When we moved back to New Mexico on May 15, 1995, our first priority wasn’t where to live, but where to eat. Having been away for the better part of 18 years, there were so many old favorites with which to reacquaint ourselves and so many exciting new prospects we just had to try. By year’s end, we had visited 75 different restaurants (no chains). One of our favorite sources on where to eat was Albuquerque Monthly, a very well written publication which celebrated the Duke City’s culinary scene with an Annual Restaurant Guide and a “Best of Albuquerque” edition.
On its tenth anniversary, the magazine created a “Best Of” Hall of Fame, listing the ten establishments–restaurants, bars, card stores, clothing stores, computer stores, galleries and more–which had received more “best of” votes during the decade than anyone else. The first establishment listed was Scalo Northern Italian Grill, which was also perennial selection on the magazine’s annual listing of the city’s top ten fine-dining restaurants (other mainstays still serving the city include the Artichoke Cafe, Prairie Star and the Rancher’s Club).
Call it heretical if you will, but it took a while before Scalo earned my affections. One song described perfectly my first three experiences at Scalo, long regarded by many as an Italian restaurant in a class of its own–the pinnacle of Italian dining in the Duke City. That song, a 1960’s baby boomer tune by Polly J. Harvey asked the question, “Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball if that’s all there is.” After every meal at Scalo, I asked myself the same question: Is that all there is?…but I didn’t come away dancing (although the pricey tab usually made me want to take up drinking.)
Because it was one of Albuquerque’s most popular, highly acclaimed and revered restaurants, I expected Scalo to completely blow me away. Instead, my every dining experience was a humdrum event that left me perplexed as to what I was missing. That changed on Saturday, May 5th, 2005 when like a sudden, powerful and almost spiritual realization hit me–an eating epiphany of sorts. That epiphany came with the second or third bite of the spinach salad (yes, a salad!) with blue cheese, honeyed walnuts and strawberries. Almost ethereal in its lightness, this salad married ingredients that just shouldn’t work that well together, but nonetheless coalesce to create a memorable taste sensation. The sharpness of the blue cheese, the tartness of the just in season strawberries and the salty sweetness of the honeyed walnuts were like the signature masterpiece of a culinary artist, easily one of the best salads we’ve had in New Mexico.
Perhaps not coincidentally, just a few weeks before that transformative visit Scalo’s ownership changed hands with entrepreneur Steve Paternoster assuming the helm. Paternoster is one of Albuquerque’s most successful restaurant impresarios, having had a hand on several successful start-ups including La Brasserie Provence and Ptit Louis Bistro. He is also one of the city’s most active philanthropists, garnering the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s (NMRA) Cornerstone Humanitarian of the Year for New Mexico in 2010. That same year Scalo and Brasserie La Provence shared the NMRA’s “Restaurant Neighbor Award” for their ongoing contributions to many civic organizations, schools and churches.
It would be presumptuous to believe one person, no matter how influential or dynamic, could be solely responsible for my sudden change of heart about a restaurant. After all Scalo has been serving Albuquerque since December, 1986 and during its quarter-century of operation has always been regarded as one of the city’s premier destination restaurants. In 2007, it was bestowed a Wine Spectator award of excellence for its outstanding selection of premium wines. In 1998, it was featured in Gourmet Magazine. After 25 years, it continues to garner accolades. During his very entertaining and interesting weekly radio show, Steve Paternoster often gives all the credit to Scalo’s success to the restaurant’s staff, most of whom have been with the restaurant for years. It’s a good staff, as accommodating and friendly as they come in the Duke City, but Paternoster’s leadership and commitment to keeping his restaurant at the top is inspiring.
The Scalo experience is much more than excellent wines and quality Northern Italian cuisine. Its allure also includes a bright, airy interior bustling with the cacophonous din of constant activity from an open kitchen and an enthusiastic wait staff flitting from patron to patron, seemingly never skipping a beat or screwing up an order. Weather permitting, al fresco dining is available in a capacious, covered, temperature-controlled patio replete with white linen table cloths and fine silverware.
Scalo’s menu is influenced by seasonal harvests and it prides itself on using locally grown organic produce. The quality shows in some of the most inventive salads and soups anywhere in town. The Great Northern White Bean Soup is one such soup–a brimming bowl of great ingredients melded together creatively. Those ingredients include shaved Parmesan cheese, a spicy-sweet pancetta, an invigorating Italian pesto pasta and hard-crusted Ciabatta croutons. This is the perfect autumn soup a comforting elixir that will cure what ails you.
A meal at Scalo includes complimentary bread baked by the Swiss Alps Bakery which has been serving the Duke City for more than a decade. It’s a hearty, hard-crusted, airy bread just perfect for sopping up Scalo’s savory sauces. The bread is served with an olive oil and Balsamic vinegar mix. Alternatively, you can request butter, but it’s generally chilled and not easy to spread. For brunch (described below), the bread basket also includes fresh fruit danish.
