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Joe’s Pasta House – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho

Once a year, despite my protestations and whining, I agree to take my Kim to the Olive Garden.  It’s a deal we have, albeit one that makes me feel like  Faust in the Christopher Marlowe play.  Faust, for the non-English majors among you was a  scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  In my case, the deal is  a visit to Olive Garden once a year in exchange for all the strange and exotic restaurants I want to visit the rest of the year.  I sure got the rotten end of that deal.

On a list of things I’d rather do, my annual visit to the Olive Garden for a meal of cheese glop or tomato torture ranks somewhere below visiting a proctologist or watching The View.  Kim likes the salad and bread sticks and I suspect derives a bit of sadistic satisfaction in hearing me mutter polysyllabic epithets about the “Evil Garden’s” food.   The cultural anthropologist in me finds it both amusing and tragic that teeming masses congregate for pathetic pasta, mediocre marinara and boring bread sticks.  It makes me long for a visit to Joe’s Pasta house in Rio Rancho.

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico

Kassie and Joe Guzzardi, two of the most customer oriented restaurateurs in New Mexico at the best table in the house in front of the fireplace

Joe’s Pasta House is the antithesis of the Olive Garden.  In the words of Bruce Schor, one of my astute readers  (and not solely because our tastes in food are fairly similar), “Joe’s represents real Italian food of the real comfort variety.”  The operative word here is “real.”  Joe’s is most often thought of as old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurant, the type of which have survived the onslaught of their supposedly more sophisticated brethren, the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants;  the type of which remain so popular throughout the East Coast.  Perhaps that’s why Joe’s is so beloved in Rio Rancho, the city so many call “little New York.” 

To label Joe’s as strictly a “red sauce restaurant” is to do a disservice to one of the most comprehensive Italian restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant which transcends labels in that it showcases the cuisines of Italy’s three distinct culinary regions: north, south and central.  Joe’s also prepares the familiar Italian American dishes developed by Italian immigrants, occasionally spicing things up with green chile, a tribute to the adopted home of proprietors Joe and Kassie Guzzardi.

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe's

Fine imported foods and confections line the shelves near the entrance to Joe’s

Joe Guzzardi is a peripatetic presence with a buoyant personality and charm to spare. He visits every table to make sure his customers are enjoying their dining experience. “Mi casa es su casa” seems to be his mantra–and he really means it.  I once overheard him tell a guest who didn’t like the entree he ordered, “this is my house.  We’ll make you happy.” before proceeding to recommend entrees with a different flavor profile than the dish the guest didn’t like.   Joe’s energy, enthusiasm and customer orientation are mirrored by an attentive, well-mannered and highly professional wait staff that is easily among the very best in the metropolitan area. 

While Joe manages the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, his pulchritudinous partner Kassie oversees the restaurants social media channels, search engine optimization, blog and Web site presence.   In a day and age in which it’s become fashionable for restaurateurs to tout their social consciousness, Kassie was a pioneer in forging relationships with local suppliers to ensure the highest quality, most socially responsible and healthy foods possible.  She’s understandably very proud that Joe’s won’t feed guests anything the Guzzardi family wouldn’t eat themselves.

If you’re not careful you can fill up on the complementary bread”

That means hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and to the greatest extent possible GMO (genetically modified organism) free pasta imported from Italy.  It means grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, humanely raised veal and sustainably-caught fish.  Pastas and sauces are prepared in stainless steel pots, healthier vessels by far than their aluminum counterparts.  Only non-hydrogenated oil is used and it’s changed out every day, the remnants given to owners of vegetable oil-powered vehicles.   Unfortunately Rio Rancho’s solid waste infrastructure is currently incapable of providing the recycling capabilities to fully comprehend all of Joe’s needs, but the restaurant recycles as much as possible.  

As for Joe’s famous red sauce (so good I’ve joked with Joe that he should serve it in a shot glass), the secret is in the tomatoes.  Joe’s uses only imported, vine-ripened, hand-picked Italian plum tomatoes which have a wonderful, natural sweetness.  Now, there are two schools of thought about preparing sauce.  Joe is a proponent of not simmering his sauces for hours on end as opposed to the school of chefs who employ marathon-long simmering sessions (which tend to render tomatoes very acidic).  That’s one of the reasons Joe’s red sauce is much lighter in color.   It’s much more delicious, too.

Hot Antipasti for two

It may be hard to believe that Joe’s Pasta House occupies the former digs of an International House of Pancakes (IHOP), but what’s not surprising is that the restaurant consistently earns flawless ratings on all its restaurant inspections.  It’s an immaculate and attractive restaurant.   Sophisticated stylings include an exhibition kitchen under the cover of a burnished copper awning. The restaurant’s walls are festooned by artwork provided by the Rio Rancho Art Association.

Faux Italian marble columns, a mural painted by a deceased beloved Rio Rancho city council member, real napkins and linen tablecloths let you know this is more than a casual dining restaurant even though the reasonable prices might belie that fact.  Until 2009, the great Bob Morris sang at the Pasta House, his elegant voice delivering beautiful Italian arias and romantic ballads on weekend evenings.  Bob now lives in Texas, but is much missed by frequent patrons and the staff at the Pasta House. 

