“Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone..”
—Stanley Tucci as Segundo in Big Night
With a name like M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant, you might wonder if the Italian restaurant on the intersection of Coors and Montano is named for Academy Award nominated actor Stanley Tucci. After all, Tucci co-starred in Big Night and Julie & Julia, arguably two of the very best food movies in recent years. Initially christened M’Tucci’s Kitchina, the “Kitchina” part of the restaurant’s name was obviously a whimsical play on “cucina,” the Italian term for kitchen, but was spelled more similarly to Kachina, the Hopi ancestral spirits. In any case, if the amusing name and fun, casual ambiance don’’t ensnare you, the food certainly will.
Step into the expansive dining room and the playfulness hinted by the restaurant’s original name continues. Our immediate impression was “Laissez les bon temps roulette” (let the good times roll) as in New Orleans Mardi Gras. That impression was gleaned from the colorful Mardi Gras-like masks on several walls and a life-sized alligator on another. Then there’s the pergola–large enough to accommodate a table of four–with an ominous lizard crawling down the roof. There’s something to pique your interest everywhere you turn.
The colorful masks (which are easily mistaken for those widely seen in New Orleans) are Venetian, a staple of the Carnival of Venice. The alligator…well, he’s there because co-owner Katie Gardner likes him. The chandeliered pergola is designated for feting guests celebrating a special occasion. When we commented on the restaurant’s “wildly eclectic ambiance” Katie explained that she’s a wildly eclectic person. She’s also very experienced in running successful restaurants, having owned eleven of them along with her husband in New York City…and to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
M’Tucci’s is succeeding where other restaurants have failed in the digs formerly occupied by The Mill of New Mexico, Tomato Café and Spinn’s Burgers and Beer. It’s a tough location exacerbated by the fact that its storefront, while facing heavily trafficked Coors Boulevard, is obfuscated by distance, traffic flow and other shops. A very active Facebook presence and (mostly) glowing reviews by print and online media (including Cheryl Alters Jamison for New Mexico Magazine) helped tremendously, but word-of-mouth from satisfied guests (especially those returning) is a major catalyst for drawing new guests. In October, 2013, scant months of its July launch, M’Tucci’s finished as runner-up in the Alibi‘s Best of Burque Restaurants as the “best restaurant on the west side.” M’Tucci’s continues to earn accolades.
Katie and her husband Jeff Spiegel moved to Albuquerque, his hometown, in 2007. Eventually they started to miss the hustle and bustle of the restaurant business and launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in July, 2013. The “M’Tucci” in the restaurant’s name is in honor of Richard Matteucci, a friend of Jeff’s. A framed black-and-white photo of Jeff, Richard and an unidentified frolicker celebrating a (very) good time hangs among the bric-a-brac. You’ve got to love an owner who shares in his fun.
While the ambiance bespeaks of fun and whimsy, the menu includes some seriously good dining options, some heretofore unseen in the Duke City. It’s impossible to pigeonhole this modern contemporary Italian restaurant which offers playful takes on classic dishes as well as a bit of local flavor (it’s virtually impossible to have a menu in New Mexico without red and green chile). Six Neapolitan-style pizzas are prepared in a wood-burning pizza oven. The bar menu, which varies daily, includes tapas-style small plates.
The visionary behind the menu is John Hass, executive chef and member of the restaurant’s ownership team. John’s interpretation of traditional foods often involves their deconstruction, refining and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes with which you’ve grown up, but they might not be exactly as you remember them. They’ll be better! The ricotta stuffed cannelloni dish, for example includes both marinara sauce and New Mexico red chile which is why they’re sub-titled “Enchiladas Italianas” on the menu.
Soup, Salad & Appetizers
5 October 2013: You’ll luxuriate in the warmth and deliciousness of the Borlotti White Bean Soup, M’Tucci’s answer to the seemingly de rigueur pasta fagoli. This superb soup is constructed from Haas-made (get it?) sausage, arugula, carrots and fennel in a steamy chicken broth with just a sprinkling of Parmesan. It’s Italian comfort food at its finest even without pasta or tomatoes. The Borlotti white beans are terrific with a “meaty” flavor, creamy texture and nary a hint of sweetness. The sausage is a bit coarse, but has excellent fennel enriched flavor. A bowlful will cure whatever ails you.
