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M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli – Albuquerque, New Mexico

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli

Greek mythology recounts the story of Tantalus, progeny of a divine parent (Zeus himself) and a mortal one.  Uniquely favored among mortals by being invited to share the food of the gods, Tantalus abused that privilege by slaying his own son and feeding him to the gods as a test of their omniscience.  The gods immediately figured out what Tantalus had done and in their rage condemned him to the deepest portion of the underworld where he would be forever “tantalized” with hunger and thirst.  Though immersed up to his neck in water, when Tantalus bent to drink, it all drained away.  When he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, winds blew the branches beyond his reach.

For years, Duke City diners have been tantalized by the promise of signage beckoning us to visit “delis” only to realize, much like the gods of Olympus, that all is not as it appears.  A sign does not a deli make nor do products from peripatetic distributors.  As with Tantalus, we’re left to pine for the authenticity of a true deli, the type of which Albuquerque has not seen since the bygone days of Deli Mart.  Savvy diners may not be able to vanquish the ersatz delis to the underworld, but we can banish these pretenders to the realm of chain restaurants we choose not to frequent.

Meats, cheeses, breads and so much more…

By strict definition a “deli,” an abbreviated form of delicatessen, is a term meaning “delicacies,” “fine foods” or “delicious things to eat.”   Over time delicatessen and its diminutive form came to represent the store, restaurant or combination thereof in which these delicacies, fine foods and delicious things to eat are sold, either for take-out or eat-in.    For many of us who have lived in large cities, the term deli is synonymous with Jewish deli while for others a deli proffers specialty foods indigenous to Italy, Poland (see Red Rock Deli) or other European nation. 

The hard-liners among us will never accept  that Schlotzky’s, Jason’s, McAlister’s and others of that ilk are delis despite what their signage may say.  Nor will we ever be duped by the deception of diners daring to call themselves delis.  It goes without saying that we don’t believe a deli should  feature products burnishing the labels of Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Kirkland, Butterball or even the ubiquitous Boar’s Head.  An authentic deli should preferably cure, salt, dry and cut its own meats and make at least some of its cheeses–and if it doesn’t do that, it should procure and sell only the finest, most authentic meats and cheeses available.

Italian Charcuterie Board

With the December, 2014 launch of M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli, Albuquerque once again has an authentic Italian deli in the tradition of delis for which hard-core deli aficionados have pined for far too long.  It’s a deli in which I’d proudly break bread with Dave Hurayt, Bruce Schor, Bob Sherwood and Gary Feaster with whom I’ve commiserated about the absence of an authentic deli in Albuquerque.  Best of all, it’s a deli with a pedigree that promises authenticity and deliciousness. 

Trust the ownership triumvirate of John Haas, Katie Gardner and Jeff Spiegel to do for their Italian market and deli what they’ve done for their restaurant. The trio launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in 2013 and accolades quickly piled on (including “Best New Restaurant” honors from Albuquerque The Magazine readers and being named one of the top 100 neighborhood restaurants in the US by Open Table).  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli is located about 150 feet away from its elder sibling in the Montaño Plaza shopping center.

Bread

Ensconced within Lilliputian digs, M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli embodies the axiom “little place, huge flavors.”  Add huge aromas and you might feel you’ve been transported to a small corner New York City Italian deli.    You’ll be amazed at just how much is crammed into such a small space.  Seating for about ten guests is to your immediate left and right as you walk in.  Because of space constraints, the deli’s take-out business will be a robust part of the operation.  The rest of the space is devoted to mouth-watering Italian products, many of which are created on the premises. 

In fact, the talented staff at M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli bakes its own breads (sourdough, rye, whole wheat, baguette, ciabatta, foccacia), makes its pastas and sausages, cures many of its own meats (prosciutto, cotto, sopressata, mortadella, etc.) and makes its cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, etc.).  What isn’t made on the premises is procured from trusted, high-quality sources.  On the shelves you’ll also espy jars of fresh herbs (basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.) while refrigerated deli cases showcase pickled goods (eggplant, sweet or spicy cucumbers, cardamom carrots, giardinera, Sicilian green olives, Macedonian peppers and more).  Your taste buds might go into sensory overload, not to mention involuntary salivation.

