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 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.
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 an 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.”
Pasta House proprietor 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. Guzzardi’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. Housed in what used to be an IHOP restaurant, the Pasta House is classy and upscale without being overpriced and stuffy.
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, 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.
Perhaps the only thing at the Pasta House as warm as Joe 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 (including red pepper and garlic) 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.
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.
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.
Addictive is an apt description for a lighty 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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet another local favorite is named simply “Pesto” and it features spaghetti with a pesto constructed of pine nuts, fresh basil and garlic. It, too, is available with shrimp or chicken, but needs neither. The prevalent tastes are garlic and pesto, but in delicious proportions. 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.
The pasta dishes are infused with flavor; it is 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.
The New Zealand 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. These chops are tender and succulent with just the slightest hint of fat for additional flavor. The lamb chops are served with red mashed 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Our waiter told us all desserts are prepared in-house. 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. 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 much to like at Joe’s Pasta House, an Italian restaurant several orders of magnitude better than the heavily trafficked Olive Garden, but also much better than almost all of the highly regarded, highly publicized Italian restaurant throughout the Albuquerque Metropolitan areas. It’s my fix for red sauce Italian food and so much more…and since we’re talking red sauce, let me share the secret to Joe’s outstanding red sauce. It’s all about 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. That’s one of the reasons Joe’s red sauce is much lighter in color. It’s much more delicious, too.
Joe’s Pasta House
3201 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 13 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 13
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pesto, Mediterranean Pasta, Hot Antipasti for Two, Lasagna, Cannelloni, Giovanni Special, Fetuccini Carbonara, Zita Alla Vodka, Tiramisu, Cannoli, Italian Cream Cake