Il Vicino – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Undoubtedly the most often quoted line on Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, a four-time Pulitzer Prize award winning American poet certainly didn’t have Il Vicino (“the neighbor”) in mind when he penned that proverb. Fortunately fences are no obstacle to patrons of this popular contemporary Italian trattoria. A well-regarded neighborhood eatery with three Albuquerque locations, Il Vicino is probably best known for its wood-oven pizza and award-winning brewery with popular micro-brewed ales but it offers much more than that. Known in some circles for prized beers, Il Vicino has a private wine label designed to complement its menu. Victuals include salads, panini-style sandwiches and baked lasagna, too.
Il Vicino has long been a fixture in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill area (3403 Central Avenue, S.E.) with a second location in the far Northeast Heights (11225 Montgomery Boulevard, N.E.). In November, 2009, a third Il Vicino was launched in the burgeoning Northwest side (10701 Coors Blvd, N.W.). You’re never too far away from Il Vicino.
Pizza selections range from the traditional to the artful, from sublime simplicity to complex contemporary. Among the former is the pizza that started it all in 1889 when an Italian pizzaiolo crafted a pizza reflecting the colors of the Italian Sabauda flag and named it for his queen. More than a century and a quarter later, it is widely acknowledged that the red (marinara sauce), white (white mozzarella cheese) and green (fresh basil) pizza crafted the fateful day Queen Margherita visited her summer residence at Capodimont is the progenitor of every pizza crafted ever since. Considering Americans alone consume 100 acres of pizza each day, that’s a lot of pies.
The Pizza Margherita needs no additional adornment; add anything to it and it’s no longer a Pizza Margherita. If a restaurant doesn’t do a decent Pizza Margherita, how can you trust it to craft something more elaborate? When it’s on its game, Il Vicino does it well–a wood-oven baked, thin-crusted pie with just a hint of char on a (usually) crispy crust replete in its outside edges with airy holes. Because of the thinness of the pizza, the pizzaiolis sometimes extricate it from the oven before it’s completely done. That means you’ll occasionally get a doughy, incompletely baked pizza. Unlike cookie dough, near raw pizza dough is nearly inedible. All too often, this is the type of pizza Il Vicino has served me–and other victims…er, guests. At other times (increasingly rare), the pizza is crispy and done to perfection. It’s this lack of consistency that prevents me from rating it higher than I have or from returning with more regularity.
At the Northeast Heights location, the mouth of a ferocious lion (pictured above) serves as the door to the oven in which more than a dozen different pizzas are prepared. Having visited all three Il Vicino restaurants, I believe the leonine oven is responsible for the most consistently well-baked pizzas in the triumvirate of neighborly restaurants.
Non-traditional pizza includes the Pizze Bianca, a white (no tomato sauce) pizza featuring spicy oil, mozzarella, Copocollo ham, Portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, rosemary, goat cheese, gorgonzola and sun-baked tomatoes. Talk about a delicious departure from the comparatively naked pizza adorned with tomato sauce.
There’s also the Rustica (artichoke hearts, clamata olives, capers, roasted garlic and marinara sauce) and the Campagnola (sausage, mushrooms, marinara sauce, roasted garlic) about which my only complaint (and it’s a small one) is that it didn’t have enough goat cheese to suit my taste. There are fourteen different pizzas on the menu, some fairly basic and others adorned with ingredients some people might consider fru-fru.
Il Vicino’s prowess is by no means exclusive to pizza. It also crafts some of the most highly regarded panini sandwiches and most colossal calzones in town as well as sizeable salads and pasta al forno. Two lasagna entrees are among the latter. One, the lasagna giardiniere is a vegetarian’s delight, replete with layered pasta, fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, mushrooms, spinach, ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, marinara sauce and pesto.
Meat lovers will enjoy the Lasagna Bolognese (pictured above), pasta layered with marinara sauce, ground beef, tomatoes, onion, mozzarella, ricotta, mushrooms, fresh oregano and parmesan. It’s a filling pasta dish though somewhat on the salty side–and the level of doneness may result in a relatively dry lasagna you can literally scrape off the plate.
Somehow Il Vicino has managed to discover the perfect balance of ingredients when crafting both folded flatbread and conventional panini sandwiches. Neither vegetables nor meats nor cheeses or sauces dominate the competition for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Instead, the ingredients meld together like a well-orchestrated musical arrangement.
Among the very best folded flatbread sandwiches on the menu is the Hero, a sandwich sobriquet with copious aliases (submarine, hoagie, grinder, etc.). Like most hero sandwiches, this one is heaped with layers of thinly sliced meats, vegetables and cheeses. In this case, the ingredients would be Capocollo ham, hard salami, dijon mayonnaise, mozzarella, provolone, pepperoncini, red onions, Roma tomato, romaine, house vinaigrette. As shown below, Il Vicino does not scrimp on ingredients. Two things make this sandwich special–the dijon mustard which has a definite attention-getting tang and the pepperoncini, a rare additive to sandwiches, but one which definitely belongs on the Hero.
Il Vicino was one of only two New Mexico pizzerias mentioned in Ed Levine’s terrific tome, Pizza, A Slice of Heaven, the definitive guide to the appreciation of America’s favorite food throughout the country. That doesn’t necessarily mean Levine regarded it that highly; more than likely, he ran out of time and didn’t bother to explore other of New Mexico’s pizzerias. In addition to two Duke City Venues, this neighbor is going places–many places. There are now eight Il Vicino restaurants in four states with sister restaurants in Santa Fe, St. Louis, Wichita, Denver, Littleton and Colorado Springs.
Libations are ostensibly as good as the food–or at least Il Vicino’s root beer is. It’s a hearty, full-bodied adult root beer with little froth and just enough sweetness to appeal to children of all ages.
One visit and you might wish all your neighbors were like Il Vicino. Now if only they could figure out the secret to a great pizza is keeping it in the oven until it’s done enough.
3403 Central, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 01 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 9
BEST BET: Wood Oven Pizza, Panini Sandwiches