27 August 2016: When M’Tucci first launched, the house bread came from America’s breadbasket (one of the nicknames for the state of Kansas which is renowned for its high quality wheat production). It was an excellent bread! Three years later, M’Tucci’s started backing all its breads in-house. It’s outstanding bakery quality stuff! A basketful of the staff of life includes six lightly toasted and buttered slices. A hard exterior crust belies a pillowy soft inside with plenty of air holes. It’s the type of bread for which you risk filling up quickly, but can’t stop eating because it’s so good.
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells laments “Menus shouldn’t need explanation. Menus should BE the explanation. That’s the point of writing things down.” In far too many restaurants, you practically need a degree in Egyptology to understand the hieroglyphics placed in front of you. As creative as they are with food, many chefs lack creativity with words. This translates to overly confusing, overly wordy menus. Kudos to Chef Hass and the M’Tucci’s staff for publishing menus diners can actually understand.
19 April 2014: One of the most exquisite appetizers on the M’Tucci’s menu is the fried brie. Call it a finely choreographed symphony of simple flavors which go so well together. A wedge of soft brie is sheathed beneath a crisp, light, golden crust. It’s intended to be spread onto thinly sliced, pomegranate glazed grilled baguette. From there you’re on your own. You can then add crisp apple slices, strawberries and even mixed greens, a brie sandwich of sorts. The warm silkiness of the brie amplifies the tanginess of the apples and strawberries and the bitterness of the greens.
27 August 2016: One of the more interesting items on the Antipasti menu when we first visited in October, 2016 was the quaintly named Fauxpaccio de Barbietola Arrostite. Fauxpaccio is obviously a play on the word carpaccio, (thinly sliced or pounded thin meat or fish) while Barbietola Arrostite is an Italian terms for roasted sugar beets. The menu had me at Fauxpaccio. Served in a dinner plate, it was a beautiful dish: roasted yellow beets shaved supermodel thin and as gold as New Mexico foliage in autumn, pickled red onion, goat cheese and a pile of arugula all lightly drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette. It was a marvelous contrast of ingredients with varied flavor profiles and textures, all thoroughly enjoyable.
A few days after having this wonderful appetizer we learned that it is no longer offered because, for some reason inexplicable to me, it just wasn’t selling. Grrrrr! During our August, 2016 visit, we espied a “roasted beet salad” on the menu. Comprised of the same ingredients as the aforementioned Fauxpaccio, the golden beets aren’t shaved or presented quite as artistically, but you still get an excellent salad as exciting as its predecessor.
5 October 2021: In addition to a spectacular appetizer (antipasti) menu, M’Tucci’ offers a contorni (side dishes) menu that includes such treats as a terrific Cacio E Pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” or as described by some sources as a “minimalist mac and cheese.” Al dente pasta may look like spaghetti sans marinara, but in reality those long, stringy noodles are tossed in olive oil then impregnated with melted Pecorino and cracked pepper. The cracked pepper lends a pleasant assertiveness while the Pecorino adds a nutty tang. More like spaghetti without marinara than like a minimalist mac and cheese, it’s a delicious dish no matter how you describe it.
5 October 2021: It’s all Greek to me. While the origin of feta cheese origin is Greek, the name actually comes from the Italian word “fetta,” meaning “slice”. This is a reference to how the cheese is sliced and then placed in a brine. An amazing 70% of the cheese consumed in Greece is feta. Greeks are fiercely protective of their beloved feta which dates back to the 8th century B.C. and is written about in Homer’s The Odyssey. Feta isn’t nearly as prominent in Italian cooking perhaps because quartirolo, a cow’s milk cheese from Italy bears more than a passing resemblance to feta.
If feta is to be found on an Italian table, it’s likely going to be as an ingredient in a salad. That’s why we were so surprised to find a spicy feta dip (Tucumcari feta, pepperoncini, red chile flake, lightly pickled cucumber, fire-toasted pita, taralli and lavash cracker). Even more surprising was the excellent quality of the Tucumcari feta, a delightfully sour (some might say rancid) fromage with a rich, slightly salty flavor. There is a discernible spiciness to this dip, but it’s offset by the lightly pickled cucumber. The fire-roasted pita, taralli (an oval cracker somewhat resembling overgrown Cheerios) and lavosh proved superb vehicles onto which to spread a feta dip as good as we’ve had at many Greek restaurants.
