Just when you think you’ve seen it all and you think nothing else can possibly been done to exploit the versatility in pizza, something comes along which surprises you. One such example is the “make your own pie” proposal by the entrepreneurial Kramerica Industries, a proposal which prompted extensive water cooler discussions.
Flamboyant CEO Cosmo Kramer envisioned a pizzeria in which “we give you the dough, you smash it, you pound it, you fling it in the air; and then you get to put your sauce and you get to sprinkle it over your cheese, and they–you slide it into the oven.” His attempts at securing funding falter over a dispute as to whether cucumbers can be pizza toppings.
The aforementioned scenario transpired in an episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing.” While the “make your own pie” concept has some fundamental flaws (people shoving their arms into a 600-degree oven), it does illustrate one of the few things that haven’t actually been done with pizza in the United States. Nicole “Nicky” Villareal didn’t have any uncommon business model in mind when she and her husband set out to launch Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio.
She wanted a true neighborhood pizzeria, the type of which she enjoyed so much during her travels throughout Europe where dining is regarded as a social event. In Europe, friends and family often linger for hours, enjoying dining and discourse in welcoming cafes and sidewalk patios. That’s the spirit she wanted to convey with her pizzeria. That’s the spirit that readers of Albuquerque The Magazine discerned in Nicky V’s when they named it Albuquerque’s very best new restaurant for 2010. Nicky has the experience to pull off her dreams, having served on the operational management side of several restaurants though Nicky V’s is her first venture in a sole ownership role.
Nicky V’s is is about a mile away from restaurant row on Coors Bypass where a phalanx of mediocre chain restaurants blights the landscape. It is situated in the same corner space which once housed two other pizza restaurants–a middling quality Florida-based chain named New York Pizza Department (NYPD) and a local, non-related favorite named JC’s New York Pizza Department. The 3,300 square-foot restaurant includes an east-facing patio featuring spectacular views of the cottonwoods surrounding the Rio Grande as well as the breathtaking Sandias.
Nicky V’s may have an old-fashioned customer-centric attitude, but the ambiance bespeaks of contemporary modernity. You won’t find any of the stereotypical trappings–such as red and white checkered tablecloths–of neighborhood pizzerias of old, but you will find an old-fashioned attitude in which good service and friendliness abounds. Nicky makes the rounds frequently to ensure her patrons are enjoying the dining experience while the wait staff is on-the-spot with a recommendation or a refill.
The walls are adorned with framed photographs of Venice, Rome and Orvietto taken by Nicky’s husband when they traveled throughout Europe during their one-year anniversary-slash-honeymoon. Traveling throughout Europe via Eurorail left an indelible impression on Nicky. It helped establish her vision for the type of restaurant she would eventually open.
The menu includes an array of familiar and innovative offerings. Appetizers include throwbacks such as fritto misto (breaded calamari, onion rings, fried zucchini) as well as the seemingly de rigueur anti-pasto platter (cured meats, roasted peppers, olives, fresh mozzarella) and pita points and hummus (cucumber relish, Kalamata olives, hummus and warm pita). Raviolio Fritti, fried ravioli with warm marinara, each of five the size of an iPhone, are a popular favorite.
The Ravioli Fritti are lightly breaded then fried to a golden sheen and served in a conical wrought iron basket. Each ravioli is sprinkled with shaved parmesan and oregano and is stuffed with a rich cheese blend. The consistency of each ravioli is just slightly crispy, but not crunchy. The marinara is quite good, the type of which would go very well on a pasta dish.
Another excellent starter, one of the very best of its genre in the city, is the Antipasto platter, a plate brimming with crostini, prosciutto, salami, roasted peppers, olives and mozzarella. By themselves, each individual item on the platter is quite good. In combinations with one another, they’re all even better. Top a crostini with a slice of prosciutto, spread on some of the near butter soft mozzarella then crown it all with the roasted pepper and olives and you’ve got an improvised sandwich of the first order. You can also each component immensely by itself as the high quality shines with each and every bite.
