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Scalo Northern Italian Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Scalo, one of the crown jewels of the Nob Hill area.

Scalo, one of the crown jewels of the Nob Hill area.

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).

The main dining room at Scalo

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.

Great Northern White Bean Soup

Great Northern White Bean Soup

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.

Baked cavatelli

Baked cavatelli

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.

Gnocchi Scalo style is an adventure in flavor.

Gnocchi Scalo style is an adventure in flavor.

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.

chocolate semi freddo

chocolate semi freddo

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.

Budino Di Pane: Warm caramel topped bread pudding with vanilla gelato

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.

Ostrichi al Forno: oysters baked with artichoke, aoili, reggiano, truffle oil

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.

Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda: pounded bone-in crispy pork chop, onion bacon and grain mustard cream, capers, potatoes

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.

Polenta y Salsiccia: creamy polenta, grilled sausage, poached eggs, roasted peppers, mushrooms

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
505 255-8782
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 22
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Spinach Salad; Penne with Tomato Cream Sauce; Pizza; Costletto alla Milanese Mostarda; Ostrichi al forno; Baked Cavatelli; Chocolate semi freddo;

Scalo Northern Italian Grill on Urbanspoon

  • martin says:

    We had an Entertainment Book and we tried Scalo last night. In one word, dreadful.

    I had the gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce $13. The wife had the “special” 4 meat pasta $18.

    I tasted the 4 meat pasta first then said to my wife, “I don’t thnk you’re going to like it. It’s bitter.” She tasted it. Agreed and it was just OK. I had the
    leftovers for lunch and it was not any better.

    My gnocchis were so soft they fell apart. There wasn’t enough sauce to wipe with your bread. Taste just OK.

    Vivace much better. My wife’s sauce 10,000 times better.

    October 7, 2009 at 11:28 AM
  • Jeff says:

    Sorry, but I have to agree with your pre-epiphany assessment. I continue to find Scalo the single most over-rated restaurant in New Mexico. Its pedestrian food and higher-than-deserved prices disappoint me every time I decide to give it another go and see if I’ve just had bad luck in the past. It’s a shame it’s such a sham, because the location and facility are very nice.

    I agree with the other respondent that Vivace is MUCH better and that’s where I go for really excellent Italian food (at more reasonable prices). Most of my more gastronomically inclined friends agree.

    January 19, 2010 at 2:36 PM
  • Ken says:

    I guess I’m not going to share anything new that the previous reviewers haven’t made quite clear. Over-rated is being kind. Awful is probably more honest.

    We visited last weekend and had another bad experience. Our pizza took 45 minutes to arrive after we ordered it. The bread the waitress promised while we waited for so long NEVER arrived. When the pizza did arrive it was cold. Now I love cold pizza but not at a restaurant that touts its “Wood Fired” offerings. On to dinner. My wife ordered a pasta dish that was interesting. I always thought “al dente” meant pasta cooked so as to be “firm”. At Scalo it means CRUNCHY!! Who knew.

    Our waitperson had to be continually hunted down for water, wine, bread and virtually everything else. She offered grated cheese for both the pizza AND our pasta dishes but none ever arrived. Finally, we just gave up and left. We won’t be back.

    Bad service, bad food and lack of desire to resolve any of these issues will certainly keep us away.

    If you have to eat in the area, there are several terrific choices available. Scalo isn’t one of them.

    October 18, 2010 at 10:01 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    While making a Comment Comparison to Blade’s, I checked out the review here and was a tad dismayed by the Comment offerings especially in light of 1) how could Scalo’s have survived all these years per such “poor” servings?, 2) how could it be packed on a Sunday night in ’11 given these tough economic times, and 3) how could I’ve not had an untoward experience in terms of food or service in the past three years and believe me Bubbas, I’m tight when spending money!

    Be that as it may, here’s my ReCycled Comment re someone yaking about the noise at Blade’s:
    Whoa, was gonna go to Blade’s last night to pay attention to and check that noise level of above out as I couldn’t bring such an experience to mind…while especially hoping they had some of that Veal Oscar still on Special, but remembered they rest after their Sunday Brunch. In lieu of that I went to Scalo’s as a comparison setting ala “fine dining”. Indeed, despite being Sunday, Scalo’s was packed for the 6:30ish hour and I was seated on the ‘main floor’ at a 2-top, per my being a Single and it being the 2nd to last open table in the place. Whoa….talk about your sound level !!! I had trouble just talking to myself (!) as I’ve usually dined by the front window or in the bar times before! Be that as it may…i.e. regardless or despite that…I must note my Filetto*, adorned con Cambozola and embedded in a luscious risotto, was…and how trite….ever so tender while served a perfect pink-medium. Alas, while I would have preferred the asparagus being a tad less al dente, paying only 6 bucks for a Margarita offset that….LOL.

