NOTE: After serving Albuquerque for more than sixteen years, Vivace closed its doors for the last time on May26, 2012.
Patrons of the Santa Fe Opera recognize Vivace as a musical composition or movement in a lively, brisk or vivid tempo. The rest of us whose only experiences with classical music come from from watching a wascally wabbit being pursued by a red-faced Elmer Fudd may have heard the fast tempo of Vivace numerous times, but had no clue what it was we were listening to other than that the frenetic upbeat tempo matched the intensity of the chase.
What most savvy diners in Albuquerque and beyond do know is that Vivace has long been one of the very best Italian restaurants in the Duke City area since it opened in 1996 at the former site of the Nob Hill Bistro. When it first launched, Vivace was awash in the colors of the Italian flag–bright reds, whites and greens, a color palette which belied a sophisticated menu featuring the cuisine from throughout Italy. Red and white checkerboard tablecloths and a mirrored west wall added to the stereotypical template generally associated with bad meat sauce Italian restaurants and faux Italian chains. Fortunately, in the evening votive candles and their intimate illumination gave the restaurant a more dignified feel.
In 2006, the restaurant added a handsome black and burgundy wine bar, expanded seating capabilities to over one-hundred and even added a private dining area. An interior archway connected the bar with the restaurant’s main seating area. The stereotypical red, green and white colors of the Italian flag were replaced with warm and welcoming terra-cotta colored walls. Although Vivace’s next door Nob Hill neighbor is a tattoo and piercing parlor whose squalid window displays leave nothing to the imagination, Vivace embodies the consummate, classy and intimate Italian trattoria.
The founder and chef at Vivace was Gordon Schutte, a seasoned restauranteur who has been in the restaurant business for more than thirty years. A prolific impresario who has worked in or owned more than a dozen restaurants, Schutte has a passion for authentic Italian cuisine. A whirling dervish who made Vivace a veritable pantheon for the celebration of fine Italian cuisine at its very best, Schutte’s meticulous attention to detail and unbridled passion for quality and authenticity may have been unrivaled in the Duke City.
In 2008, Schutte sold his restaurant, ostensibly to retire to his home in Edgewood. He kept the restaurant in the family, selling it to Joey Minarsich, his stepson who literally worked his way up from the very bottom. Minarsich actually started working at Vivace as a high school sophomore, working his way up from dishwasher to line cook at the now defunct Cafe Spoleto and La Piazza (two of his stepfather’s restaurants) to owner of Vivace.
Minarsich has made a few changes to the menu, adding risotto, gnocchi and ravioli (three items his stepfather steadfastly refused to serve) to the impressive array of pastas,. If anything, those additions may have improved a menu which was already among the city’s very best for Italian food. Some things haven’t changed. Every dish is still made from scratch and isn’t prepared until someone orders it. The fish, veal, beef and other meats are still of high quality and daily specials are still imaginative and delicious. Vivace is also now open for lunch on Saturdays though the Duke City dining public may not realize this based on the restaurant’s stark emptiness during a visit in October, 2009.
At Vivace, you won’t experience the olfactory bombardment of garlic-laden tomato sauces as at some Italian restaurants in which subtlety is lost on its dishes. Your nostrils will instead revel in the subtle bouquet of precisely grilled meats, exquisitely prepared seafood and yes, steaming bowls of pasta. Vivace’s sauces are typically understated, allowing for true discernment of quality ingredients married harmoniously in generous but not overwhelming portions.
Instead of garlic laced bread, a basket of focaccia or even better, red pepper infused focaccia is presented shortly after you’re seated. The bread is a bit on the salty side, but that is easily diffused with a little olive oil, a drizzle of Balsamic vinegar and a spoonful or two of shaved Parmegiano. The bread is also an excellent vehicle for dredging the bottom of a bowl of soup.
That soup might be a red pepper puree (pictured above) which at first glance looks like a watered down tomato soup. One taste, however, and there’s no mistaking the freshness of the red pepper, a type of bell pepper with more sweetness and less bitterness than its green sibling. The soup is served hot, but not steaming, so you can enjoy it from the onset. It’s a very nice soup.
If the tomato basil soup is the featured zuppa del giorno, don’t hesitate to ask for it even if it means foregoing an excellent dinner or Caesar salad. Rich, creamy and absolutely delicious, it is served piping hot and needs absolutely no condiments. That tomato basil soup has been known on occasion to be flecked with bits of sausage for an even more inspired taste experience.
The primi piato (appetizer) section of the menu offers an intriguing adventure in decision-making. We’ve often contemplated making a meal of three or four starters and dispensing with a main entree, but good as the appetizers are, it would almost be criminal not to partake of one of Vivace’s pastas or fish, fowl or meat entrees.