Muffaletta with Farro Salad

Optimally, you’ll be able to score one of the four tables for a unique eat-in experience that will allow you to browse and sample as you wait for your meal which, by the way, is so much more than sandwiches.  First on the menu are three Italian charcuterie boards, all of which are accompanied by house-made artisan bread.  After you peruse the four enticing appetizers and three scrumptious salads, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose from among seven featured sandwiches, including a build-your-own option and all served with one side.  You can opt instead for one of three pastas.  Either way, you might not have room left for one of the three luscious desserts.

If, like me, you believe Italian delis start and end with meats and cheeses, you’ve got to try one of the three Charcuterie Boards (Salumi Board, Pickled Board, Cheese Board).  In America, the ancient European culinary art of charcuterie has recently started to become a highly revered and well-practiced art.   Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli not only offers charcuterie, it is a charcuterie!

Pastrami with Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes

The Salumi Board offers three options: pick two, pick three or pick four from among the meats.  An outstanding option is the spicy coppa (short for capicolla), a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat with a taste and texture similar to prosciutto.   If you’re a Sopranos fan, you might recognize capicolla by its slang name “gabagool.” By any name it’s delicious.   Speck, which is cured with such spices as juniper berries, nutmeg, garlic and bay leaves before being cold-smoked, is another terrific option.  It wouldn’t be a salumi (Italian cold cuts) board without Toscano salami, a dry, salami with large bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns surrounded by leaner meat which provides a robust, distinctive but not overpowering flavor.  It goes without saying you’ll also want prosciutto on your board.  Accompanying these meats are slices of Italian bread, an addictive onion jam, house-made mustard, tomato relish and probably the very best spicy pickles you’ll ever have. 

The sandwich menu includes several familiar favorites such as the Cubano, BLT, Pastrami and Muffaletta, but while M’Tucci’s pays homage to traditions which spawned these sacrosanct sandwiches, it does not attempt to duplicate them.  The muffaletta, for example, is not an exact replica of the muffaletta you might have at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, but it’s an outstanding Italian inspired sandwich in its own right.  The canvas for this superb sandwich is housemade ciabatta which is generously topped with housemade capicola, mortadella, salami, an olive tapenade and house-smoked mozzarella. It takes two hands and a wide-open mouth to handle this mighty, meaty, magnificent sandwich.  The yin to the muffaletta is a ferro salad  (fresh grape tomatoes, walnuts, Tucumcari feta, pickled red onions on a lettuce leaf), one of the four available sides.

Cheesecake with Fig and Crostata with Butternut Squash

Pastrami paramours often consider it heretical for pastrami sandwiches to be topped only with a good deli mustard with a dill pickle on the side.  Before they become apoplectic at learning M’Tucci’s pastrami (made on the premises) sandwich is made with herbed goat cheese, fresh red onions, a housemade mustard on housemade rye, they had darned well better try it.  It’s unlike any pastrami this aficionado has ever had and it’s a bit lean (fat is flavor) for my tastes, but it’s still a pretty good sandwich with that herbed goat cheese really standing out.  This sandwich pairs well with oven-roasted herbed potatoes, red potatoes seasoned with rosemary, thyme and fresh garlic. 

There are only three desserts on the menu and if they’re all as good as the two we chose, you’re sure to sate, if not titillate, your sweet tooth. The molded cheesecake topped with a fig jam renewed my faith in cheesecakes which of late have all been plagued by a boring sameness.  The crostata, a delicate Italian tart enveloping buttery butternut squash infused with sage is nearly as good.  Somewhat small by contemporary dessert size standards, they’re not to be missed. 