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

Eggplant: Lightly breaded eggplant stuffed w/ ricotta cheese, prosciutto & sauteed spinach, topped w/ marinara sauce & mozzarella cheese

In August, 2013, Joe’s began featuring delicious, fine, imported foods and confections for those evenings in which you’re craving Italian cuisine, but don’t want to leave home.  Almost immediately as you step into the restaurant, you’ll espy shelves replete with imported olive oils, pastas, olives, salts, risotto, nutella, pastas, mustard, cookies and so much more.  It’s not quite the next best thing to dining at Joe’s, but Kassie assures me this is excellent stuff.

Perhaps the only thing at the Pasta House as warm as the Guzzardi’s hospitality is the bread which arrives at your table shortly after you’re comfortably seated. There may be nothing as comforting as a basket of sliced bread and yeasty rolls baked in-house–unless, of course, it’s a dish of seasoned olive oil and various herbs and spices in which to dip that bread.  Joe’s Pasta House goes even further with a complementary plate of bruschetta crowned with a mixture of rich, red tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic and other savory ingredients. At most restaurants you would pay handsomely for such a treat.

Fried Lasagna

Appetizers

Extreme care must be taken to ensure you don’t fill up on bread, great as it is. You also have to be doubly cautious so as not to fill up on Pasta House appetizers, some of which arrive in profuse portions which might constitute an entire meal elsewhere. There’s absolutely no way you can leave the Pasta House hungry!  The menu features several tempting appetizers and while such options as fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and fried calamari are seemingly standard offerings at most Italian restaurants, live it up and try something unique to Joe’s Pasta House.  That something different might be the poppy seed shrimp, ten (yes, 10) jumbo shrimp sautéed with bell peppers, red onions and black olives in a tangy poppy seed sauce. It’s different and it’s delicious. 

15 January 2014: The menu offers six salads, most available in half and full sizes.  Our favorite is the Caesar salad which is classically interpreted then improved by Joe’s.  The traditional touches are large leaf Romain lettuce, shaved Parmesan cheese and croutons topped with Caesar dressing.   Joe’s touches include red peppers and a sole cherry pepper.  Caesar, after all, was Italian so these small additions are copacetic.  The Caesar dressing is applied lightly so you can enjoy the other salad ingredients.

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli Served with a Piñon Cream Dipping Sauce

Fried Breaded Butternut Squash and Ricotta Ravioli

13 November 2012: Another unique appetizer is the hot antipasti for two, an entree-sized portion that features stuffed eggplant (with rich Polly-O Premium Ricotta Cheese from New Jersey), clams, calamari, shrimp and mussels baked and served with marinara sauce. The shrimp have that snap that signifies freshness and a sweet brininess that’s addictive. The marinara is among the best we’ve had in New Mexico–slightly sweet, barely acidic and wholly addictive, but it’s the eggplant that makes me want to sing like Bob Morris.  Prepared incorrectly eggplant can leave a “metallic” taste in your mouth that may last for days.  The Pasta House chefs know what they’re doing with eggplant!  By itself, it’s quite good, but the Pasta House tops it with melted mozzarella and bits of prosciutto. 

10 August 2014: One of the menu items which best shows Joe’s versatility and creativity is the sweet and spicy shrimp dish, an appetizer which by name alone you might think would be a Chinese dish.  In actuality, Joe concocted this starter as a tribute to the predilection for piquancy among New Mexicans.  The piquancy is courtesy of a roasted pineapple Habanero sauce.  At about 350,000 Scoville units, the Habanero  pepper ranks as one of the most incendiary peppers on Earth.  Not always sufficiently appreciated is its citrus-like properties.  It’s those properties which complement the roasted pineapple so utterly well.  To temper the sweet notes of the pineapple, the sauce is also replete with garlic and red onions.  The eight large shrimp are superbly fresh and have a discernible snap when you bite into them.  They’re served over a bed of fresh spinach.

Sweet and Spicy Shrimp

Addictive is an apt description for a lightly breaded eggplant stuffed with ricotta cheese, prosciutto and sauteed spinach, topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese.  Eggplant is the bane of my kitchen, a dish I’ve never been able to prepare well (hence my aforementioned references to “metallic” taste), but Joe’s rendition comes highly recommended by a trusted fellow gastronome and friend Dave Hurayt who calls it “exquisite…more than a full meal.”  Dave knows what he’s talking about.  He’s a world-traveler who’s experienced the very best in Italian food throughout Boston, New York City and Italy.  Another friend, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver calls this the very best dish on Joe’s formidable menu.  My Italian sister-in-law says it’s just like her sainted mama used to make. 

29 August 2014: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read “fried lasagna?”  More than a few of you will probably cringe in terror at the thought of Paula Deene slathering up a perfectly good lasagna with butter then frying it.  History recounts that lasagna has actually been fried well before the popular pasta dish was even called lasagna.  In fact a First Century recipe describes “lagana” as thin sheets of wheat flour dough with crushed lettuce juice, flavored with spices, then fried.

Mediterranean Style Calamari

Fast forward some twenty centuries and innovative restaurants such as Joe’s Pasta House are preparing the most indulgent and delicious fried lasagna you can imagine.  As expected, your fork will penetrate past a blanket of molten cheese and sink down into layers of delicious strips of lasagna noodles and ground sausage resplendent in one of Joe’s famous red sauces.  Much less expected is the piquant bite, the genesis of which is actually the sausage.  It’s not New Mexico chile piquant, but it’s got a bite to it. 

12 July 2015:  In recent years the term “fusion” has been widely used to describe the blending of two or more cuisines to create innovative and sometimes quite delicious dishes.  Though Joe would probably dismiss the term fusion, he does marry Italian ingredients and culinary techniques with those of his adopted home state to create uniquely delicious dishes which bring great credit to both cultures.  Among them is the fried breaded meatballs, a special offered in July, 2015.