You’ll want to contemplate the latter with Antipasti Asssortiti, cured Italian meats and cheeses with olives, peppers and a mushroom duxelle (finely minced mushrooms and olives akin to a tapenade). Paper-thin shavings of parmesan; a triumvirate of sopressata, mortadella and salami; pepperoncini, green olives and caperberries made up the antipasti during one memorable meal.
Perhaps the best introduction to Vivace is in the form of Cozze, green lip mussels steamed in white wine and fish stock with pureed tomatoes, garlic, onions, herb and Sambuca (an Italian aniseed flavored liqueur). These magnificent mollusks are among the very best in the city. An attentive wait staff will faithfully replenish the housemade bread with which you’ll lustily dredge up the sauce (which may have you forever swearing off the saffron sauces which typically accompany mussels).
Another seafood option sure to please is Vivace’s rendition of fritto misto, generally meats, seafood or vegetable dipped in batter and deep-fried in olive oil. The seafood bounty showcases bay scallops, shrimp and calamari served on greens with a lime and parsley dipping sauce. Shrimp could be a descriptive adjective for the crispy crustacean, several of which you’ll need to spear to make a forkful. The calamari are tiny ringlets of deliciousness while the scallops are succulent and tender. The lime, parsley and red onion dipping sauce is sweeter than it is tangy. It’s a perfect foil for the seafood.
While the standard menu is replete with antipasti, plates of pasta a plenty as well as fish, fowl and meat entrees, the daily specials have consistently lured me away. Special aptly describes a pan-seared monkfish served with an Amaretto cream sauce that was dessert rich and mildly sweet. The fish had a sweet flavor and texture vaguely reminiscent of lobster tail meat. It is served garlic mashed potatoes and a sautéed vegetable medley, two seemingly de rigueur accompaniments which are often left on the plate at other restaurants. At Vivace, you might be tempted to lick your plate clean.
One of the new menu additions, the Gnocchi Con Rucola (pan-fried potato gnocchi with slivered garlic and wilted arugula, Parmegiano Regianno and a light cream sauce) is certainly a keeper. Rucola, the Italian word for arugula, is a spicy, peppery, potent and aromatic salad green that has long been popular in Italy, but rarely used imaginatively in America (salads don’t count). The Rucola provides a very interesting contrast to the deep richness of the gnocchi and the cream sauce.
My favorite of the pasta dishes is the Rigatoni con Salsa Rosato, spicy Italian sausage and chopped rosemary tossed with rigatoni pasta in a tomato cream sauce. The Italian sausage comes from Tully’s Deli & Meats, a long-time Albuquerque purveyor of hot and sweet Italian sausages, all ground from 100-percent pork enhanced with traditional spices and herbs. It is terrific, but so is the rigatoni, tube-shaped pasta prepared to perfection which is just a tad more done than al dente. The tomato cream sauce is light and subtle, the tomato in perfect proportion to the cream. This is a wonderful dish, one of many on the menu.
The pasta dish with the most personality is likely the Ravioli Di Gamberi Alla Diavalo, shrimp stuffed ravioli in a spicy tomato sauce with parsley, garlic and lemon. Unlike the more conventional tablet-shaped ravioli, Vivace’s version are in the shape of a mezzaluna which means half moon in Italian. Each ravioli is engorged with fresh and succulent shrimp tossed with chopped tomatoes, parsley, garlic and lemon instead of a more conventional sauce. It’s a welcome departure from the over-sauced, over-seasoned diavalo-style sauce most restaurants serve. The spiciness in this version is noticeable, but not dominant. Instead, it melds with the tanginess of the tomato and the earthiness of the garlic.
Dessert options would tempt Job. The Diplomatica, for example, is an artfully crafted layering of espresso soaked sponge cake and rich, semi-sweet chocolate mousse that we tried to savor slowly and make last longer, but it is so sinfully delicious that you won’t be able to help devouring it ravenously. With the exception of the creamy gelato, all desserts are housemade.
The tiramisu is soft, light, moist and spongy with a slight mocha flavor complemented with a drizzle of chocolate for contrast. This is one of the very best tiramisu in Albuquerque, a delectable and delicate dessert.
Despite its name, a meal at Vivace is paced to be relaxed, not rushed. Service is attentive and professional with a wait staff well-versed in the nuances of good services. Vivace is simply one of Albuquerque’s top two or three best Italian restaurants and there’s no indication that will change anytime soon.
3118 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Cozze, Tomato Basil Soup, Diplomatica, Rigatoni con Salsa Rosato, Gnocchi con Rucola, Antipasti Assortiti