Fauxpaccio de Barbietola Arrostite. Fauxpaccio is obviously a play on the word carpaccio, (thinly sliced or pounded thin meat or fish) while Barbietola Arrostite is an Italian terms for roasted sugar beets. The menu had me at Fauxpaccio. Served in a dinner plate, it’s a beautiful dish: roasted yellow beets shaved supermodel thin and as gold as New Mexico foliage in autumn, pickled red onion, goat cheese and a pile of arugula all lightly drizzled with a vinaigrette. It’s a marvelous contrast of ingredients with varied flavor profiles and textures, all thoroughly enjoyable. A few days after having this wonderful appetizer we learned that it is no longer offered because, for some reason inexplicable to me, it just wasn’t selling. Grrrrr!
Some Italian restaurants segregate their menus into Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, loosely translated to appetizers, first course and main course. M’Tucci’s also includes a Pizza menu, offering some six pizzas, including gluten-free options. Portion sizes will make it a challenge to order one from each menu then expect to have dessert, too. The Secondi menu, available during dinner hours, is replete with proteins (rotisserie chicken, fried fish, duck breast, braised tripe, Kurobuta Pork and ribeye). Some of them are also available for lunch, too.
19 April 2014: One of the most ambitious items on the menu is the Risotto Del Giorno, a daily risotto special featuring seasonal ingredients. Even the most intrepid of chefs avoid risotto because it’s easy to make simple mistakes that ruin the dish. You’ve got to admire Chef Hass’s gumption. He doesn’t just prepare risotto on special occasions, he’s got the temerity to offer it every day. If the seafood risotto is indicative of his mastery of this oft-intimidating dish, I’ve got to visit more often. The triumvirate of mahi mahi, shrimp and mussels in a sumptuous and rich saffron sauce was absolutely perfect. The saffron imparts the color of a sunny disposition and a uniquely umami quality. The seafood is fresh and delicious. The rice is a smidgeon past al dente, a textural success.
5 October 2013: Much as we admire the monogamy of ducks, it’s hard to resist the beautiful feathered waterfowl when it’s on the plate and it looks so inviting. The pan-seared duck breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions and a cherry Balsamic reduction is so good, it’ll mitigate any guilt we might feel. The duck breast is perfectly prepared and sliced thinly. The end pieces are slightly crispy. The polenta, often a “take it or leave it” dish is definitely a “take it” at M’Tucci’s. It’s creamy, light and fluffy and it inherits additional flavor from the braised kale and caramelized onions which blanket the polenta. If polenta is an oft unappreciated dish, kale is often disdained, even by foodies. This kale might win over some converts.
19 April 2014: The two culinary feats I have yet to master after five decades on Planet Earth are using chopsticks and twirling spaghetti around a fork. Because of the latter, my appreciation for pastas other than spaghetti has grown tremendously. For fork challenged diners, a great alternative to the confounding, long, thin strands is the pappardelle noodle, a ribbon pasta easy to work with. M’Tucci’s Pappardelle con Salsiccia, a ribbon pasta with sausage is an exemplar on how well this noodle works, both from a functional as well as an esthetic perspective. This dish showcases the Haas made Italian sausage, a medium coarse blend flavored with fennel. My Kim says it’s of Chicago quality, a huge compliment. A delicate sauce imbued with braised kale and Pecorino lend more than personality to this winner of an entree.
5 October 2013: The lunch menu includes aptly named sandwich called the AL-BQ Italian Beef, Chef Haas’s interpretation of the Italian beef sandwich held sacred throughout Chicago. The sandwich is named partially for Al’s #1 Beef in the Windy City and of course, for Albuquerque. The thinly shredded roasted beef, giardinera and Italian beef au jus on an Italian hoagie roll make it Chicago while green chile makes it Albuquerque. Frankly, we enjoyed the AL-BQ Italian Beef more than we did the sacrosanct Italian beef sandwich at Al’s #1 (although Al’s does pack quite a bit more beef into its sandwiches). So do a number of transplants from the City of Big Shoulders. For additional authenticity, ask for your sandwich to be served “wet” (as in immersed in the au jus). It’ll render your sandwich falling apart moist, but that’s why forks were invented.
10 October 2013: In recent years, Albuquerque has experienced not only a pizza resolution, but an evolution of its pizzas. Almost every purveyor of the pie now offers a pizza or two sans tomato sauce and we’re all the better for it. Of the six pizzas offered at M’Tucci’s, only two of them are made with tomato sauce. The Alla Campagna starts with a beauteous golden brown crust topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta and Balsamic glaze. The crust is a little thicker than some Neapolitan-style pizzas, especially the cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) which is thick, soft and chewy. It’s also delicious with the flavor of freshly baked bread. The Alla Campagna’s ingredients provide wonderful taste contrasts which not only make it an interesting pizza, but a delicious one.
According to the M’Tucci’s Facebook page, an ancient proverb once declared that if four or more desserts gather in one place, at one time, you will have the power to change the world. Whether or not that proverb rings with truth, one thing is for certain: desserts at this fantastic new Italian restaurant are fantastic. That’s courtesy of pastry chef Eric Moshier who was named America’s best new chef in 2000 by Food& Wine. With that type of pedigree you know the desserts are going to be spectacular.
5 October 2013: Desserts aren’t only spectacular, they’re inventive–some of the Duke City’s most unique and uniquely delicious pastries. The most inventive might be the Twinkie L’Italia which Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.” Fantasy is right! This is a terrific dessert. So is the Cannoli Di Sicilia (crispy cannoli shell, sweet ricotta filling, chocolate chips) with tantalizing citrus notes.
10 October 2013: Another transformative dessert is the Crostada De Limone, a lip-pursing lemon tart as artistic and beautiful to ogle as it is to eat. It’s one of few lemon tarts in the Duke City that’s actually made well in that it doesn’t reek of artificial ingredients and flavors. The lemon is actually allowed to taste like lemon, not artificial in the least. It’s the type of lemon dessert you might find in Florida.
The restaurant’s coffee is made by Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain. The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque. It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.”
You can never have too many good Italian restaurants in town. It’s a bit early to tell, but with a formula that includes great food and great fun, M’Tucci’s Kitchina has the right stuff needed to succeed in a tough market.
6001 Winter Haven Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2014
1st VISIT: 5 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Twinkie L’Italia, Chocolate Cannoli, Borlotti White Bean Soup, Fauxpaccio de Barbabietola Arrostite, Pan Seared Duck Breast, AL-BQ Italian Beef, Alla Campagna Pizza, Crostada de Limone, Seafood Risotto, Pappardelle con Salsiccia