    Beyond that, Mucho Kudos to Steve Paternoster for participating in the The Q’s Journal’s Press Pass promotion as Scalo’s is a rare “dining” experience offering a discount, let alone 20% especially as compared to most discount promotions discriminating against “Singles” by only offering ‘Buy 1, get one free’!

    BTW, I cannot imagine a gaggle greater than 4 being unnoisy in and of themselves unless they were dining at French’s, Salazaar’s, Daniels’ etc!!!! Beyond those suggestions, if you are a group of 6 or 8 etc., requiring/needing a quiet setting, you can also find that at….and, albeit exposing myself to ridicule by confessing my having been here….a Mickey D’s!!, i.e. in contrast to the packed houses of Blade’s and Scalo’s “in these tough economic times!!!”
    * What’s with eating a filet in an “Italian” restaurant? Well, its just me….I can’t eat a “whole” dish of one thing…i.e. I wish there’d be more Combo offerings….no matter how pedestrain that might be….instead of a whole plate of spaghetti, chow mein, etc. Picture a plate of 3 (butter fried) pierogies (one each of kapusta, potato, cheese), a 1/2 dozen slices of 1/2 inch kelbasi, all encircling a succulent golumpki!!! (The”l” is pronounced like the “wa” in “want”.) Now that would be Yummy with a slice of Polish (teeth wrenching) rye and a PBR!!!

    “Chow!”

    April 11, 2011 at 1:51 PM
  • Bob says:

    I live within walking distance of Blades and will shortly be leaving to enjoy yet another wonderful northern Italian meal at Scalo’s where I have enjoyed their offerings, from time to time, over a 17 year period. OK, so it’s not Little Italy’s, Il Cortile but, in case you haven’t noticed, this ain’t NYC and Central is a long way from Mulberry Street. And, by the way, comparing Vivace to Scalo’s is like comparing Vietnamese cuisine to that of Thailand. I have not had any better calamari since leaving San Francisco and I can’t wait to have their gnocchi, which is as good as any I have sampled in Rome.

    In short, I have eaten at better northern Italian restaurants, but none that I could get to from ABQ without an expensive plane ride.

    May 29, 2011 at 5:46 PM
  • Bruce Schor says:

    I think Scalo’s is one fine eating establishment.
    In 2004 on our first real trip (in 1989 we travelled through ABQ on our way north to Santa Fe and then Jackson Hole) to ABQ to celebrate my 60th birthday with a hot air balloon ride we dined at Scalo’s for the celebration.
    I found the food first rate and enjoyed the company of two other couples and had no trouble with communicating.
    Thank goodness the red sauce was marinara and not red chile laced.
    We often take guests to Scalo’s and I’ve never heard a complaint about either the food or the ambiance.
    And as I have said before I believe to truly assess a restaurant you have to try it at least twice.
    That is one of the reasons I respect Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling), Gil makes a few trips before
    pulling the trigger on his reviews.
    Anyone who thinks a restaurant never has an off day hasn’t been getting out enough.

    June 2, 2011 at 12:45 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    Stopped in for another try at the Filetto, previously described. OMG…it outdid the wonderful tenderness of previous visit and it gets my 5 Beef-on-the-Hoof award for Best in the City…I wait to be corrected. Also, I think the cook sticks one of those mini-cams inside to check on the “pinkness” ordered…like one Jack Bauer might slide under the door to check things out before banging down a door…Eh! he’s getting older and needs to watch out.
    Again, Kudos to Pasternoster for continuing to be a Journal Press Pass participant….it just doesn’t get any better than a discount like that!!!!