Fried Breaded Meatballs

The name “fried breaded meatballs” in and of itself may not sound especially interesting or delicious, but at the hands of Joe’s kitchen staff, these meaty orbs are quite wonderful.  Take four traditional breaded and fried meatballs, top them with a New Mexico green chile spinach cream sauce and melted mozzarella and you’ve got a rich, indulgent, absolutely decadent adventure in deliciousness.  While dense and coarse, the meatballs are mostly meat, not some filler.  They’d be terrific by themselves, but the green chile spinach sauce elevates them to rarefied status…and that sauce.  Oh, that sauce.  Bill Gates isn’t that rich.

29 August 2014:  In recent years the seemingly de rigueur calamari appetizer has fallen out of fashion, largely because it’s almost always prepared exactly the same way–strips or ringlets of breaded calamari served with a side of marinara.  Joe’s dares to be different, offering a “Mediterranean style” calamari that brings personality and zest to an appetizer which too often earns the adjective “boring.”  At Joe’s, this is one exciting calamari dish redolent with tangy and invigorating flavors. The fried calamari is topped with warm feta cheese, capers, artichoke hearts, red onions and kalamata olives in a lemon-butter sauce. It’s even better than it sounds and thankfully Joe’s serves it in a characteristically large portion size because you and your dining companion will be vying for as much of it as you can get.

Ziti Alla Vodka

Ziti Alla Vodka

The eggplant is indeed exquisite.  It’s the type of dish which makes all your synapses fire as your taste buds try to discern the adventure of flavors going on in your mouth.  Texturally, the skin of the eggplant is soft, but not mushy.  The prosciutto is fairly mild and not nearly as salty as some prosciutto is prone to being.  The sauce is rich with tomatoes, basil, garlic and other spices.  This is an excellent appetizer, a wonderful way to start a meal. 

16 November 2013:  Joe’s fried breaded butternut squash and ricotta ravioli is one of those seasonal appetizers which may have you wishing it was autumn all year round.   Four raviolis, each the size of an iPhone are served with a piñon cream sauce so rich and decadent, it should come with a warning.  As addictive as the ravioli are, they’re also so rich you couldn’t possibly eat more than two, but you’ll relish every single morsel.  The butternut squash and ricotta combination is a perfect blend of semi-sweet and savory, buttery and creamy.  The sauce features not only woodsy New Mexico piñon, but nutmeg and cinnamon to accentuate the squash.  This is one seriously good, ultra rich, ultra delicious appetizer.

Manicotti Bolognese

Entrees

7 April 2007: The menu is broken into several sections: fresh salads, appetizers, local favorites, traditional favorites, house specialties, seafood favorites and grilled entrees. Within each section are various options, all sure to please the most discerning diners. From the “Local Favorites” section comes a Mediterranean Pasta entree as good as you might expect to find at an upscale Greek restaurant. This dish is crafted with artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese sautéed in a white wine butter sauce all served atop linguine pasta (or you can substitute penne). Available with chicken or shrimp, it is richly calorific and served in a deep dish. You’re sure to have some left over.

9 January 2014: Another local favorite not commonly found in Albuquerque area Italian restaurants (but extremely popular in New York City and which we’ve also had in the deep South) is the beguiling Ziti alla Vodka, Ziti pasta with prosciutto and scallions in a vodka pink sauce.  The sauce appears to be  combination of the restaurant’s rich Alfredo sauce and its meatless marinara with a bit of vodka splashed in and the alcohol cooked out.  It’s inventive and unconventional, creamy and rich, sweet and savory…and absolutely delicious.  The pasta is slightly more than al dente and the scallions appear to have been added after the entree is put together, offering a nice contrast.  The prosciutto is sliced into tiny morsels and offers a startling taste and texture difference that you can’t help but take notice.  This is an excellent entree.

Traditional Gnocchi Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

Traditional Gnocchi
Potato gnocchi topped with tomato sauce topped with meatballs & Italian sausage

4 August 2007: One of the restaurant’s richest entrees is the Fettuccini Carbonara (pictured above) made with green peas, pancetta and a heavy cream sauce that will put weight on you just by looking at it.  There are two Albuquerque area restaurants whose carbonara I recommend highly–Paisano’s Italian Restaurant and Joe’s Pasta House.  The commonality is a subtle balance of rich flavors and perfectly prepared pasta crafted from complementary ingredients.

23 January 2011: Though it’s easy to characterize Joe’s Pasta House as a “red sauce” restaurant, in truth the restaurant excels at a variety of sauces, some complex and some simple, but all delicious.  During a visit in January, 2011, we happened upon the former, a special of the evening my Kim’s friend Rosalie Marella makes in Chicago.  The label “special” certainly fits.  It’s rigatoni pasta and pork ribs, an Italian dish showcasing a simple, but magnificently executed tomato sauce.  The dish showcases old-world style tender pork ribs cooked in Joe’s homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil, olive oil and Romano cheese served over imported rigatoni pasta.

Baked Cannelloni: Homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

The pork ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and meaty (porky?) enough for Fred Flintstone.  It’s easy to extricate the pork off the bone, but your inclination might be to pick them up and gnaw off that pork with your hands.  It’s a messy proposition considering the tomato sauce, but then that’s what napkins are for.  The rigatoni pasta is prepared at just slightly past al dente,  but certainly not nearly to the level of the squishy, mushy overdone pasta served at the restaurant at which I’m forced to eat once a year.

