Where in New Mexico can you go to see his eminence Pope John Paul, II pontificate to Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn? Where can you go to see nattily attired cowboy John Wayne cavorting in a cerulean swimming pool with the material girl herself? Where can you find Beetlejuice perched on a saguaro, looking on as other luminaries (including the Beetles and the Supremes) enjoy the pristine waters by the intersection of Central and Cornell Avenues? Only on the imaginative trompe-l’oeil murals which festoon the walls at Saggio’s can you engage in such fantasy.
The fantasy world begins on the restaurant’s Cornell Avenue frontage. Approaching from the south, you might not even know you’re approaching Saggio’s because the name on the brick and mortar facade is “Lupo Rosso” which translates from Italian to “red wolf,” perhaps a tribute to the University of New Mexico Lobos whose uniform colors are cherry and silver. Where you might expect windows, instead you’ll see a montage of sports images: Lobo legend Brian Urlacher hoisting the George Halas trophy overhead, Mia Hamm celebrating the United States gold medal win in soccer and Cassius Clay standing defiant above a vanquished Sonny Liston.
A life-sized ceramic status of Cassius Clay (before the world recognized him as Muhammad Ali) with all his triumphant sinew and muscle stands in front of a vintage Mercedes Benz yellow cab, its front and side panel serving as a sidebar in which some of the best cheesecake, cannoli and cake desserts in town are showcased. You’ll also find life-sized statues of Babe Ruth, the New York Yankees’ Sultan of Swat and of Marilyn Monroe, laughing as her skirt billows upwards from a subway vent’s blast during the filming of the immortal The Seven Year Itch.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to select Saggio’s as one of the city’s most visually captivating milieus. There’s something to capture your eye no matter where you turn. Hanging plants drape down from the ceilings as do several LCD televisions (normally tuned to seasonal sporting events) strategically placed for optimal viewing. The entire restaurant is replete with trompe-l’oeil, an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects really exist, instead of being mere, two-dimensional paintings. It’s a must see!
Years ago, a humble UNM area pizzeria named Nunzio’s, named for family patriarch Nunzio DiGregorio, used to prepare the best pizza in my universe as I knew it before moving to Massachusetts and experiencing East Coast pizza nirvana. Ambitious efforts at expansion failed and the Nunzio’s trademark and recipes were sold. Ultimately, the DeNunzio family reopened under the name Saggio’s and still serves very good pizza. In 2010, Northeast Heights (2600 Juan Tabo, N.E.) residents could once again share in the Saggio’s experience with the opening of Fastino’s, a sort of scion of Saggio’s reborn and rechristened.
In 2005, Saggio’s was selected “best pizza” by Albuquerque the Magazine readers in the magazine’s inaugural “best of” issue. It repeated in 2007, yet in its annual food and wine issue in 2010, Saggio’s was selected as only the third best pizza in Albuquerque. At each pizzeria rated, the magazine staff ordered a pepperoni pizza and rated it on its taste, appearance, authenticity and creativity. After tallying points, the top five had a pizza “playoff” in which the finalists served the specialty pie of their choice as well as a pepperoni pizza. Placing third is quite an achievement.
In large part because of the restaurant’s experiential aspects, I’ve had Saggios as one of my top rated pizza restaurants in town for years and though an usurper or two has unseated it, it’s still one of the best in town. This is the only pizza I’ve ever dreamed about (to the detriment of my pillow). Over the years Saggio’s has grown beyond being “just another” pizza restaurant as it now offers various pastas, salads, calzones, foccacia sandwiches and wonderful desserts, all of which are available for dining-in or carry-out. Saggio’s is open seven days a week until at least ten o’clock in the evening.
It’s hard to get past the wonderful slices–still battleship large and featuring some of the best crust of any pizza I’ve ever had. The crust tastes, and more importantly smells, like fresh baked bread. It’s a delicious canvass for whatever ingredients you pile on it. Pizzas are available in traditional Neapolitan crust or in a pan-baked Sicilian-style crust. Two slices will make up an entire meal. Some claim slices are better than entire pies and this pizza isn’t quite as good served cold, but I’ve got no complaints. Saggio’s pizza makes no claim to New York or Chicago style. Each pizza is crafted with the utmost of care as if your repeat patronage is paramount.
In addition to standard pizza offerings, Saggio’s gourmet pizza array is as impressive and diverse as you’ll find anywhere in the Duke City. The Thai chicken pizza features a captivating sweet and spicy peanut sauce that compares favorably to the sauces served at some Thai restaurants. If you’ve ever been stranded in the culinary wasteland that is the Phoenix airport where the best dining option is probably California Pizza Kitchen, you might be familiar with Thai chicken pizza. The California Pizza Kitchen is renown for their innovative pizzas, some, like the Thai chicken pizza, which are quite good.
