“The definitive recipe for any Italian dish has not yet appeared.
We are still creating.”
The categorization and labeling some diners tend to ascribe to Italian restaurants bespeaks not only of strong emotional preferences, but of an unwillingness to assign any merits to the “other side.” At one side of the spectrum are the old-fashioned “red sauce” restaurants and at the other are Northern Italian restaurants. To those who love red sauce Italian restaurants, they represent Italian comfort food in a festive and friendly ambiance stereotyped by red and white checkerboard tablecloths and bottles of Chianti at every table. The menus–often green, white and red–feature familiar American Italian entrees such as spaghetti and meatballs served in profuse portions. To its proponents, red sauce restaurants are homey, rustic and simple in the best sense of those terms.
Detractors usually speak of red sauce restaurants in derogatory and condescending terms. To its “haters,” red sauce restaurants represent overcooked, mushy pasta dredged in a profligate amounts of tomato sauce “gravy.” This, they will tell you is low-end food served by Old World restaurants as opposed to the more sophisticated “cuisine” that draws aficionados to Northern Italian restaurants and their nouveau menu offerings served in swanky milieus. Northern Italian restaurant zealots trumpet their genre of choice’s grilled meats, seafood and sauces based on creams and cheeses. They appreciate that their pasta is served on the al dente side and instead of noodle type pasta, they can opt for polenta or risotto.
Not to be outdone, red sauce restaurant devotees joke that Northern Italian restaurants are simply Italian restaurants that wish they were French. They consider Northern Italian cuisine haughty and pretentious, an overpriced and stuffy repast for the rich and those who wish they were. The elegant and cultivated cuisine of the north, they argue, is a denial of the true and authentic culture of Italian cooking.
If the aforementioned point-counterpoint debate sounds a bit like the ad infinitum diatribes in which political ideologues engage, then it accurately depicts the passion some diners actually have about their choice for Italian food. The truth is many of us appreciate both “red sauce” and Northern Italian restaurants, maybe one a bit more than the other. That’s why restaurant impresario Matt DiGregory’s new restaurant concept should do very well in Albuquerque. In an enthralling interview on Break the Chain, Matt described Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen as not wanting it to be “stuck with being labeled Northern, Southern or Peasant Italian.” He wants his restaurant to be “flexible and fun” and “all about family.”
If my inaugural visit, admittedly only a couple weeks after the restaurant’s launch, is any indication, Matt DiGregory is well on his way toward making Gregorio’s a restaurant in which families will genuinely enjoy themselves. Family is very important to the entrepreneurial owner. The restaurant is replete with pictures of the DiGregory family history, including a playful one circa 1978 of his entire family attired in white on a white background. Framed photographs of his grandparents, parents and siblings share space on the walls with a multitude of interesting and kitschy items. There are even photographs on the menu.
Other than family-friendly and fun, perhaps the most apropos description for Gregorio’s would be “kitschy.” That, too, is by design. Matt intends for his restaurant not to take itself too seriously…except for the food, of course. The decor isn’t quite circus clown contemporary meets wacky western with a bit of rib-tickling rustic thrown in for good measure, but it’s very entertaining and fun. There’s no way you could stereotype this as an Italian restaurant, but there’s also no way you can visit without thoroughly enjoying the mirthful milieu. There is literally something interesting and enjoyable to look at no matter where you turn.
Similar to the decor at The Range Cafe, another of Matt’s successful concept restaurants, the art on display is wildly eclectic and mostly tasteful. There are no velvet Elvis paintings, but there is a backlit painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Lighting above the bank of booths on the north wall is a series of 1960s style lamps hung upside down so that the shades are at the bottom. Suspended from the ceiling are latilla-style branches. The most “serious” decorative touches are a gas stove and refrigerator, both dating from at least the fabulous 50s.
Matt describes menu offerings as “Italian comfort food,” much of which is based on family recipes. Some of the recipes are playful, too, including a spaghetti meat sauce which includes a bit of chocolate for richness. You’ll get the feeling that the visionary owner is having a blast creating in the kitchen instead of devising some new restaurant concept. He also enjoys stepping out from the kitchen and delivering entrees to the patrons who ordered them. When is the last time you saw a restaurant owner do that? If, by the way, you think your recipe is better than Gregorio’s, you’re invited to submit it to the affable owner. If Matt likes it, it will be run as a special for the month and will be named for the submitter.
Gregorio’s is situated at the former site of the Rodeo Grill, a rare Matt DiGregory concept restaurant in that it wasn’t a huge success as the Range Cafe and Standard Diner are. Unlike his other restaurants, Gregorio’s does not have a street-facing storefront and is somewhat obfuscated by a small strip mall. One of the holdovers from the Rodeo Grill is an invitation for diners to wash down their meal with lusciously thick shakes which are made with Haagen Dazs Super Premium ice Cream. The shakes are not only made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk, they’re served in a shake glass with the tin on the side. It’s much like getting a shake and a half. Better still, the flavors include the standards–vanilla, chocolate and strawberry–as well as shake specials such as spumoni shakes and lemon curd shakes.
