Farina Pizzeria – Albuquerque, New Mexico
On May 14, 2011, I had the great pleasure and privilege of being the first guest on Break the Chain, the weekly radio show dedicated to showcasing the great independent mom-and-pop restaurants in and around Albuquerque. When the show’s charismatic host, my friend Ryan Scott asked me to name the five best pizza restaurants in the Albuquerque area, I omitted Ryan’s very favorite — and he yelled at me (good-naturedly (I think)). I asked forgiveness for my transgression, stating in my defense that I couldn’t well include Farina, having visited only once with attempts for a second visit being quashed by long waits.
The only pizza for which I’ve ever waited more than half an hour–in 115-degree temperature, no less–is the transcendent pizza at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. It was a pizza worth the near dehydration and painful sunburn resultant from standing in blistering sun for nearly an hour with other equally ardent aficionados (masochists?). I’ve often considered it heretical madness that some Duke City diners have compared Farina with Pizzeria Bianco. How, after all, can a pizza crafted in Albuquerque compare with the pizza James Beard award-winning author Ed Levine considers the very best in the world? Ed should know. He spent an entire year eating nothing but pizza throughout the fruited plain and concluded there is no pizza quite as good as the one crafted in Phoenix at Pizzeria Bianco.
At any regard, Ryan made it his personal mission to make a convert out of me. To ensure waiting in a long line wouldn’t dissuade me, we met for a late lunch. Even at the unholy hour of 1PM, Farina was packed and seating was in personal space proximity. We sat on a table for two adjoining another table for two. Fortunately the couple with whom we sat was delightful, a joy to converse with. We even shared slices of pizza so we could all partake of even more variety and enjoy even more of the creativity Farina’s pizzaiolis practice on their crispy canvases.
Farina is an exemplar of “new world” pizza–supermodel thin and with a variety and creativity of toppings limited only by the imagination of the pizzaioli. In recent years, pizza has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon with various regions stamping their unique local touches onto what was once a fairly uniform and relatively unimaginative food that Americans consume with a love they have for no other food.
The creative floodgates in the evolution of pizza opened in the 1980s courtesy of fusion cuisine pioneer (or should that be “pie-o-neer”) Wolfgang Puck who transformed pizza from a boring, unimaginative and fairly standard offering to something elegant, creative, upscale and exciting. In his flagship restaurant Spago, Puck dared offer personal-sized, thin-crusted pizzas adorned with such inventive ingredients as fresh goat cheese, roasted duck, barbecue chicken, smoked salmon and even caviar. Today those toppings would be considered fairly blasé.
Not surprisingly, the mozzarella and pepperoni crowd poo-pooed the heretical Puck and his apocryphal, obviously misguided thinking. “Sacrilege!,” they cried, “no one will eat pizza studded with such strangeness.” It didn’t take long, however, before “New World” pizza (sometimes referred to as “California style”) appeared on menus throughout the fruited plain. Even in New Mexico, the “land of mañana” where fads and trends tend to be adopted, shall we say, a bit more slowly than in other states, pizzas bedecked with ingredients much more revolutionary than green chile found their way to the pizzerias throughout the Land of Enchantment.
To be sure, green chile is probably considered a unique ingredient everywhere but New Mexico. Still, the addition of green chile is hardly enough to earn a label of “New Mexico style” pizza,” an astute observation made by Kevin Hopper, the brilliant writer for Local IQ, “Albuquerque’s Intelligent Alternative.” Hopper reasoned that a counter-argument will always be made that it’s just New York or Chicago or some other regional style pizza with green chile. Instead, he makes a case for “Farina-style” pizza.
Farina-style pizza can be found in only one location worldwide. Launched in October, 2008, Farina Pizzeria sits on Old Route 66 in the East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming” areas in the nation.” This pizzeria has the pedigree to succeed in a tough Duke City market. It’s the younger sibling of the Artichoke Cafe, the ”saucy little bistro at the heart of creative cuisine” and one of city’s most revered and highly esteemed restaurants.