Pop culture enthusiasts will remember the scene from the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan experienced delirious joy from her sandwich at New York City’s revered Katz’s Deli. Similar reactions at M’Tucci’s are sure to be repeated and when they are, you can tell your server “I’ll have what she’s having.”

M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli
6001 Winter Haven Road,  N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7327
LATEST VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET:

Gravy – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gravy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on Central Avenue in the East Downtown (EDO) District

“Gravy is the simplest, tastiest, most memory-laden dish I know how to make:
a little flour, salt and pepper, crispy bits of whatever meat anchored the meal,
a couple of cups of water or milk and slow stirring to break up lumps.”
~Dorothy Allison, American writer

NOTE: There’s a reason restaurant critics don’t typically review new restaurants until restaurateurs have had the opportunity to iron things out, a process that sometimes takes several weeks, if not months.   Virtually all restaurants experience “Murphy’s Law-esque” start-up issues that belie the countless hours of planning and preparation for a smooth launch.  We visited Gravy scant days after its opening and found a number of issues that detracted from the enjoyment of our meal, however, the restaurant’s seasoned ownership makes it very likely these issues will be resolved in short order and Gravy will more than live up to the hype it’s received.

Some would say that the discovery (invention?) of gravy is one of mankind’s crowning achievements.  Others would deride it as the work of the devil, likening gravy to a beguiling temptress which bends the will to its bidding.  Dolly Parton acknowledges that “every single diet I ever fell off of was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.”   It’s no surprise that similar to many of the world’s best tasting foods, gravy is generally fattening.  Most commonly, it’s the byproduct of pan drippings and juices derived from cooking meat.

Some among us who consider gravy one of mankind’s most glorious achievements (even as it flows through our veins) may salivate involuntarily when turning onto Central Avenue and espying a large sign reading simply “Gravy” subtitled with the three events with which gravy goes so well: “breakfast, lunch, dinner.”  One of the most eagerly anticipated restaurant launches in recent memory, Gravy is the brainchild of the partnership which in 2011 opened Holy Cow, one of the city’s  most celebrated purveyors of burgers.

Chocolate-Cherry Shake

Gravy is located at the site of the former site of Milton’s, a long-time East Downtown institution.  Despite nearly two years and more than half a million spent in renovating the edifice,  architectural constraints make it nearly impossible not to hearken back to the days in which the facade housed a Denny’s Restaurant.  That’s not to say the renovation was like “putting lipstick on a pig.”  It’s just that there’s only so much you can do with a building originally constructed in 1964. 

What you can do, however, is place a premium on providing an attractive venue for guests.  It’s a venue which pays homage to previous tenants in a retro-modern diner fashion without a thematic regression to the 60s.  The exterior (which had probably been neglected for years) has a pristine appearance; even the river rock facade now has a polished look.  The interior received similar attention though the sound system’s bassy speakers have a one-note (boom, boom) cacophony that makes discourse at conversational tones a challenge.

Steak Frites

Where Gravy will shine most is with a diner menu that bespeaks of inventive and traditional diner foods, many prepared with a New Mexico twist while others offer a contemporary interpretation of classic dishes.  Diner foods generally translate to comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken fried steak, fried chicken and beef stroganoff, all staples of Gravy. Salads range from the classic chopped salad to the lobster-avocado salad.  You can start your morning off with such eye-opening favorites as biscuits and gravy or opt instead for a breakfast pot pie.  Nine types of pancakes grace the breakfast menu.

In the tradition of diners everywhere, milkshakes are prepared to order for kids of all ages.  These aren’t the milkshake machine variety shakes proffered at chain restaurants.  The chocolate-cherry shake, for example, is made with real ice cream, chunks of adult (dark) chocolate and a multitude of maraschino cherries, not some artificial cherry-flavored sweetener.  It’s served cold the way shakes used to be and should always be made.

Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle with Cucumber-Mint Yogurt and Tomato-Olive Salsa

One of the more contemporary menu items offered at some diners is steak frites. While some might decry steak frites as just a fancy name for steak and French fries, in France there are restaurants whose entire menu is comprised solely of this sacrosanct dish.  Gravy’s rendition is a marinated top sirloin topped with a maitre d’ butter served with hand-cut fries.  At medium-rare, the steak oozes beautiful pink juices.  The maitre d’ butter, a compound butter with parsley, adds a complex layer of flavors and a rich unctuous quality that enlivens the meat.  The fries are just a bit on the flaccid side and are prepared at just past the stage at which they’re golden hued. 

Another entree unlikely to be found in an old-fashioned diner of yore is a spinach, artichoke and feta triangle served with a cool cucumber-mint yogurt and a tomato-olive salsa.  Not entirely unlike Greek spanokopita, this filo dough pastry is a winner, so good you can enjoy it on its own or with the delightful cucumber-mint yogurt and (or) tomato-olive salsa.  Luckily there’s enough of the cucumber-mint yogurt that you can use it in lieu of ketchup for the fries.  The tomato-olive salsa has a discernible bite whose genesis we weren’t able to determine. 

Lest I forget, there are a number of dishes in which gravy–sausage gravy and brown gravy–is featured.  It wouldn’t be Gravy without it.

Gravy
725 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-4299
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Steak Frittes; Chocolate-Cherry Shake; Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle;

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Wise Pies Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Wise Pies Pizza

The connection between the Mafia and pizza is hardly novel. Throughout the fruited plain you’ll find any number of pizzerias sporting Mafioso names, including Godfather’s Pizza with which Duke City diners are well acquainted. It can be debated elsewhere that the Mafia-pizza connection is an offensive Italian stereotype, but no public outcry seems forthcoming as there was when the “Frito Bandido” was used to sell corn chips. In any case, if stereotypes have any basis in truth, the “pizza connection trial” in the 1980s helped perpetuate those stereotypes. That trial centered around the use of independently-owned pizza parlors as Mafia fronts for narcotics sales and collections.

In January, 2014, Michael Baird, the impresario who brought us Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse and Prime launched the first of several planned pizza restaurants which, much like their elder scions, embrace the storied history and machinations of the Mafia–thematically and whimsically, not operationally. The restaurant’s name, “Wise Pies” is a not-so-thinly-veiled play on the Mafia term “wise guys,” which describes someone who is part of a secret criminal organization (can you say Mafia?). Even the specialty pizzas, called “La Cosa Nostra” on the menu, include such familiar organized crime syndicate names as Luciano, Gambino and Bonanno.

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The toppings bar where you’ll find thousands of options

The Mafia theme extends to the name tags worn by Wise Pies employees. Names such as The Enforcer, The Muscle and Gams (she is cute) may sound as if they were they gleaned from any of a number of Mafia nickname generators on the Internet, but they’re actually descriptive of their bearers. The Enforcer, for example, is the shift manager, ostensibly a “capo” or captain within the “family.” The greeter wears a Prohibition era style fedora, today often referred to as a “gangster” (as opposed to “gangsta”) hat. Faux Chicago brick lines the walls.

Despite all the money spent developing the Wise Pies concept, children of all ages will invariably gravitate toward the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine which dispenses dozens of Coca-Cola product flavors. The mad scientist in you might want to mix and match different flavor options, but foodies among us will concentrate our creativity in building our own custom pizza or modifying one of the aforementioned specialty pizzas to our exacting specifications. The options are plentiful—and quick. On the conveyor oven heated to about 600 degrees, your pizza will be ready in just over three minutes. It will probably take you longer than that to decide what you want on your pizza.

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The Bonanno

The eight specialty pizzas on the La Cosa Nostra section of the menu are all prix-fixe at under eight dollars. That prix-fixe rate  also applies to build-your-own. Build your own options include four crusts (including a gluten-free option) made on the premises, five different sauces and six cheeses. Eight meats–including some unique options such as gabagool (capicola in the vernacular of non-family members), green chile chorizo and Andouille sausage—will appease carnivores while vegetarians will find some sixteen veggies to sate their cravings.  The ingredients are of high quality, especially the sausage which is made by the Vernon’s butchers.