Pasta dishes are adorned with a variety of sauces: white wine pasta cream sauce, mascarpone and lemon butter sauce, roasted pepper Parmesan cream sauce, fresh herb Veloute sauce and a cracked pepper pesto cream sauce. None of the pasta entrees are made with a traditional “red” sauce (marinara or meat sauce). Even the lasagna is made with a Bolognese meat sauce.
The pizza menu is segmented into a “Smart” category and a “Savvy” category, perhaps an indication that you can’t go wrong regardless of from which pizza you order. The pizza dough is scratch-made in-house using a sourdough starter that is allowed to ferment for a day before being rolled into dough. The dough is made from “the finest flours milled.” Toppings are of “only the best quality, using local and organic whenever possible.”
Only one size pizza is offered, a twelve-inch pie that’s perhaps a bit too big to be called a personal pizza, but may be too small to be shared. Eat half at the restaurant and take the other half home; this pizza is just as good out of the fridge as it is out of the oven. Pies range from the traditional (Margherita with red sauce, mozzarella slices and fresh basil) to the locally inspired (the New Mexican, made with red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, Autumn green chili and garlic crunch) to the innovative.
In the latter category are pizzas topped with non-traditional ingredients, the likes of which few pizzerias in Albuquerque offer. These toppings range from the rich and sublime (the Novara includes gorgonzola, pears, ricotta cheese, toasted walnuts and olive oil) to the truly unique (the Siena is crafted from red sauce, Yukon potatoes, roasted red peppers, pancetta and fresh basil). It’s not every pizza for which wine pairings might even be a consideration, but Nicky can tell you exactly which wine and pizza combinations complement one another best.
The restaurant’s phone number, by the way, is 890-WINE (9463), but don’t expect to find the cheap Chinati bottles which seem to adorn the red and white checkerboard tablecloths at the stereotypical mom-and-pop Italian joints. In fact, Nicky V’s earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2012 in recognition of the restaurant’s more than 125 offerings covering all the reaches of the globe. With our practice of never drinking adult beverages if we’re driving, we could only imagine what red vintage might have gone best with the Umbria, a pizza crafted with truffle oil, smoked Cheddar, goat cheese, Prosciutto, caramelized onions, garlic crunch and pine nuts.
What my mind’s eye is still reliving is the wonderful texture of the pie. Nicky V’s pizzas are thin-crusted, but not waifishly thin. What sets them apart are their crunchiness which is wholly unlike the cracker-crust variety of pizzas. It’s a crunchiness that doesn’t offset the pizza’s chewiness if that’s possible. The Umbria is a terrific pizza with flavor explosions in every bite as excellent ingredients compete with each other for the rapt attention of your taste buds.
Another revelation in flavor appreciation is the Chieti, a masterpiece of a pie topped with garlic cream, a cheese blend, roasted butternut squash, Gorgonzola and baby arugula. The top topper is butternut squash, a creamy, fine-textured, orange-fleshed squash with a taste vaguely resembling sweet potato. The arugula and its characteristic light bitter flavor seems to bring out the pungency of the Gorgonzola, a blue cheese with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste. The creator of this pie is an inspired genius! Alas, it is no longer on the menu, but it’s much missed (at least by me).
Most pizza restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment pander to New Mexican tastes for green chile by offering it as either an optional topping or using it as the centerpiece of a specialty pizza. Unfortunately, the green chile often has no more bite than parsley. Nicky V’s offers two pizzas with names near and dear to the heart of many Duke City diners: the New Mexican (red sauce, cheese blend, pepperoni, green chile, garlic crunch) and the Lobo (red sauce, Italian sausage, green chile, red onions, cheese blend, fresh roasted red peppers). The New Mexican will bring pride to any state citizen who loves chile. It will also bring sweat to your brow and maybe even singe your tongue. Not only does the green chile have heat, the red sauce may include red chile powder and even the pepperoni has a kick to it. Piquancy aside, this is a very good pizza that will impress itself upon your taste buds and your memories.