Farina Pizzeria bears little resemblance to the picture most of us have in our minds when we think about the old-world pizzerias we grew up with, although two facets speak to the antiquity of the building in which Farina is housed. The exposed brick on the restaurant’s eastern wall appears to have been the exterior wall of an old-fashioned cash and carry business (at least that’s what the faded white lettering indicates). An imprinted tin ceiling is a testimonial to the people who manufactured the decorative ceiling decades ago. The shiny tin of the exposed ductwork speaks to its modernity.
The rest of the Farina Pizzeria is as hip and modern as it gets, showcasing a serpentine bar on the restaurant’s west wall. Wines, served by the glass or by the bottle, are expertly selected by the Artichoke Cafe’s long-time sommelier Stewart Dorris, a partner in the restaurant. Seating is in close–community style–proximity and is more functional than decorative. The cacophonous din of happy diners reverberates throughout the restaurant; a quiet restaurant it’s not.
The menu is part of what distinguishes the Farina-style menu from other pizzerias. At first browse it appears somewhat standard: antipasti, insalata, pizza, calzone, panini and dolci. Peruse further and you’ll find surprises unlike at any other pizzeria in Albuquerque–ingredients you won’t find elsewhere, combinations you haven’t seen before. If this is New Mexico style, it’s caught on. In its 2009 “Best of the City” edition, Albuquerque The Magazine voters selected Farina Pizzeria as the city’s best new restaurant. Overflow crowds during lunch and dinner validate its popularity.
Unlike at some pizzerias, Farina has no pretensions to being a compendium of pizzas. The menu lists only eight pizzas, each adorned with quality ingredients in combinations that will have you doing a double-take. Customization via the addition of optional ingredients extends your choices to the limit of your imagination. Ostensibly, you might even be able to have a pizza crafted with cucumber as one of its ingredients as the consumate free-spirit Cosmo Kramer of Seinfeld fame once requested, much to the chagrin of an old-world pizzaioli.
Aside from ingredients of the highest quality, another factor which makes it Farina-style is the oven which bakes the restaurant’s signature thin pies in an inferno of heat. By virtue of their thin crust, these twelve-inch orbs don’t require a lot of oven-time. The thin crust also means you’re likely to see more char on the pizza’s edges and bottom than you would on a thicker crust. The taste of char should be relatively innocuous, even pleasant, but it’s also an acquired taste. If you accept it, if you like it, you’ll enjoy Farina’s pies because char is a flavor. In fact, Farina’s pizzas are the antithesis of the doughy pizza at Il Vicino.
If the char on a Farina pizza isn’t to your liking, the menu includes several alternatives you should enjoy greatly. You can even make a meal from one or two items on the antipasti section of the menu, the most popular item being meatballs al forno. These are wholly unlike the meatballs which usually accompany spaghetti and in fact, at first glance they look more like Swedish meatballs on a brown gravy than anything Italian.
Four meatballs per order accompanied by toasted crostini bread means this appetizer is big enough to share although the meatballs are so good you might not want to. Each meatball is studded with pine nuts and (it could just be my imagination) sultana raisins. They are immersed in a sweet Balsamic sauce you’ll be tempted to drink. Unlike some Balsamic inspired sauces, vinegary tartness isn’t the most prevalent taste sensation of the meatballs or the sauce. Instead, there’s a nice balance of sweet and savory flavors with more subtle pronouncements of tanginess. These meaty orbs are a unique taste sensation!
If the Olive Garden’s version of pasta e fagioli is your benchmark for this popular pasta and bean soup, you’re overdue for a visit to Farina Pizzeria where this traditional meatless dish is prepared the way it should be. That means three different Italian beans prepared to a degree which might be called al dente, a rich marinara style tomato broth and small pasta all seasoned to perfection. The pasta e fagioli is topped with ground Italian basil which imparts a light, fresh flavor. It’s served hot which makes it an excellent remedy for the blustery day.