23 January 2011: As smooth as degustation (a sensory (taste, smell, tactile, experience) appreciation of a meal, especially with good company) tends to be at Joe’s, there are some meals  which are thoroughly enjoyable while you partake of them at the restaurant, but not so enjoyable if you’re prone to indigestion later.  One of these is the Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp special, a sinfully rich dish of lobster and ricotta engorged ravioli topped with sauteed shrimp, fresh peas and sun-dried tomatoes in a brandy cream sauce.  It’s the brandy cream sauce which will get you.  It’s ultra rich, but also ultra-delicious which means you’ll probably polish off the entire plate. Then there’s the lobster.  Each ravioli (tablet-sized) is engorged with fresh, delicious and rich lobster meat.

Lobster Ravioli and Shrimp

13 November 2012: If ravioli is what you crave, there are a variety of ways in which you can have it at Joe’s.  It’s available as a breaded and deep-fried appetizer served with a mushroom cream sauce.  It’s available as an entree where it’s stuffed with cheese and topped with marinara sauce.  It’s also available off-the-menu as an entree called the Giovanni Special.  Invented by John, one of Joe’s long-time waiters, this dish is the mother lode for ravioli lovers.  It features six round cheese stuffed raviolis, three meatballs and two sausages topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella.  This is one of those dishes only regular guests know about.  We’ve had to describe it to members of the wait staff who have never heard of it; fortunately Joe knows precisely what it is.

13 November 2012: The Baked Cannelloni, homemade pasta stuffed with seasoned beef and topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella is akin to having one large ravioli. The season beef is an excellent counterpoint to the rich, melted mozzarella and the tangy sauce. Roughly the size of a baked potato, it’s a red sauce dish with the richness of an Alfredo sauce. As with all entrees at Joe’s, it’s an archetypal example of how good this specific dish can be.

Giovanni Special: Six cheese stuffed ravioli, three meatballs, two sausages topped with homemade tomato sauce and mozzarella

16 November 2013: Every once in a while Joe’s will feature a special which proves just how much the restaurant’s cuisine has also been influenced by the Land of Enchantment.  Now, green chile on Italian pasta dishes isn’t exactly a novel concept in New Mexico, but rarely is it done as well as the Green Chili (sic) Chicken Ravioli, ricotta-filled ravioli topped with sauteed chicken and green chili Alfredo sauce.  The piquancy (discernible, but not overwhelming) and roasted flavor of the green chile are a perfect foil for the richness of the Alfredo sauce…and it is rich.  It’s also delicious, a fine departure from the tried and true sauce. 

16 November 2013: In November, 2012, four time James Beard award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison published an article entitled 5 Top New Mexico Spots for Divine Gnocchi on her wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog.  Cheryl lamented that for years she tended to avoid gnocchi in restaurants because “most I’d sampled in such settings were heavy with a gluey quality I associate with eating paste in kindergarten.”  She elaborated that “gnocchi should be hearty but have an ethereal lightness about them, too.”  The traditional gnocchi at Joe’s would make my top five.  Traditional means the gnocchi are made from potato, not semolina flour as prepared at some restaurants.  Potatoes is the way gnocchi are made in the Piedmont region of Italy and it’s the way gnocchi tastes best.  At Joe’s the gnocchi are topped with a superb tomato sauce and topped with meatballs and Italian sausage.

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli:  Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

Green Chili Chicken Ravioli:
Ricotta Filled Ravioli Topped with Sautéed Chicken and Green Chili Alfredo Sauce

While the pasta dishes are infused with flavor, it’s apparent the chef’s culinary skills are as plentiful as are the portions.  Joe’s Pasta House is by no means a one-trick pasta.  In August, 2009, the menu was upscaled with the addition of an admirable cavalcade of chops: Porterhouse steak, French style pork chops, lamb chops and more.  These are chops the type of which you might expect to find in Chicago, the “City of Big Shoulders.”  If Joe has his way, perhaps Rio Rancho should be called “City of Big Chops.”  Lamb chops.  Pork chops.  Porterhouse steaks.

15 January 2014: The Colorado lamb chops are cloud-like luscious and redolent with grilled flavor.  At about an inch thick, they’re the antithesis of the tiny, emasculated chops so many restaurants serve and each order includes four prepared to your exacting specifications.  At medium rare as the chef recommends they be prepared, the flavorful juices flow as you cut into them.  As with much of the lamb served in restaurants, the inherent gaminess associated with lamb has been somewhat bred out which is why medium rare works so well.  These chops are tender and succulent with just the slightest hint of fat for additional flavor.   They’re also not served in the “Frenched” style with the bone “handle” for easy handling.   The lamb chops are served with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes and a ramekin of delicious gravy made from pan drippings.

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Colorado Lamb Chops with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Porcine perfection can be found in the form of juicy French cut grilled pork chops in a Chianti mushroom sauce.  Chianti is a full and rich red wine that couples well with the mushrooms to imbue the inch-thick chops with a complementary flavor that doesn’t detract from their native pork flavor in any way.  Two chops for under twenty dollars is an additional bonus. 