The Tre, an Italian word that means three, is made up of more than three ingredients: red sauce, Italian sausage, cheese blend, roasted red peppers and oregano. Those ingredients are of superb quality. The red sauce and Italian sausage are as good as any on any pizza in the Duke City. The red sauce has a slight piquant bite with just a bit of sweetness and very little acidity despite the obvious fresh tomato base. The sausage has a nice fennel-rich flavor. The roasted red peppers are nonpareil, perfection itself. As my friend Larry McGoldrick has observed, Nicky V’s pizzas are as good as any thin-crust pizza you’ll find in Chicago…and yes, the Windy City has outstanding thin crust pizza!
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2011, Nicky V’s introduced–for a limited time only–a pizza special citizens of the British Isles would have scarfed-up though Nicky admitted she had a hard time talking customers into trying it. One intrepid diner who did try the Shepherd’s Pie Pizza was my adventurous friend Señor Plata. He ranted about this pizza, a thin-crust canvass with gravy slathered on instead of tomato sauce and topped with mashed potatoes, ground beef and Cheddar cheese. Larry McGoldrick had recommended Nicky offer a corned beef and cabbage pizza which might also have received a cool reception from diners who wouldn’t try it. Next year, I’ll be there to sample whatever Nicky contrives for St. Patrick’s Day.
As outstanding as the pizza is, Nicky invites her diners to try the pasta, recommending most highly the Orvietto, an amazing pasta crafted from smoked bacon (pancetta) crimini mushrooms, peas and cavatappi noodles in a white wine pasta cream sauce. The cavatappi, a double-elbow, corkscrew or spiral macaroni formed into a spiral tube shape with groves on their outside surface, is perfectly prepared, just beyond al dente. The white wine reduction melds with the crimini mushrooms and the beautifully smoked Italian bacon to form flavor combinations that dance on your taste buds. The sauce is just perfect, neither too rich or too subtle. This is one of the best pasta dishes we’ve had in New Mexico.
As fans of Garfield, once the world’s most widely syndicated comic, know, the rotund cat loves lasagna. Once confronted by his owner Jon about having eaten four boxes of lasagna, Garfield’s hiccuped retort was, “It’s not my fault. They started it.” Garfield would want at least four boxes of Nicky V’s lasagna, a simple blend of lasagna noodles and ricotta cheese topped with mozzarella cheese made complex with a Bolognese meat sauce that the chef tends to for six to eight hours. This is no ordinary meat sauce. The Bolognese is true to time-honored traditions. It’s also quite good.
Another complex entree prepared exceptionally well is Nicky V’s Chicken Veloute, an entree made with one of the true classic sauces of French cuisine. The sauce finds its genesis in the word velvety, an apt term for the sauce which is made from a light chicken stock thickened with a blond roux. Nicky V’s rendition is also made with an onion confit (onions reduced to an intensified flavor), roasted garlic, Crimini mushrooms, chicken and spinach fettuccine. My friend Señor Plata was surprised to find a dish of such complexity and depth of flavor in an Italian restaurant. I was surprised at how good it was.
Save for the fabulous Orvietto which is in stratified company as one of the very best pasta dishes in Albuquerque, my favorite of Nicky V’s outstanding pasta dishes is the gnocchi, one of the most complex renditions of this dish I’ve ever had with roasted chicken, artichokes, grilled leeks, red onions and spinach served with gnocchi in a roasted pepper Parmesan sauce drizzled with truffle oil. The gnocchi are rich dumplings with a texture so light they practically melt in your mouth. The sauce is lick-the-plate good with flavor accents that impress themselves on your taste buds.