In his Local IQ review, Kevin Hopper indicated “each pie’s individual ingredients come together to form a synergistic symphony of flavors.” That’s certainly the case with the Salciccia Pizza, one of the few pizzas which might make it to an old-world pizzeria’s menu. The featured attraction on this pie is the sweet Italian sausage (Salciccia) which has a big city taste and is replete with fennel. The supporting cast–mozzarella, roasted garlic, onion and basil–is very complementary, imparting their own individual flavors without taking anything away from the sausage. When you’ve got a primo quality ingredient, you’ve got to showcase it and Farina does.
Alas, sometimes the qualities which make ingredients special on their own, don’t always coalesce into pizza greatness. That’s the case with the Carni Curate pizza in which the inherent qualities–saltiness, spiciness and aroma–which make three phenomenal cured meats–pepperoni, proscuitto and salami–terrific on their own right, might be just too much of a good thing (or three) in one pizza. That’s especially true of the quality of saltiness. This is a pizza which could use modern desalinization technologies. It’s lip-puckering salty, so much so I couldn’t finish half of it and that’s a rarity for me with any pizza.
Those were my initial impressions of the first two pizzas (one I liked and one not so much) I sampled at Farina. My inaugural visit didn’t impress me enough to warrant an early return, much less to wait in line for pizza which may or may not be that good. Ryan’s assurances (he of the radio pitchman’s voice and salesman’s charm) that Farina was the city’s best wasn’t so much met with skepticism as with eager anticipation. Ryan’s favorite is the Pizza Bianca (fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano, ricotta, truffle oil, sage and artichoke hearts), a pizza he stands up against any other in town. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has declared truffle oil “one of the most pungent, ridiculous ingredients ever known to chef,” deriding a Master Chef contestant for deigning to use it. Used moderately, this artificial odorant can elevate the flavor profile of other dishes with which it is paired. It has that effect on the Pizza Bianca, proving an excellent complement to the earthiness of the artichoke hearts and the peppery, pungency of the sage.
The other pizza Ryan ordered for us was the Formaggio de Capra (mozzarella, farmhouse goat cheese with leeks, scallion and pancetta), a cheese and bacon lover’s dream. The goat cheese imparts a mild, slightly acidic, slightly tart quality while the mozzarella is reminiscent of fresh milk. Both are generously applied to this pizza, but it’s their interaction with the pancetta that’s most notable. Pancetta may be the most “porky” tasting of all pork products, rightfully so considering its genesis is pork belly. Goat cheese and pancetta are among my favorite flavor combinations anywhere so it goes without saying, this pizza is one I’ll order again. The nice couple sitting next to us described their Funghi (mushrooms, Fontina, Tallegio, mozzarella, thyme, shallot) as a pizza which tastes like French onion soup. Wow! I wish I had thought of that. What an apt description of the slice they shared.
Farina Pizzeria menu has plenty of sweet (but not too sweet) desserts to mollify any saltiness or char you may not have enjoyed in your pizza. A nice choice is the ricotta cheesecake which blessedly does not have a Graham cracker crust. The ricotta is rich, but not unctuous and sweet without being cloying. It is served cool and is big enough to share. The tiramisu (Savoiardi cookies soaked in espresso with Marsala Zabaglione) has a more pronounced espresso flavor than most tiramisu desserts in Albuquerque. That elevates it to among my favorites (along with the tiramisu at Torinos @ Home and at Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria).
Farina Pizzeria is definitely a new-world pizza, perhaps the definition of “Albuquerque-style” pizza. Did I err in not naming it one of Albuquerque’s five best pizzas? Highly likely, but an equally great sin of omission was in not naming Golden Crown Panaderia’s pizza. My top five pizza list now has seven pizzas with Farina firmly ensconced in that list.
510 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 July 2011
1st VISIT: 4 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Meatballs al Forno, Pasta e Fagioli, Salciccia Pizza, Funghi Pizza, Formaggio di Capro, Pizza Bianco, Ricotta Cheese Cake, Tiramisu