19 January 2014: Because the people-pleasing staff at Wise Pies won’t balk at requests to modify even the specialty pizzas, you can truly have them your way. For me, the selling point on the Bonanno is the spicy barbecue sauce (on par with the Turtle Mountain’s Habanero stout barbecue sauce for flavorful heat) while the roasted chicken should be whacked. No problem. The pizzaiolis swapped the chicken for gabagool and Italian sausage, perfect complements for caramelized onions, a provolone cheese blend, roasted red peppers, banana peppers and feta cheese, only about half those ingredients starting off as part of the Bonanno. My additions (pizza my way) proved quite satisfying, making for a good, solid pizza.

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The Siciliano

19 January 2014: Similarly my Kim customized The Siciliano (roasted red pepper marinara, gabagool, Italian sausage, red onions, roasted garlic and a Provolone cheese blend), opting for a double portion of roasted garlic. If these specialty pies are indicative of other Wise Pie offerings, capos and their crews as well as families will enjoy Wise Pies. Each pizza is about nine-inches around with a thin crust formidable enough to hold up to all the ingredients you might pile on to your pie. The quick-baking process imbues each pizza with a light brown char. Being thin-crusted, there’s not much of a cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza. With only nine-inches of crusty canvas, that’s a good thing because it means more ingredients, less bread. 

10 December 2014: While chatting recently about American cuisine with a young Vietnamese server at Viet Q, he dismissed (maybe even dissed) American burgers but admitted to having fallen in love with pizza–but only if it’s topped with green chile.  As with our sacrosanct green chile cheeseburgers, New Mexicans love to top their pizzas with our official state vegetable.  At Wise Pie, chile is available not only as a topping, but as a chief component of one of its sauces.  The green chile Alfredo sauce on the Fredo actually packs an occasional kick–not with every bite, but sneakily.  Other components on this pizza are roasted chicken, a Provolone cheese blend, Roma tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.  On those bites in which the green chile makes its presence felt, this pizza rocks.  When the green chile isn’t discernible, it’s still good.  For better results, ask for green chile and the green chile Alfredo sauce.

The Fredo

Wise Pies offers three (Greek, Classic Caesar, Garden) salads as well as a build your own salad option with four dressing options. Sweet stuff includes a chocolate chip cookie, an apple cinnamon pizza and Wise Pies Gourmet Chocolate and Dark Chocolate Bars. The chocolate bars are made especially for Wise Pies by Joliesse Chocolates of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. The chocolate bars are kept in the freezer until ordered so they’re cold and hard if you bite into them immediately. Give them a couple of minutes and you’ll bite into some of the best chocolate in town. The milk chocolate bar is filled with salted butter caramel while the dark chocolate bar is imbued with hazelnut gianduja.  Both are terrific!

Albuquerque’s first Wise Pies on Alameda is relatively small at 1,600 square feet, but it offers two patios for Albuquerque’s sunny days. Ultimately, Michael Baird plans to open more than a dozen Wise Pie franchises throughout the Land of Enchantment with stores in Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Roswell planned.  On Monday, December 1st, 2014, Wies Pies Pizza entered into agreement with the University of New Mexico to rename the famous basketball arena. Henceforth, University Arena (also known as “The Pit”) will be named Wise Pies Arena after the local pizza and salad chain.

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For dessert, Wise Pies Dark Chocolate bar and Wise Guys Gourmet Chocolate Bar

There’s a code of silence in the Mafia called “omerta” to which members have to swear when they join the Family. Mafiosos and pizza aficionados alike won’t be able to keep silent about Wise Pies, a pizzeria with great value and customization opportunities which truly let you have pizza the way you want it.

Wise Guys Pizza
4545 Alameda Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-5260
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 December 2014
1st VISIT: 19 January 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: The Bonanno, The Siciliano, Dark Chocolate Bar, Gourmet Chocolate Bar, The Fredo

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