Conspicuous by virtue of its name is Il Adelaide which frankly sounds more Australian than it does Italian. Rather than name it for an Italian landmark, the chef who conceptualized the dish named it for Nicky’s spicy little daughter Adelaide. Il Adelaide is indeed spicy, courtesy of a pasta cream sauce redolent with Cayenne peppers. Other ingredients include garlic, yellow onions, marinated prawns, roasted corn, bell peppers and andouille sausage. It’s a complex dish which pays tribute to the lively flavors of Louisiana. With the 2011 demise of the Cajun Kitchen, Il Adelaide is a comforting thought that you can still get a semblance of Cajun-Creole cooking in the Duke City.
Six salads are also available. These aren’t the types of salads that remind you that the word “diet” is simply the word “die” with the letter “t” added at the end. These are the type of salads of which you can make a thoroughly enjoyable meal. Three of the salads–a house salad, a Caesar salad and “the Wedge”–are pretty standard, though what will set them apart at Nicky V’s is the quality of ingredients and their freshness. The other three salads are crafted with ingenuity and flair. All are available in half- or full-sizes.
The Il Manchango is festooned with Fuji apples, dates, Arugula, radicchio, toasted pecans, endives and manchango cheese with a citrus vinaigrette. This is an ingredient-fest combining several different taste and texture sensations–the sweet tartness of the Fuji apples; the sugary sweetness of fresh dates; the tangy zestiness of arugula; the crunchy saltiness of the toasted pecans; the unique buttery-bitter spiciness of endives and the pungent saltiness of the manchango drizzled with the citrusy sweetness of a vinaigrette.
This is an outstanding salad especially if you like adventurous taste discernment, flavor combinations and a variety of textures in one plate. It’s also a fun salad to eat. You can use the endive leaves to form a sort of lettuce taco in which you can pile on other ingredients.
For lunch only (11AM to 4PM), Nicky v’s offers four paninis, all built on French (not Italian) lightly toasted hoagie rolls served with a bag of Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar chips (or a side salad for two dollars more) and a pepperoncini. One of the most popular of the four is the Joe Diaz’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, named for KOAT-TV’s popular meteorologist who frequents the restaurant. This panini is constructed from meatballs, marinara, parmesan and provolone stacked tall and sent to the oven until bubbly hot.
Nicky V’s desserts, many made in-house (sounds like a repeating theme) are par excellence, a quadrumvirate of fine-dining quality sweets. The tiramisu, espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder–is an exemplary rendition of this popular Italian cake. It is neither too sweet nor too moist, but sufficient in both qualities to make it one of the best tiramisu in Albuquerque.
The profiteroles, puffed pastry dough filled with a vanilla pastry cream dipped in chocolate, are also quite wonderful. Even the whipped cream is made in-house (as if that needs to be said) and it’s some of the best we’ve had. The profiteroles are rich and delicious.
A recent addition to the superb Nicky V’s menu is gelato, which is much more than Italian ice cream, having a lower butterfat and sugar content than ice cream. Texturally, it is much denser than ice cream with a much more intense and concentrated flavor than American ice cream. High-quality artisan gelato retains its texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only a few days which is why great gelato is usually made on the premises or at least locally, not shipped from afar. Nicky V’s acquires its gelato from Van Rixel Brothers Gelato, the best local source possible. It’s outstanding! In fact, the sea salt and caramel gelato may be the very best gelato we’ve had in Albuquerque. It’s Nicky’s favorite and mine, too. Flavors will be rotated weekly.
In business for under three years, Nicky V’s Pizzeria has earned accolades and honors restaurants in business for much longer can only aspire to. In July, 2011, Nicky was presented the award for “Best Small Business 2011″ by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Her terrific restaurant was later selected to compete in the “Chef Knockout” competition, an Iron Chef style head-to-head cooking competition pitting some of the city’s very best restaurants. The sky is the limit for Nicky V’s, already one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre!
Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria & Patio
9780 Coors Blvd, N.W., Suite A
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 October 2012
1st VISIT: 5 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Chieti, Umbria, Il Manchango, Profiterole, Tiramisu, Sea salt and caramel gelatto, Orvietto, Tre, Lasagna, Chicken Veloute, Gnocchi, Il Adelaide