In February, 2013, Joe’s Pasta House began offering a “Fish Fry” as its Tuesday night weekday special.  If you’re from the Midwest, you know that fish fry is practically a religion.  Consider the dining room tables at Joe’s your altar as you enjoy two pieces of hand-breaded, cold-water, wild-caught flounder served with a garden salad, fried potatoes and a house made tartar sauce!  The fish is fried in 100% vegetable oil.  Meat lovers have their own special day, too.  On Wednesdays, the special is all-natural, slow-roasted, Black Angus Prime Rib served with garden salad and mashed potatoes!  Liquid smoke doesn’t exist within the same zip code as this slow-roasted slab of beefy deliciousness. 

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

Twelve-Ounce Roast Prime Rib with creamy mashed Klondike Rose potatoes

15 January 2014: The prime rib is available in ten- and twelve-ounce sizes.  It’s become so popular that you’re well advised to get to Joe’s early (the prime rib special is available from 4PM to 9PM) because once it runs out, you’re out of luck.   Because of the demand, Joe’s roasts some four prime rib roasts.  It’s easy to see why the prime rib is so popular.  It’s very tender, cutting almost like butter and revealing a perfectly pink center (at medium) with rich juices flowing copiously onto your plate.  As with great prime rib, the “crust” is seared to perfection.  Seasoning is earthy and natural, accentuating the terrific grass-fed flavor of the beef.   The accompanying horseradish sauce has some bite, but not so much that it detracts from the starring attraction. 

15 January 2014: You can add a dinner or Caesar salad with your entree for a pittance or top your steak with sauteed sliced mushrooms, melted mozzarella cheese or sauteed sweet onions for just a bit more.  If you’re tastes are more inclined toward surf and turf, you can also top any of your steak or chop entrees with garlic scallops.  Because scallops are delicately flavored and sweet, you might think garlic would overwhelm those qualities, but that’s not the case.  The garlic kisses the scallops softly so as not to change their flavor profile.  This is a surprisingly nice dish.

Veal Parmigiana

4 April 2014: During my years in New England, I consumed boatloads of creamy, comforting, delicious seafood bisques and chowders from Maine to Connecticut.  Nothing in the world compares to a thick, sweet, creamy bisque served at a waterfront restaurant with the advantage of being able to use freshly caught, just off the boat seafood.  There’s also no equal for enjoying such a repast while the salty sea air and balmy ocean breeze lulls you into a state of blissful relaxation. 

Joe’s Pasta House has none of those advantages, but somehow manages to serve a seafood bisque which transports me back to so many wonderful afternoons on the wharf at Gloucester, Massachusetts.  The bisque isn’t always on the menu, but when it is, it quickly sells out.  That’s because Rio Rancho may be a landlocked city several hundred miles from the sea, but its citizenry knows great seafood.  A large soup cup is brimming with fresh crab, mussels and clams sharing a creamy home with carrots, scallions, celery and a single crostini.  The seafood is unbelievably fresh and surprisingly plentiful with sweet crab being especially cherished.  The bisque is creamy and thick and is served at the perfect height of steaminess.  See where it ranks among my favorite soups in New Mexico here

Seafood Bisque

Seafood Bisque

10 August 2014: Blessed with 5,000 miles of coastline, Italy is a nation which cherishes the frutti di mari (fruits of the sea).  Pairing pasta with luscious seafood is virtually a culinary sport for Italian chefs.  There are hundreds of potential variations for something which sounds as simple and basic as a seafood stew or zuppa di pesci.  Italian chefs have learned to exercise restraint to balance the briny seafood with the delicate pasta.  A great seafood stew isn’t about mixing a net full of seafood with a bowl of pasta.  It’s about complementary ingredients melding together well. 

Joe’s version of seafood stew is a wonderful balance of fresh seafood  with perfectly prepared pasta served in a large boat…er, bowl.  The seafood–shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, lump crab and Atlantic salmon–are so fresh you might forget you’re in a landlocked state and not dockside.  The seafood is served atop a linguini pasta in a tomato basil bullion which allows all ingredients to sing.  A sweeter sauce or one more acerbic would not have gone so well with the delicate, delicious, briny seafood, but the tomato basil brings out the seafood’s natural flavors.  Joe served this dish on the first Sunday in which his magnificent restaurant opened for lunch. 

Italian Seafood Stew- Zuppa di Pesci

29 August 2014: One of the most traditional “red sauce” entrees is the almost anachronistic veal parmigiana which the vaunted Northern Italian restaurants don’t even deign to put on their menus.  Veal parmigiana is a circa 1960s favorite of Italian restaurants throughout the East Coast where it’s referred to simply as “veal parm.”  Perhaps one of the reasons this wonderful dish has fallen out of favor is because it’s not always prepared well.   At Joe’s, the veal parmigiana is the stuff of which dreams are made.  The veal is lightly breaded and perfectly prepared.  It’s fork tender and delicious with a blanket of molten Parmesan and Mozzarella and rich, tangy red sauce providing a delicious cover 

12 July 2015: While I was raving effusively about Joe’s red sauces, my Kim once retorted “if you love them so much, you should marry them.”  I tell her she was being ridiculous.  The state of New Mexico prohibits polygamy.  You know when I eschew a red sauce dish at Joe’s, what I order instead has got to be very special.  Special is a good way to describe the linguini pasta with fried breaded clams and strips, a weekend special during the second week of July, 2015.  A very delicate pasta is tossed with red and orange cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and Romano cheese then topped with fried breaded clam strips and scallops.  Fried clams are extremely rare in the Land of Enchantment.  Leave it to Joe to prepare them in the manner and style of my favorite New England clam shacks.  Even if they weren’t the sublime clam bellies I prefer, the clams transported me back to Essex in Massachusetts.  Joe’s has a way of transporting diners to better places and states of satisfaction.