    November 6, 2011 at 8:17 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    Yo…Great Update! It entices me back to note there is nothing better than getting* a Scalo Gift Cert. from one’s Sis for Christmas/Hanukkah/Celebrations I don’t know of. (*Well, maybe hearing the exaltations one would get after giving one!) In any event, I partially used mine on 1/20. Alas, if only I could get the gal from the Hamptons to exhort this Classic to ya… “Gumba, ya g-o-t-t-a-h have a Filetto!” like she laid on Elaine in this segment http://tinyurl.com/7cjkp4l . Indeed, you will then “continue” to trend-up your rating of Scalo’s, IMHO.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:23 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    As I’ve extolled Scalo’s herein…as well as comparatively in reviews of other restaurants, I need to point out that this Fav of mine is in need of some Clearasil as it has a big Zit! Showing up 15 minutes before my reservation and party arrived on Sunday, I was told they were setting us up in a different area instead of the one I requested as it would be a 1/2 to an hour before we’d be seated cuz another party was placed in the spot I’d specifically requested. In making the reservation for the spot a couple of weeks earlier, I was told there’d be no ‘problema’. The same was even true…”absolutely”…. when I also confirmed just a few days earlier. Had they needed to alter things, why didn’t they call me via the phone number they required? Kinda engendered a “we gotcha” feeling. It was clear the other party was put in our place without a caveat of the upcoming reservation already slotted.
    Ya, I ‘could’ve’ told ‘em “Screw you; I’m taking my party of 11 and a couple of hundred bucks elsewhere!” but where are you going to find a place for that size group, let alone somewhat embroil Mother’s Day’s honorees in a brouhaha, after they’ve already scurried finding a parking space. Ya…lest you chide me that glitches happen, this is the Second reservation ‘glitch’ in 2 months….their computerization notwithstanding!!!
    I should note that several desserts were offered to share at the end just before the presentation of the check, but, IMHO, you don’t let someone sit stewing compounded by one guest being served a cold quiche. Appetizers, at the least, let alone drinks, could have been offered as we gathered (in the otherwise empty bar) to be out-of-the-way at the entry while waiting to see if our spot would open within a half hour, which it didn’t.
    Why The Spot? It’s more conducive to hearing for some of the “older” Moms, while having a light/airy ambiance versus a “private” room.

    Some of the principals of Scalo’s are in the process of opening a restaurant called Elaine’s across the street…if they read this by chance, I’d suggest they don’t leave customers with a sense of being scammed by “offering” reservations. I say this despite guessing some readers might presume I’ve watched Seinfeld originally and therefore would probably chide me that I actually brought disappointment on myself per having seen: http://tinyurl.com/bnsscjt
    “Chow!”
    (PS…am off to have some roughage!)

    May 14, 2012 at 3:21 PM
  • Jules says:

    I joined a large group of friends at Scalo’s this week. Before I left, I read your review so I was encouraged that we should have a nice meal.

    Well after spending $65 for two people, I would had a better meal somewhere else for my entire family.

    The waitress was horrible. She forgot our drinks (we only asked 4 times) and completely forgot to bring our friend a meal despite the request being on the ticket. All of us had to wait while they “found” a meal she could quickly get to the table.

    The owner stopped by before everyone ordered and told our table about this amazing dish. He spent 10 minutes talking up the dish and everyone wanted to order it. Turns out, it was on a previous menu and no one could order it.

    My girlfriend ordered a black/white pasta dish that was NASTY. She couldn’t get beyond one bite.

    I had the ravoil and while the cream sauce and stuffing were very tasty, the edges of the ravoil were hard like they had sat out too long.

    Overall, few at our table were impressed and we won’t return.

    October 17, 2012 at 8:39 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    Kudos and Grazie-Gracias: This April ’13 in DC, the National Restaurant Association’s ‘Cornerstone Humanitarian of the Year Award’ will be presented to the first NM recipient, the owner of Scalo’s, Steve Paternoster, per, for example, his involvement with youth and especially re drug abuse prevention efforts of he and his daughter who however, passed away in ’10.

    (Otherwise, for the past nine months I’ve continued to dine on several suberb Filettos while enjoying fine waitstaff service.)

    March 9, 2013 at 10:31 PM
  • BOTVOLR says:

    The Filetto.
    And Yes….
    It was Spek Taku Lar!

    December 15, 2013 at 9:41 PM
  • BOTVOLR says:

    Stopped in for my Filetto. Eeek…mustv’e been a busy Fri/Sat….out of filets!!! Mama Mia who ever heard of such a thing. Anyway, my “on the ball” waitguy checked to offer a rib-eye with the same presentation ala sauce and risotto. Rather than possibly spoil things, I decided to be edgy and try one of my “banes”, the unidish. Had the “Spaghettini olio e aglio con gemberetti” olive oil, garlic, crushed red chile, shrimp, sun dried tomatoes, peas, white wine lemon butter sauce. Whoa indeed, it overflows with those gemberetti, almost hiding the perfectly cooked spaghetti. I found the sauce to be a new delight while highlighted by a nice bite which fascinated me as I could hardly espy any specks of the crushed pepper! The green peas provided contrasting splashes of sweet. I certainly must give it a “molto buono”!

    April 6, 2014 at 7:57 PM

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