Now for the serious stuff–the food. Gregorio’s has gone a long way to provide variety that defies stereotyping. All pasta dishes, made from Italian quality dried pastas, are cooked to order including al dente if you desire. The restaurant offers several pasta types: spaghetti, rigatoni, bowtie, gnocchi, penne and more, each pasta order weighing in at a robust half-pound sans sauce. Your choice from a variety of sauces–the aforementioned spaghetti meat sauce with chocolate, Bolognese (made with turkey instead of beef), Gorgonzola cream, carbonara, arabiata, olive oil and garlic and more–will adorn the pasta you order. Thin crust pizzas are prepared on a stone oven. Sauces are sourced from the Santa Fe Sausage Company and salads are constructed from organic, locally sourced produce.
The appetizer menu includes several intriguing options in portions large enough to be shared. A baked artichoke parmesan casserole with breadcrumbs and cheese served in a cast iron pan is a great bet. The artichoke is fresh and earthy and it absorbs the flavor of the seasoned bread crumbs and cheese. It’s served with lightly toasted Italian bread which can be used to dredge up the utterly delicious sauce. The cast iron pan keeps the dish hot down to its last morsel. Another super starter is the semolina dusted calamari with a lemon aioli served with marinara sauce.
Sometimes the secret to an excellent pasta dish is its simplicity. Gregorio’s bowtie pasta in an olive oil and garlic sauce passes muster and then some. The pasta is perfectly cooked–not too al dente and certainly not at all mushy. It’s perfumed with just a light fragrance of fresh garlic, enough to let you know it’s there without wrecking your breath. An excellent counterbalance is a side of sweet Italian sausage. A single link will do. The sausage is of medium coarseness and has a nice fennel influence.
At the opposite side of the simplicity scale is a special which will hopefully make it to the everyday menu. It’s a pan-roasted mahi mahi with grapefruit and fennel salsa and risotto. The mahi mahi is melt-in-your mouth tender with the requisite flakiness all high quality white fish have. The grapefruit and fennel salsa includes a few slices of sweet Mandarin oranges which balance the tanginess of the grapefruit. It’s an excellent salsa and best of all, it doesn’t mask the flavor of the fish as some sauces are prone to do. The risotto is terrific, this compliment coming from a cynic who’s had truly great risotto only a handful of times. Add Gregorio’s risotto to the mix.
Darn those specials! On our second visit, I was bound and determined to try Grandma Mary’s spaghetti and meatballs where the sauce is made with chocolate. With an impassioned case borne out of pure love for the dish, our waitress convinced me the tomato vodka sauce penne is one of the best dishes she’s ever had and that I should forgo all others. She saved me from struggling to wrap those long spaghetti strands around my fork while serving me my very favorite pasta, one that’s easy to stab with a fork. The tomato vodka sauce is redolent with flavor, an olfactory-arousing sauciness with a hint of prosciutto, basil and shaved Parmesan. It’s an excellent dish served in a flying saucer sized bowl which means you’ll be taking some home with you.
On Saturday and Sunday, Gregorio’s serves brunch from 9AM until 3PM. The brunch menu includes breads and sweets, fritattas and breakfast specials and you can also order from the restaurant’s lunch menu. The breakfast specials include such specialties as Italian “biscuits and gravy,” a ricotta and green onion scone, wilted spinach, two eggs with sausage gravy. For sweet treat cravings, there’s lemon ricotta pancakes made with a berry compote and served with a tarragon butter and a pannetone French toast (pecans, cinnamon, marscapone).
The brunch dish calling us most loudly was a breakfast pizza, a thin-crust pizza topped with bacon, sausage, mozzarella and Munster cheeses and topped with tomato sauce and two scrambled eggs. In reading the menu’s description of “two eggs,” we had visions of two eggs over easy and unctuous yoke running all over the pizza. Alas, that was the restaurant’s vision, too, however, the vision was better than the actual design. Getting the eggs “just right” wasn’t always a consistent execution. This is still a terrific pizza, a good twelve-inch pie as good as any specialty pizza in the Duke City. The crisp bacon, fennel-blessed sausage and the two cheese blend go very well together.
Because portions are so prolific, you have to wonder if the restaurant’s dessert menu receives more than a cursory glance, but the fact that most diners egress with doggie bags probably means desserts are quite popular, too. As with many menu items, desserts are inventive and “different” with some liberties taken. “This ain’t your momma’s tiramisu.” Gregorio’s citrus tiramisu, served in a sundae glass is wholly unlike any tiramisu in Albuquerque. If you’re looking for ladyfingers soaked in coffee, you won’t find it here, but if the literal translation of tiramisu is “pick me up,” this one will do it. It’s a lip-pursing, sweet-tart dessert dish that’ll win you over unless you’re staunchly unable to buy into its non-traditional approach to a very traditional dessert.
With Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen, Matt DiGregory has shown that he’s not only one of Albuquerque’s foremost restaurant impresario’s, he’s one heckuva chef. As Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate says, it’s a winner!
Gregorio’s Italian Kitchen
4200 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 19 February 2012
1st VISIT: 15 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pan-Roasted Mahi Mahi with Grapefruit and Fennel Salsa and Risotto, Bowtie Pasta with Olive Oil and Garlic Sauce, Artichoke Casserole, Milk Shakes, Calamari, Tomato Vodka Sauce Penne, Breakfast Pizza, Citrus Tiramisu