Linguini Pasta with Fried Breaded Clams and Scallops

26 July 2015: With a veritable compendium of a menu, not to mention specials that live up to that distinction, you’re bound to find something you’ve never had before or haven’t had in quite a while.  For me, the entree fitting the latter is Veal Saltimbocca, veal scallopini with red onions, garlic, mushrooms and prosciutto topped with melted mozzarella and served with a pesto cream sauce.   In Italian, the term saltimbocca means “to jump in the mouth,” supposedly a reference to the  dish being so good that it literally jumps into the diner’s mouth.  This isn’t just hyperbole; it literally is that good.  The tender, moist veal is pounded into thin medallions that would be excellent by themselves.  The herbaceous pesto renders them even more delicious.

26 July 2015: It seems ironic that a proud Italian restaurant would serve French-cut pork chops…and no, “French cut,” in this case, has nothing to do with cutting women’s underwear so as to emphasize a woman’s thigh.   You don’t have to be a Francophile to understand that “French-cut” means to slice food lengthwise into long, thin strips.  Easily three-quarters of an inch thick, Joe’s pork chops are grilled and topped with a Chianti mushroom pan sauce you might be tempted to lap up when you’re done.  The chops are grilled to your exacting specification and at medium, have plenty of moistness while retaining a fork tenderness.  This is a white meat dish sure to appease all carnivores.

French Cut Pork Chops

Desserts

Not surprisingly, the Pasta House also has a stellar dessert tray with palate-pleasing options galore: German chocolate cake, chocolate cake, lemon cake, chocolate cannoli, red velvet cheesecake and oh, so much more. It’s all tempting and likely all delicious. Only the tiramisu and cannoli are prepared in-house.  Other desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor. 

The Italian Dream Cake will inspire nocturnal smiles.  It’s rich, creamy and delicious.  The cannoli is among the best in the city, replete with rich ricotta brought in from New Jersey.  The lemon cake zings with a nice tanginess while the German chocolate cake is the perfect marriage of coconut, pecans and chocolate.  Desserts are decadent, delicious and dreamy.

There is so much to like at Joe’s Pasta House, an Italian restaurant several orders of magnitude better than the heavily trafficked Olive Garden to which I’m subjected once a year. In 2013 that fact was acknowledged when Joe’s Pasta House was selected by readers of Albuquerque The Magazine as the “best Italian restaurant” in the metropolitan area.  That’s proof that Joe’s has become a dining destination drawing diners from throughout the Duke City area and beyond.  

Tiramisu and Cannoli, the two desserts made on the premises at Joe’s. Other fabulous desserts are sourced from a high quality vendor

Though they’re absolutely indefatigable ambassadors for their establishment, Joe and Kassie also rave about other restaurants in the City of Vision, an act of class so very typical of this dynamic couple who win the hearts and stomachs of their guests one delicious dining experience at a time. 

10 AUGUST 2014:  By popular demand, Joe’s Pasta House is now open on Sundays from 12PM to 7:30PM.  Treat yourself to the Albuquerque area’s favorite Italian restaurant where you’ll be well taken care of by the most professional staff in New Mexico.

Joe’s Pasta House
3201 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 892-3333
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 23
RATING: 24
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pesto, Mediterranean Pasta, Hot Antipasti for Two, Lasagna, Cannelloni, Giovanni Special, Fetuccini Carbonara, Zita Alla Vodka, Gnocchi, Butternut Squash and Ricotta Stuffed Ravioli,  Tiramisu, Cannoli, Italian Cream Cake, Green Chili Chicken Ravioli, Colorado Lamb Chops, Prime Rib, Seafood Bisque, Veal Parmigiano, Fried Lasagna, Calamari Mediterranean Style, Sweet and Spicy Shrimp, French-Style Pork Chops, Veal Saltimbocca

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Eloisa – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Eloisa Restaurant in Santa Fe’s Drury Plaza Hotel

Expansive views bathed in salubrious, sun-kissed air punctuated by languid breezes. Cerulean skies graduating in depth and brilliance the higher they climb above the horizon. Surreal topography of unnaturally contorted, dappled sandstone formations and juniper laden foothills. Lush, well-tended gardens blessed with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs. Such was the idyll Georgia O’Keefe called home. On Sunday, July 19th, 2015, another transcendent artist–one whose medium is food and whose canvas is the palate—spent the day at the home of the legendary doyenne of American painting. He went there to pick apricots from the Abiquiu property on which she had lovingly doted. It wasn’t John Rivera Sedlar’s first visit. Much of the chef’s upbringing and many of his happiest memories were at his family’s ranch in Abiquiu, not too far from where O’Keefe had lived and where she had painted the stunning macro perspectives of floral sensuality which captivated the world.

Chef John Rivera Sedlar

Chef Sedlar’s aunt, Jerry Newsom, was Georgia O’Keefe’s personal chef for more than a decade, but it was under the nurturing influence of his grandmother Eloisa Martinez Rivera that his interest in cooking was kindled. Not only did she teach him how to prepare traditional New Mexican staples such as posole, sopaipillas and enchiladas, she instilled in him, a spirit of generosity through her alacritous example of feeding the familial multitudes who often gathered at the family ranch for celebrations. Had Chef Sedlar’s formative development been limited to familial learnings, he might have pursued the culinary culture of New Mexico exclusively, however, he culled a wider expanse of culinary appreciation from living in Spain and France where the Air Force had stationed his father.  When his father retired, Eloisa got the precocious then-fourteen-year-old a job in the hotel kitchen of La Fonda in Santa Fe’s famous Plaza. Not long thereafter, he took a job at the Bull Ring. Even back then, Santa Fe’s restaurants weren’t formulaic and predictable. Because the restaurants in which he worked while still in high school featured haute cuisine on one side of the menu and “Spanish” (traditional New Mexican) food on the other, he quickly added French cuisine to his repertoire.  