The Baked Cavatelli starts with a corkscrew shaped pasta baked al dente then topped with a fennel-rich housemade pork sausage, mushrooms, roasted garlic, ricotta, Parmesan and a pine nut gremolata in a marinara cream sauce. There are a lot of things going on with this entree, but it’s not one of those dishes in which all the ingredients seem to be competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Instead the ingredients work well together in a concordant, complementary fashion. You may want to isolate the flavors to focus on specific tastes (for example, the richness of the ricotta or the tangy, piquant bite of the sausage), but this is an entree in which the flavors are truly best in combination with each other.
The sautéed gnocchi employs even more flavor combinations–a Gorgonzola cream sauce, toasted walnuts, balsamic currants and chives. There’s the pungent richness and sharpness of the Gorgonzola, the fruity tanginess of the currants and the flagrant effervescence of the chives. This gnocchi is rich and delicious. Gnocchi, which is much more than just Italian potato or semolina dumplings, should be light in texture with almost a melt-in-your-mouth quality. That’s what Scalo’s rendition of this taken-for-granted entree is–ethereally light and wholly enjoyable.
The lunch menu includes several wood-fired gourmet pizzas, most crafted with fairly standard, albeit high-quality ingredients. On occasion, the pizze (sic) menu also includes pizza crafted with ingredients you might not see elsewhere in New Mexico on a pizza. Creativity seems to be a hallmark of all Scalo entrees. One pizza we enjoyed immensely but which isn’t on the standard pizze menu showcased fig preserve, prosciutto, Gorgonzola, mozzarella and arugula. At first browse, these ingredients seem somewhat disparate, yet Scalo made them work in a taste bud pleasing fashion. Scalo’s pizza is a semi-round pie served slightly crispy and waifishly thin. It’s not likely you’ll have any leftovers save for the impressions left on your olfactory memories and taste buds.
Dessert (the “dolce” menu) is a celebratory event at Scalo where seven sensational sweet treats will challenge you to select the right one to finish off your meal. As with the antipasti, insalati, pizze, panini, carne e pesce and fresh pasta menus, desserts are not permanent fixtures as Scalo changes things up frequently to keep things interesting and delicious. You can generally expect to find homemade gelato on the menu and usually a “sampler’ which introduces you to three desserts at one fixed price. During our inaugural brunch visit, we rejoiced at finding a Budino Di Pane, an Italian bread pudding topped with warm caramel and served with vanilla gelato. It’s a dessert which in 1995 could well have been another epiphanic dish.
If you fancy chocolate–and not the dairy chocolate variety tailored for children–you’ll love Scalo’s chocolate semi freddo Genoise cake with a pistachio bark in a warm pool of dark chocolate sauce. This is not a fork-tender chocolate confection. In fact, it’s darn hard to cut into the cake, but once it’s in your mouth, it practically melts there. This is a dark, rich chocolate that should come with an “R” rating for adults only.
Scalo For Brunch
Scalo was a relative late-comer to the brunch bunch, serving the traditional Sunday repast from 11AM to 2:30PM with a Bloody Mary bar starting at noon. The brunch menu includes five items on the antipasti y insalate menu, four pizzas and a ten-item Primi Y Secondi menu. In Italy, the traditional meal progression begins with an antipasto followed by a primi (usually soup, pasta or risotto) then a secondi (main course) and finally dolce or formaggi (a cheese course). Portions in Italy tend to be much smaller than in America so that progression makes sense. Scalo’s portions are somewhat more substantial and you might not follow the traditional progression.
You would not, however, want to pass on an antipasti as terrific as the ostrichi al forno, four oysters on the half-shell baked with artichoke, aioli, Reggiano and truffle oil. It’s a wonderful variation on Oysters Rockefeller and much better, too. The greenish hue of the artichoke-infused, Reggiano blessed oyster appetizer is intriguing, but it’s the flavor of the dish–the brininess of the oysters, the fresh “greeness” of the artichokes, the sharp nuttiness of the Reggiano–that will ensnare your affections. You’ll want a dozen of these beauties.
The Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda, a pounded bone-in crispy pork chop with an onion, bacon, capers and grain mustard cream is somewhat reminiscent of a German weinerschnitzel though much more lightly breaded. The mustard cream is more akin to a French Hollandaise sauce than to a pungent, tangy German mustard. This prodigious hunk of porcine heaven is as substantial in flavor as it is in portion-size. The pork chop is nearly fork tender and is terrific with or without the mustard cream.
A more “breakfasty” brunch offering is the Polenta y Salsiccia, creamy polenta, grilled sausage, poached eggs, roasted peppers and mushrooms. Polenta (not necessarily synonymous with grits) serves as the base for this dish–literally. Piled atop the polenta are two sausages, one spicy and one sweet and frothy poached eggs. The objective of this dish is to spread the runny yokes throughout the dish, making it a melange of flavors. It may not be as aesthetically pleasing, but the combination of ingredients works very well.
Since my epiphany in 2005, it seems Scalo can do no wrong. My rating for this elegant Nob Hill treasure have risen from 15 to 22 over a period of visits. It wouldn’t surprise me if this trend continues. Scalo is that good–well worthy of all the accolades, well deserving of winning over stubborn converts such as me. It is an Albuquerque dining treasure!
Scalo Northern Italian Grill
3500 Central, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Spinach Salad; Penne with Tomato Cream Sauce; Pizza; Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda; Ostrichi al forno; Baked Cavatelli; Chocolate semi freddo;