Some Italian restaurants segregate their menus into Antipasti, Primi and Secondi, loosely translated to appetizers, first course and main course. M’Tucci’s also includes a Pizza menu, offering some six pizzas, including gluten-free options. Portion sizes will make it a challenge to order one from each menu then expect to have dessert, too. The Secondi menu, available during dinner hours, is replete with proteins (rotisserie chicken, fried fish, duck breast, braised tripe, Kurobuta Pork and ribeye). Some of them are also available for lunch, too.
5 October 2013: Much as we admire the monogamy of ducks, it’s hard to resist the beautiful feathered waterfowl when it’s on the plate and it looks so inviting. The pan-seared duck breast with creamy polenta, braised kale, caramelized onions and a cherry Balsamic reduction is so good, it’ll mitigate any guilt we might feel. The duck breast is perfectly prepared and sliced thinly. The end pieces are slightly crispy. The polenta, often a “take it or leave it” dish is definitely a “take it” at M’Tucci’s. It’s creamy, light and fluffy and it inherits additional flavor from the braised kale and caramelized onions which blanket the polenta. If polenta is an oft unappreciated dish, kale is often disdained, even by foodies. This kale might win over some converts.
19 April 2014: One of the most ambitious items on the menu is the Risotto Del Giorno, a daily risotto special featuring seasonal ingredients. Even the most intrepid of chefs avoid risotto because it’s easy to make simple mistakes that ruin the dish. You’ve got to admire Chef Hass’s gumption. He doesn’t just prepare risotto on special occasions, he’s got the temerity to offer it every day. If the seafood risotto is indicative of his mastery of this oft-intimidating dish, I’ve got to visit more often. The triumvirate of mahi mahi, shrimp and mussels in a sumptuous and rich saffron sauce was absolutely perfect. The saffron imparts the color of a sunny disposition and a uniquely umami quality. The seafood is fresh and delicious. The rice is a smidgeon past al dente, a textural success.
19 April 2014: The two culinary feats I have yet to master after nearly four decades on Planet Earth are using chopsticks and twirling spaghetti around a fork. Because of the latter, my appreciation for pastas other than spaghetti has grown tremendously. For fork challenged diners, a great alternative to the confounding, long, thin strands is the pappardelle noodle, a ribbon pasta easy to work with. M’Tucci’s Pappardelle con Salsiccia, a ribbon pasta with sausage is an exemplar on how well this noodle works, both from a functional as well as an esthetic perspective. This dish showcases the Haas made Italian sausage, a medium coarse blend flavored with fennel. My Kim says it’s of Chicago quality, a huge compliment. A delicate sauce imbued with braised kale and Pecorino lend more than personality to this winner of an entree.
5 October 2013: During our inaugural visit, the lunch menu included an aptly named sandwich called the AL-BQ Italian Beef, Chef Haas’s interpretation of the Italian beef sandwich held sacred throughout Chicago. The sandwich is named partially for Al’s #1 Beef in the Windy City and of course, for Albuquerque. The thinly shredded roasted beef, giardinera and Italian beef au jus on an Italian hoagie roll make it Chicago while green chile makes it Albuquerque. Frankly, we enjoyed the AL-BQ Italian Beef more than we did the sacrosanct Italian beef sandwich at Al’s #1 (although Al’s does pack quite a bit more beef into its sandwiches. So do a number of transplants from the City of Big Shoulders.) For additional authenticity, ask for your sandwich to be served “wet” (as in immersed in the au jus). It’ll render your sandwich falling apart moist, but that’s why forks were invented. The sandwich is no longer on the menu.