Saggio’s version is much, much better. Slathered onto a crusty ten-inch canvas is a spicy ginger and peanut sauce along with whole Spanish peanuts and grilled chicken. The ginger-peanut sauce is reminiscent of some of the best peanut sauces we’ve had in Thai restaurants. It’s not incendiary spicy, but does have a tongue- and taste bud tingling bite. Gourmet pizzas are hand-crafted with your choice of tasty crusts: traditional, Rosemary whole wheat, basil pesto and chile. Each gourmet pizza is ten-inches (or about the size of two slices) and is intended to serve one or two people. Gourmet offerings are the Margherita, Portabello, New Chicken Alfredo, California Vegetarian, Florentine, Mediterranean, Spinach and Barbecue.
Panini and focaccia sandwiches are crafted on Italian bread baked fresh daily with herbs and spices in the dough. Each sandwich is piled high (an exaggeration just about anywhere else) with specialty meats, provolone cheese, Romaine lettuce, roasted red peppers and Roma tomatoes. Sandwiches are served with a pasta salad. Among the sandwich offerings, the Napoli, a meatball sandwich on focaccia bread includes some of the best meatballs and sauce marriage I’ve had since Massachusetts some 30 years ago. The meatballs actually taste like meat, not some gritty filler. The sauce is a sweet and zesty marinara flavored with garlic and basil.
The football sized calzones are the among the very best in the city with a garlicky tomato sauce that imbues each calzone with richness and spice. They are baked in your choice of toasty crusts: traditional, Rosemary whole wheat, basil pesto and mozzarella. A family of four could probably share a calzone; that’s how large they are. The four meat (sausage, pepperoni, bacon, Italian beef) calzone is made with rich ricotta, pesto and mozzarella.
Frank Sinatra would love the Lasagna My Way because it truly is made the way you want it. The lasagna starts with noodles, ricotta and mozzarella then you choose two ingredients (meat or vegetarian) and a sauce. The meat selections include turkey, Black Forest Ham, sausage, Italian beef, chicken breast, proscuitto and shrimp) while the sauce options are marinara, Alfredo and basil cream with Roma tomatoes. It’s an excellent lasagna, easily large enough to feed two people or one UNM Lobo defensive tackle.
The pasta menu features many of the “usual suspects” but it really showcases some uniquely prepared entrees such as a tuna arrabiata and an incendiary shrimp diablo, a dish not for the faint of heart or the timid of taste bud. One of my intrepid readers recognized me as a fellow masochist when it comes to spicy food and urged me to try it. He described it as coming in a variety of heat levels though he gets his extra spicy (spicy or medium is probably the norm for most). This is indeed an eye-opening (maybe eye-watering) pasta dish, its heat coming from a surfeit of sauce impregnated with those potent pepper flake seeds, but it also has a discernible garlic flavor as well. The shrimp are bigger than some lobster tails I’ve seen. They’re also sweet and succulent.
A sub-section of the pasta menu is called the “Matrimonio de A’More,” a play of words meaning a “marriage of love.” That aptly describes the melding of mix and match pastas and sauces which complement one another very well. You are invited to select your choice of fresh-cooked pasta (spaghetti, penne, fettuccine, shells, linguine, bowtie) and sauce: Marinara, Alfredo, Cilantro Pesto or Basil Pesto (olive oil, Roma tomatoes and fresh basil). All sauces are housemade daily on the premises.
The pasta dishes are served in humongous bowls, about the size of the bowls of pho served at many local Vietnamese restaurants. Each is accompanied by a piece of warm, home-style Italian foccacia bread. The spaghetti with meatballs dish will easily feed two. The star of this dish is the meatballs, succulent orbs of deliciousness. The pasta is prepared at just beyond al dente. As with several of the pasta dishes at Saggio’s, the sauce is almost an embarrassment of excess; the sauce practically drowns the pasta and overwhelms the pasta a bit.
Desserts are deliciously decadent creations made by Eli’s Cheesecake Company of Chicago, a Windy City institution. Offerings, all nattily displayed in the unique Mercedes Benz yellow cab include several extraordinary cheesecakes–the phenomenally tasty turtle, the luscious key lime, magnificent Mississippi Mud and the moccachino cheesecakes among them plus some of the best chocolate cannoli in town. Perhaps it’s solely my imagination, but it seems you can have a different cheesecake every visit to Saggio’s.
You can also find Eli’s Cheesecake at Fastino’s, the fresh fast food concept owned and operated by the Saggio’s braintrust. Housed in a former Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits, Fastino’s is tailored more for the gobble-and-go culture than for the stay, scarf and study confines of Saggio’s. A cavalcade of vehicles snakes through the convenient drive-through at all hours in which Fastino’s is open. Slices of pizza and sandwiches are the most popular draw, but a number of surprisingly gourmet-style pasta dishes (such as Cajun lobster ravioli, Shrimp Puttanesca and Veal Saltimboca) and salads are also available as are a number of breakfast sandwiches. The restaurant, though much smaller than Saggio’s still boasts those realistic murals by Scott Kuykendall.
During any given visit to Saggio’s, you just might run into University of New Mexico Lobo athletes and their coaches. This is the quintessential college area restaurant, but it’s frequented not only by students. Everyone in Albuquerque knows about Saggio’s and most love its pizza.
107 Cornell, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cheesecake, Chocolate Canoli, Thai Chicken Pizza, Sausage Pizza, The Napoli, Shrimp Diablo, Lasagna