M’Tucci’s Moderno – Rio Rancho, New Mexico
“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York.”
Jeff Spiegel, managing partner of the insanely popular M’Tucci’s family of restaurants has described flagship restaurant M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant (previously M’Tucci’s Kitchina) as “as good as anything we did in New York City.” That is really saying something considering over the course of 23 years, Jeff and his life and business partner Katie Gardner owned and operated eleven restaurants in The Big Apple. Those eclectic eleven were highly regarded dining establishments, earning praise and acclaim from the dining public and media alike. One, The West End Bar & Grill, was a legendary Columbia University institution and veritable second home to students, faculty and staff. Two chefs who once worked for Jeff and Katie have earned Best Chef recognition from the James Beard Society while one has garnered significant notoriety as a chef, author and television personality (some of you might recognize the name Anthony Bourdain).
When Jeff and Katie returned to Albuquerque (his hometown) in 2007, they initially pursued other ventures. Eventually the lure of the restaurant world at which they had succeeded at the highest level pulled them back. In July, 2013, they partnered with über executive chef John Haas in launching M’Tucci’s Kitchina, the progenitor of a restaurant family quickly becoming dynastic. Some seventeen months later, the triumvirate opened M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria 150 feet south of the mother ship in the Montaño shopping center. In July, 2015, they introduced M’tucci’s Cocina Grill, a Nuevo Latino concept and catering operation, in Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. Shortly after the dawning of 2017 M’Tucci’s Moderno debuted in Rio Rancho.
One of the keys to expanding their Duke City area restaurant empire has been the recognition, cultivation and flourishing of a very talented and inventive staff, six of whom have become partners. You get the feeling that Jeff and Katie don’t hold their young chefs back, that they allow them to be inventive and to stretch their creative bounds. The result is modern, contemporary restaurants which offer playful takes on classic dishes as well as a hint of local flavor. Chef Haas’s interpretation of traditional dishes often involves their deconstruction, refinement and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes you’ve enjoyed for years, but they might not be exactly as you remember them. They’re better!
Similarly Cory Gray and Shawn Cronin at M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli have created a real niche by baking their own breads (sourdough, rye, rustic wheat, baguette, ciabatta, focaccia), making their own pastas and sausages, curing some of their own meats and making their own mozzarella and other cheeses. They’re New York City deli quality! M’Tucci’s is the only business in the Land of Enchantment authorized (by the state) to sell its own artisan salumi products.
Habitues of the M’Tucci restaurant family will recognize the influence of Chefs Haas, Gray and Cronin on the menu at M’Tucci’s Moderno, a menu which mostly resembles that of the flagship albeit with more steaks and chops than its brethren. In some ways, Moderno combines the best of its predecessors, offering for example, the charcuterie boards and market bread from the Market & Pizzeria as well as some familiar entrees heretofore available only at the mothership. The menu is a delight to peruse. Segmented into sections–antipasti, insalata & zuppa, pasta, secondi, artisan pizza/lavosh flatbread and contini–makes it easy to navigate though you might have a hard time deciding what to order.
M’Tucci’s Moderno is located at the Unser Pavilion, west of Rust Medical Center in the space which previously housed Prime and Vernon’s Open Door, both now defunct. Swathed in a neo-industrial aesthetic complete with exposed ceiling ductwork, it has some of the familiar eye-catching aesthetic touches Katie introduced at the couple’s first Duke City venture (without the life-sized alligator). The restaurant has three distinct main areas, all offering comfortable seating and just enough personal space proximity to neighbors.
Surprisingly considering Rio Rancho is often referred to as “Little New York,” there’s only one other Italian restaurant in town (though there are several pizzerias). That would be the much celebrated Joe’s Pasta House about five miles away. One hallmark of Joe’s has always been outstanding service, the best in the metropolitan area in my opinion and according to Albuquerque The Magazine‘s 2016 “Best of the City” poll. M’Tucci’s is also no slouch when it comes to service with M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant finishing in the top five of the Magazine’s “best service” category. As has been our experience at the M’Tucci restaurant family, we found Moderno’s service convivial and professional.
We also found every nuanced morsel absolutely delicious. On a blustery February day, the cream of wild mushroom soup especially hit the spot. Constructed from wild mushrooms, Shiitake, Cremini, Portabella, heavy cream, brandy and olive oil, it’s got the comforting, soul-warming properties of all great soups. It’s a soup that penetrates deep into your taste buds and thoroughly satisfies your palate and belly. It’s the type of soup this multi-time judge would love to see at the Roadrunner Food Bank‘s annual Souper Bowl next January (hint, hint).
Our hearts beat a little faster when we espied Charcuterie Boards on the menu–four of them, each offering sundry cheeses, meats and garnishes. Charcuterie, the art of salting, smoking, brining, or otherwise curing meats, is a culinary art for which M’Tucci’s has absolutely no equal in the metropolitan area. All four boards will merit your rapt consideration. We opted for Charcuterie Board C, a bountiful melange of Sopressata salami, Morbier cheese, house Rosemary grain mustard served with olive oil, sea salt and fresh M’tucci’s market bread. Morbier has a rich, creamy flavour with a slightly bitter aftertaste and delightfully pungent aroma. It pairs well with the whisper-thin Sopressata, a coarsely ground salami with a hint of piquancy. The market bread, as always, is the perfect canvas for the house Rosemary grain mustard.
Previous visits to M’Tucci’s restaurants have taught us that any intentions we might have to save some of our entrees for later will go out the window as soon as we taste those entrees. Such was the case with the Shrimp Campanelle (sauteed Gulf shrimp, house heritage pork chorizo, grape tomatoes, lobster cream sauce, basil and Campanelle pasta). At first glance, the entree appeared too big to finish in one meal. At first bite, we knew we wouldn’t be leaving any for later. This is an outstanding dish–one with je ne sais quoi, qualities not easily described. We determined uniquely palate pleasing notes came from the house heritage chorizo and its cinnamony flavor pairing with the sweet brininess of the shrimp and decadent lobster cream sauce. The grape tomatoes provided acidity and served as a nice foil for the richness of other elements.
Whether you like your pizza on a thin, but pliable crust (artisinal pizza) or an even thinner, crispy crust (lavosh flatbread), Moderno has a pizza to satisfy every preference. Ever since I introduced her to buffalo mozzarella several years ago, it’s been my Kim’s favorite cheese. Smoked buffalo mozzarella is only one reason she ordered the Affumicato. Other reasons included roasted grape tomatoes,
Desserts are a medley of familiar M’Tucci’s standards and some heretofore unavailable. Among the former is the Twinkie L’Italia which four-time James Beard award-winning author 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.” Only the bread pudding (port wine cherries, Stracciatella gelato, dark chocolate ganache) could pull us away. This is an excellent bread pudding elevated to rarefied air with the addition of the Stacciatella (vanilla gelato flecked with fine chocolate) drizzled with dark chocolate ganache veins. The tart-sweet port wine cherries are a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of the bread pudding. It has already vaulted to the top of Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame. The professor with the perspicacious palate is pretty selective when it comes to bread pudding. Trust us. This is a great one.
It could well be argued that Duke City diners are even more persnickety and demanding than their counterparts in New York City. What can’t be disputed is that–just as they did in Metropolis–Jeff Spiegel and Katie Gardner have made it in Albuquerque. As restaurant impresarios and developers of restaurant talent, they just might be peerless. Their restaurants certainly are!
M’Tucci’s Moderno Italian Restaurant
1908 Wellspring Avenue, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bread Pudding, Shrimp Campanelle, Affumicato, Charcuterie Board C, Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup