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Joe’s Pasta House – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Joe's Pasta House in Rio Rancho

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.

Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad

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.

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.

Garlic Scallops

Garlic Scallops

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      

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: 10 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 19
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


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O’Niell’s Irish Pub – Albuquerque, New Mexico

O’Niell’s Irish Pub on Juan Tabo

Despite several efforts by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make it more user-friendly, the Food Pyramid has never been that easy to understand.  Could confusion be one of the reasons 63.1% of American adults are either overweight or obese?  Based on that alarming percentage, you’d think the pyramidal nutritional guide has chocolate as its base topped with pizza, burgers and cheesecake tapering to a whipped cream covered point.

Perhaps to alleviate confusion, in June, 2011, the USDA replaced the ubiquitous food pyramid with a graphic depiction of a plate which (ostensibly) should make it easier for us to determine if we’re balancing our meals nutritionally. Hopefully the size of the plates at the typical family home aren’t platter-sized (or that the pie-wedge shaped components of the plate–fruits, grains, vegetables and proteins–won’t have a subliminal effect).

The capacious dining room and bar at O’Niell’s Irish Pub

The Food Pyramid is not a uniquely American way of depicting nutrition.  Throughout the world there are many ways used to present nutritional recommendations graphically (the Japanese use a spinning top model) even though the basics of nutrition have remained fairly static over time and across borders–with a few country specific differences based on local diet.  In Japan, for example, a glass of tea forms the axis of the top.

Another commonality among most food pyramids is confusion.  It seems no matter what governments throughout the world do to clarify nutritional recommendations, the more confusion arises–primarily because graphics alone don’t tell the whole story.  The most simple and straight-forward food pyramid to be found on the internet is the jocular stereotype-based Irish Food Pyramid.  At its base are potatoes topped by meat then whiskey, ales, stouts and lagers.  “Everything else” occupies the top of the pyramid.

O’Niell’s Irish Pub is festooned with Celtic art

If stereotypes have at least some basis in truth, this stereotype is embraced by my Irish colleagues who retire to their favorite pub for a pint (or six) after every hard (or easy) work week.  You’ll find them sporting the Irish food pyramid on tee-shirts and jumpers (sweaters) and doing their best to adhere to its nutritional recommendations–often to the point of over-achievement (especially on the ales, stouts and lagers).

There is also a historical basis for the stereotyped Irish food pyramid, particularly at its base which is occupied by the potato.  Potatoes didn’t arrive in Ireland until the second half of the 16th century, but it quickly ascended to the main food crop of the poor–primarily because great yields could be cultivated in a small acreage.  Sustenance for the gentry and nobility included beef, obtained from herds of cattle raised on the verdant Irish fields.

The Outdoor Patio at ONiell’s

The Irish pub concept has caught on like wildfire throughout America.  It, too, is a concept based on stereotypes which some Europeans have denounced as “the McDonald’s of the pub trade” courtesy of “their pseudo-Irish names, tacky green paint and super-cooled Guiness.”  Not surprisingly, the Irish pub template also includes fun, the free flow of pint after pint and of course, Irish food.

The Seanathair (old Irish word for grandfather) of Irish pubs in Albuquerque is O’Niell’s Irish Pub which first launched in 1994 and was immediately embraced by the Nob Hill community.  Alas, after nearly a decade on the north side of Central Avenue, O’Niell’s lost its lease and was forced to closed.  Three years later–in 2006–O’Niell’s found a new home on Central just a few blocks and across the street from its original home.  Its rebirth was welcomed with the enthusiasm of a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Crispy Corned Beef and Cabbage Egg Rolls

A second instantiation of O’Niell’s opened in 2010 on Juan Tabo.  It’s a sprawling complex almost as large as the Defined Fitness Gym nearby (and from the outside, it even resembles a gym).  The Juan Tabo restaurant includes a large dog-friendly patio where a backdrop of shrubbery and young trees helps make it one of the more attractive patios in the Duke City.  It’s easy to forget you’re only a few feet away from the bustling Juan Tabo traffic.

The interior is also quite attractive with a long mirrored bar as its cynosure.  The intricate interlacing patterns of Celtic art can be seen throughout the restaurant, a sophisticated tribute to one of the great civilizations in world history.  One wall is dedicated to supporting the community art program with a monthly artists rotation.  Seating is more functional than it is esthetic.

Lamb Stew, part of the quintessential Irish meal

The formula for O’Niell’s popularity is “good food, honest drink.”  Honest drink is described on the restaurant’s Web site as “the perfect pint and the perfect pour, all delivered with perfect service.”  Good food means “top quality versions of the lunches, dinners and appetizers that you know and love, fun alternatives, and some classic Celtic favorites.”  Sounds good to me!

It wouldn’t be New Mexico if the starters section of the menu of a restaurant–any restaurant maybe with the exception of Asian eateries–didn’t have salsa and chips.  O’Niell’s offers what the state legislature may someday consider New Mexico’s official state appetizer.  Land of Enchantment inspired starters also include chile con queso, a black bean quesadilla, chile cheese fries and O’Nachos.  If you’re wondering if this is a misplaced paragraph intended for a review of a New Mexican restaurant, read on.

Sirloin and Boxty

6 June 2011: St. Patrick must have been part Chinese, too with a little Swiss thrown in for good measure. O’Niell’s also offers a very Irish twist on an Asian favorite in crispy corned beef and cabbage egg rolls.  Julienne carrots, red and green cabbage and corn beef and Swiss cheese are stuffed into egg roll skins then deep-fried.  They are sliced diagonally and served six pieces per order along with three sauces redolent with personality–a honey Dijon sauce, horseradish and hot mustard.

Along with the duck confit egg rolls at Zinc, these are some of the Duke City’s most unique and delicious egg rolls, a terrific and unexpected surprise that showcases the versatility and possibilities of egg rolls (if only the city’s Chinese restaurants figured this out).  It’s a given that the thinly-sliced corned beef would go so well with the cabbage, but the egg roll wrappers and deep-frying bring out unexpected qualities.  Each of the dipping sauces complement the egg rolls beautifully and none, not even the hot mustard, will water your eyes.

Boxty Reuben

6 June 2011: O’Niell’s Web site calls lamb “the core of the quintessential Irish meal.”  One of the ways in which lamb is commonly served is as a thick and hearty stew.  If you’ve ever visited Ireland in the winter you’ll understand why.  O’Niell’s lamb stew is very much reminiscent of the lamb stew you’ll find at many a Dublin pub.  Succulent lamb as tender as carne adovada, is served with vegetables and potatoes (of course) and is seasoned with a hint of rosemary and thyme.  It’s a thick stew with lamb chunks a plenty, a true comfort food stew.  It’s also quite delicious.

6 June 2011: If lamb is the core of the quintessential Irish meal, the boxty is the true test of Irish womanhood.  An old Irish rhyme declares, “Boxty on the griddle, boxty on the pan; if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get a man.”  Boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake whose Irish name actually translates to “poor house bread.” At O’Niell’s, the boxy is made with scallions and is flattened like a pancake.  It’s worthy accompaniment to a six-ounce, 100 percent USDA choice sirloin steak served with a Guinness demi-glace and vegetable du jour.  The sirloin is prepared to your exacting specifications and is quite good, however, the petite cut is hardly man-sized.

Bangers and Mash

9 August 2014:  You’ve got to respect a restaurant with a section on the menu dedicated solely to Reubens.  Never mind that there are only three of them on the menu, the fact that they’re singled out is big news.  Morgain Davidson, a long-time friend of this blog, turned me on to the Boxty Reuben, a knife-and-fork Reuben sandwich which replaces the traditional rye with two boxty.  The rest of the Reuben is pretty standard: grilled corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese.  Only the ingredients are standard.  The flavors are superb!  The corned beef is nicely seasoned and the sauerkraut offers a nice pickling punch, but it’s the boxty we most appreciated.  The scallion-potato boxy make for a great rye substitute even if you can’t pick up this sandwich as you would a traditional Reuben.