A magnificent exhibition kitchen

From Santa Fe, he moved to Los Angeles where, at age 23, he apprenticed under the legendary Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage.  At L’Ermitage he mastered classic techniques while continuing to evolve his own approach to cooking. By 1980, Chef Sedlar was ready to strike out as a restaurant owner, partnering with Santa Fe native Estevan Garcia to launch Saint Estéphe in Manhattan Beach. Initially offering nouvelle French cuisine, the restaurant evolved to become one of the Los Angeles area’s first fine-dining Southwestern restaurants. Modern Southwest cuisine as it was executed at Saint Estéphe was such a breath-of-fresh-air concept that Bon Apetit magazine named the pioneering establishment “among the very best in California, or even the west.” In the kitchen Chef Sedlar employed fusion techniques, especially of French and New Mexican ingredients, long before the term “fusion” came into vogue.  At the heart of his culinary pairings were the ingredients on which he had been weaned in New Mexico, ingredients he wisely embraced and lovingly shared with his guests.

Tortillas Florales with Indian Butter

Had he remained in New Mexico, it’s conceivable that the driven chef would have achieved significant acclaim, but it would likely have been the “big fish in a small pond” type of recognition. Instead, he plied his craft in the megalopolis of Los Angeles where diners (and the peripatetic media) tend to be more persnickety and less forgiving. To survive that scrutiny, you’ve got to be good. To stand out and excel in that limelight for forty years, you’ve got to be great. Chef Sedlar’s “big fish in a big pond” greatness placed him in rarefied company, a pantheon of culinary luminescence. From a culinary perspective, Chef Sedlar’s accomplishments are almost Jeffersonian in their breadth and impact. No less than Gourmet Magazine named him “the father of modern Southwest cuisine.” He was the youngest chef ever to receive the Silver Spoon Award from Food Arts Magazine. In 2011, Esquire Magazine named him “Chef of the Year” and listed Rivera, his restaurant at the time, among the nation’s “Best New Restaurants” for 2011. He was recognized in the Cook’s Magazine feature “Top 50 Who’s Who of Cooking in America” and has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Pacific. Chef Sedlar is the author of several cookbooks and “The Tamale Poster” which still adorns the walls of many restaurants. You may even have seen him on season three of the Top Chef Masters series.

Piquillos Rellenos

One of the Land of Enchantment’s most alluring qualities is how it draws its sons and daughters back home. It’s a pull we can’t resist. After more than forty years in the fast-paced fishbowl that is Los Angeles, Chef Sedlar, too, felt the compelling need to return home. Still too vibrant and energetic to retire, he sold Rivera, his wildly successful Los Angeles restaurant in the shadow of the star-studded Staples Center and signed on to helm the restaurant operation at the Drury Plaza Hotel in Santa Fe. Fittingly, he chose to name his restaurant Eloisa after the grandmother who set him on the path of his passion.Perhaps no word in the vernacular of Spanish Northern New Mexico evokes such veneration, reverence (and, for those of us who have lost these heaven-sent treasures, a melancholy ache not even time can erase) as “abuelita” or grandmother. Though Eloisa is named specifically for Chef Sedlar’s own grandmother, his restaurant celebrates all Southwestern women—the madres, tias and hermanas—whom he contends “have always formed the foundation of New Mexico’s culinary heritage.”

Duck Enfrijolada

Few grandmothers have had the luxury of such a regally appointed kitchen as the immaculately gleaming kitchen which graces Eloisa. It’s twice the size of the kitchen at Rivera, Chef Sedlar’s last restaurant in Los Angeles. You’ll want to be seated in close proximity so you can lustily ogle the transformation of down-to-earth New Mexican ingredients into exotic creations which both honor and elevate the Land of Enchantment’s culinary traditions. Watching the kitchen staff assiduously go about their prep work with the efficiency and synchronicity of drone bees is almost mesmerizing. Eloisa’s commodious dining room seats 120 guests inside and weather-permitting, another 65 guests on the patio. The west-facing restaurant is airy and bright, features which inspire Chef Sedlar. The adjoining bar is a sommelier’s dream with an enviable wine list. Walls are festooned with 25 framed photographs on loan from Tamal, the first museum dedicated solely to the celebration of Latin culture as viewed through the lens of food. Tamal is yet another of Chef Sedlar’s dreams reaching fruition, and like a new father, he proudly pointed out photos depicting among other foods and cooking implements: huitlacoche in macro, a molcajete (pestle) and tejolote (mortar) used for grinding ingredients and tortillas adorned with floral designs.