6 June 2011: Another traditional Irish favorite done well at O’Niell’s is Bangers and Mash, two char-grilled Irish sausages served on mashed red potatoes and smothered in a rich demi-glace made with Guinness stout, mushrooms and caramelized onions.  This is humble cuisine elevated to an art form thanks largely to the demi-glace.  Its gravy-like consistency and the marriage of fleshy mushrooms and caramelized onions covers the potatoes and sausage like an Indian blanket.

Irish Cuban with Waffle Fries

9 August 2014:  It’s often said that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone’s Irish.  At O’Niell’s, even the Cuban is Irish.  The Cuban sandwich, that is.  Described on the menu as “Cuban-inspired, but decidedly Irish,” it’s a “flavor-packed mix of corned beef, pulled pork, coleslaw, spicy Southwest aioli, hot mustard and Swiss all topped with grilled pickles.”  As with all multi-ingredient sandwiches, the sum is greater than all its parts, but some of those parts stand out very well.  The grilled pickles are assertive, the way pickles should be.  The corned beef fit in as if it belonged on the Cuban sandwich.  This sandwich pairs well with waffle fries.

16 June 2011: The dessert menu includes O’Niell’s take on a United Kingdom favorite known as spotted dick.  Called “Irish Delight” on the menu, it’s a different bread pudding every season.  Alas, it’s one of the more cloying bread pudding offerings we’ve had in the Duke City, a tooth-decaying sweet treat.  Perhaps some cold vanilla ice cream would have cut the sweetness a bit.

Irish Delight: O’Niell’s take on favorite with a funny name-Spotted Dick, an Irish bread pudding.

Founder Rob O’Niell lives by the edict “No Sniveling,” an approach to life to which more of us should subscribe.  There’s not much to snivel about at O’Niell’s Irish Pub, a fun place to dine even if you’re not Irish.

O’Niell’s Irish Pub
3301 Juan Tabo Blvd. NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)-293-1122
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 09 August 2014
1st VISIT: 16 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bangers and Mash, Sirloin and Boxty, Lamb Stew, Crispy Corned Beef and Cabbage Egg Rolls, Irish Delight, Boxty Reuben, Irish Cuban

O'Niell's Pub on Urbanspoon

Friends of Gil (FOG) Dinner III: Magnificent Mexican Food for Fabulous Foodies

Contented group awaiting dessert

People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Julia Child

When Friends of Gil (FOG) get together, good food happens.  So do good times and great conversation among some of the most passionate gastronomes in the Duke City area.  El Norteño was the site of the most recent FOG dinner shared by nineteen.  Guests included five of the ten most prolific commentators on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog: Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, Bruce Schor (with Lady Grayce), Jim Millington (with Janet, the Child Bride), Larry McGoldrick (with the pulchritudinous Chase girls, Barbara and Linda) and John Lucas (with fabulous Kay). 

We were also graced with the presence of FOG newcomers Sarah and Rolk Dolk.  No strangers to the hospitality industry, Sarah and Rol own and operate the Adobe Nido Bed and Breakfast which is very close to Old Town shopping, museums and downtown night life.  Joe and Kazzie Guzzardi, the much loved proprietors of Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho joined just as we were about to order dessert.   As far as we know, the infamous Suzie Queue was not in attendance.

The lull between dinner and dessert

While some of the FOG hadn’t ever dined at El Norteño, others of us visit frequently.  As one of the most long-lived and beloved Mexican restaurants in the Duke City, El Norteño has been a perennial winner of “Best Mexican” restaurant honors in various publications.  Instead of a fixed price meal as we’ve had in previous FOG dinners, guests ordered from the menu.   Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate not only ordered the most tongue-twisting dish on the menu (Huachinango a la Veracruzana), he was able to pronounce it like a native. 

Our thanks to Mary Ann Spencer for organizing a very fun and enjoyable event.  The stunning Shawne volunteered to organize FOG IV which is tentatively slated for November.  We hope many more of you are able to join us.

A great time was had by one and all