Frito Pie

While impressive under picture frame glass, Tortillas Florales (floral tortillas) will take your breath away when you peel back the hot kitchen towel and release steam redolent with corn. The impact is akin to finding a fossilized fern on the hills backdropping Abiquiu. Pressed into tender comal-cooked disks are fresh and dried edible flowers and herbs. As striking as they are visually, these tortillas are meant to be a holistically sensual experience. Shut your eyes and let your nostrils and taste buds imbibe aromas and flavors which will impress themselves on your senses. Feel the delicate texture of the flowers on the tortilla. Available for both lunch and dinner, the Tortillas Florales are served with a side of “Indian Butter” which is essentially an unctuous, addictive guacamole. From an esthetic point of view, it may not be possible to top the Tortillas Florales, but edible art is plated with every order. We likened the Piquillos Rellenos to a beautiful sanguine heart. Piquillo, a Spanish term for “little beak” is meant to describe the shape of the pepper, not any generalized level of piquancy. Piquillo peppers are richly flavored with sweet-spicy notes that are enhanced through the roasting process. At Eloisa, the piquillos are roasted then stuffed with Gruyere, chorizo and golden raisins, ingredients which play off one another in a concordant symphony of flavors.

Eloiza’s Bizcochitos

Chef Sedlar was happy I had ordered the Duck Enfrijolada, explaining that just as “enchilada” denotes corn tortillas covered with chile, “enfrijolada” means the corn tortillas are covered in beans. As with all New Mexican frijole fanatics, he understands the subtleties and nuances of beans grown in Estancia, Espanola, Moriarty and other bean-producing communities throughout the Land of Enchantment. After one bite of my entrée, I could have sworn these beans came from Heaven. Blue corn tortillas are the canvas for a masterpiece showcasing duck confit, radicchio, crema and a New Mexico cabernet chile sauce all covered in beans. These ingredients coalesce into a sum even more delicious than its parts. At first, the notion of a Frito pie at an upscale Southwestern restaurant seemed almost incongruous, like stick figures at the Louvre. We quickly surmised that under Chef Sedlar’s deft hands, this would be no ordinary Frito pie—and it wasn’t. The only Fritos to actually grace this entrée were on the labels of the bag in which it was served. Instead, the bag was engorged with housemade corn chips with a textural semblance to wontons and a pronounced corn flavor. These chips share space on the bag with chile verde chicken, red onion, cilantro and shaved Cotija cheese. My Kim called it the best Frito pie she’s ever had and as proof, offered me only one swoon-worthy bite.

Caramel Brioche

Among the many favorite dishes Chef Sedlar learned to prepare from his beloved Grandma Eloisa are bizcochitos, the first cookie in the fruited plain to be recognized as an official state cookie (House Bill 406, 1989). For a cookie to earn such a distinction, you know it’s got to be good. Eloisa’s traditional anise-laced cookies exemplify everything that’s beloved and wonderful about bizcochitos, then they’re taken to rarefied air with the pairing of popcorn ice cream. Yes, popcorn ice cream, a feat of molecular gastronomy wizardry that pairs salty-savory and sweet-creamy flavor profiles to titillate your taste buds.Popcorn ice cream also elevates a caramel brioche that by itself is merely outstanding. The top layer of the brioche is caramelized in a crème Brulee fashion. Puncture that sugary brown sheet and you’re rewarded with a custardy, eggy bread akin to a moist, rich bread pudding. Spoon on a bit of the popcorn ice cream and taste bud delirium might ensue. Then for even more sheer contrast, pair the brioche with the musky, tangy Abiquiu apricot half. This dish is as much an adventure in flavor discernment—so many complementary contrasts–as it is a spoil yourself indulgence.

In purposely timing our inaugural visit for lunch on a Saturday, we entertained faint hopes of getting to meet the great chef, if only to express our gratitude for his return to New Mexico.  When we did espy him, my first words were “you’ve broken a lot of hearts in Los Angeles,” recounting my dear friend Sandy Driscoll’s love for all of Chef Sedlar’s restaurants.  It’s easy to see why he was so beloved in Los Angeles.  He’s as kind, gracious, and accommodating a host as his reputation foretold, even introducing us to his proud mother Rose.   I now hope to introduce all of my friends to his phenomenal restaurant.

Eloisa
228 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-0883
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Caramel Brioche with Popcorn Ice Cream, Bizcochitos, Frito Pie, Duck Enfrijolada, Tortillas Florales, Piquillos Rellenos

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Friends of Gil Enjoy Sumptuous Repast At Luna Mansion in Los Lunas

The Lina Mansion in Los Lunas

Experience has shown that the Friends of Gil (FOG) are willing to go great distances for a diversity of excellent dining experiences.  In four previous excursions, FOG members have traveled to Rio Rancho for superb Italian fare at Joe’s Pasta House, enjoyed a sumptuous six-course repast at Budai Gourmet Chinese, partaken of magnificent Mexican food at El Norteno and converged on M’Tucci’s Kitchina for an evening good friends, good food and good laughs. 

Post brunch bliss at the Luna Mansion

On Sunday, July 19, 2015, FOG convened at the fabulous Luna Mansion Landmark Steakhouse in beautiful downtown Los Lunas for a delicious brunch.  The diverse group enjoyed such decadent deliciousness as lobster Benedict, eggs and hash browns, prime rib burrito, New York steak and Linguine with a Red Chile Cream Sauce.  Several of us enjoyed the Maytag Wedge.

Maytag Wedge

Author Jane Austen’s idea of good company was “the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.”  Snippets of conversation at our table centered around a variety of diverse topics ranging from politics to the Madonna song La Isla Bonita to the FOG’s favorite major league soccer player Omar Gonzalez (who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to FOGey Jim Millington).   Event organizer Bob of the Village People even gave a tour of the historical facility.