10 October 2013: In recent years, Albuquerque has experienced not only a pizza resolution, but an evolution of its pizzas. Almost every purveyor of the pie now offers a pizza or two sans tomato sauce and we’re all the better for it. Of the six pizzas offered at M’Tucci’s, only two of them are made with tomato sauce. The Alla Campagna starts with a beauteous golden brown crust topped with goat cheese, caramelized onions, rosemary, pancetta and Balsamic glaze. The crust is a little thicker than some Neapolitan-style pizzas, especially the cornicione (an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza) which is thick, soft and chewy. It’s also delicious with the flavor of freshly baked bread. The Alla Campagna’s ingredients provide wonderful taste contrasts which not only make it an interesting pizza, but a delicious one.
23 August 2016: Had anyone other than founding Friends of Gil (FOG) member Bruce Schor declared the eggplant Parmesan at M’Tucci’s “better than Joe’s” (as in Joe’s Pasta House), I would have considered that either heresy or hokum. Bruce loves the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s. Moreover, he’s a native New Yorker who really knows his eggplant Parmesan, so his opinion carries a lot of weight with me. It took me two days to make my way to M’Tucci to sample what is indeed a fantastic eggplant Parmesan. This magnificent dish, available for both lunch and dinner, features two thick eggplant medallions topped with marinara sauce and house-fresh mozzarella. You can easily puncture the light and crispy breading with a spoon, but there’s nothing mushy about the interior of this dish, just a silky smooth, delicious eggplant. The sauce is redolent of tart and juicy fresh tomatoes, a perfect foil for the melted mozzarella. Now is M’Tucci’s eggplant Parmesan better–or as good as–the eggplant Parmesan at Joe’s Pasta House? That’s a decision you, my dear readers, will have to make yourselves. Both are head and shoulders above any other in Albuquerque, but for me it would take a side-by-side comparison to decide.
Ever since our friends Tom and Ellyn Hamilton brought us two bags of freshly picked mushrooms, we’ve been cooking with the fleshy fungi, expanding our repertoire and exploring the vast possibilities of cooking with sumptuous shrooms. From cream of mushroom soup to beef Stroganoff, we’re planning on running the gamut as to what can be done with mushrooms: grilling, stuffing, breading, frying, roasting, braising and sauteing. A recent visit to Torinos @ Home has inspired us to try concocting Porcini Ravioli ourselves. Similarly, our visit to M’Tucci’s in August, 2016 gave us yet another mushroom dish we can try preparing ourselves (though it’s unlikely we’ll match Chef Hass’s high standards.)
27 August 2016: The Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini (wild mushrooms, scallions, roasted chicken, Parmesan, Parmesan Porcini cream sauce, ribbon pasta) is a magnificent dish with the mushrooms shining so well, the roasted chicken is almost redundant. Hearty, nutty and earthy, the Porcini cream sauce is everything a strongly flavored mushroom sauce should be. The pappardelle noodles, large, flat and broad noodles, are perfectly prepared–neither al dente nor near mushy as pappardelle tend to be if not prepared correctly. The roasted chicken would normally have been the star of most dishes. Here it’s just a complementary ingredient, a delicious foil.
27 August 2016: Pappardelle noodles played an integral role in the special of the day, a magnificent dish so good it should make it to the standard menu. Picture three four-ounce heritage pork and lamb meatballs served over pappardelle ribbon noodles tossed in a tomato Agre Dolce (an Italian term for bitter-sweet) sauce. The dish is garnished with freshly shaved Parmesan. Our first bite of the meatballs challenged us to discern their composition. With notes similar to five spice powder, we finally had to ask our server to find out. It turns out the meatballs are made with nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic and sundry other spices. The meatballs were extraordinary with just enough filler to bind them, but mostly meat. The tomato Agre Dolce sauce was superb, punctuated with mint and Balsamic vinegar to help give the sauce their bitter-sweet flavor profile.
5 October 2021: During our many visits to the M’Tucci’s family of restaurants, one Italian dish neither my Kim nor I recall ever seeing is spaghetti carbonara. Perhaps M’Tucci’s closest approximation to my favorite Italian dish is the Pasta Prosciutto “Ham and Peas” (Italian ham, fresh peas, asparagus, fresh onion, gorgonzola thyme cream sauce, house Campanelle pasta). Like carbonara, it’s a very rich dish though better tempered by ingredients such as fresh peas, asparagus and micro-greens. Among the many surprises this indulgent dish offers is how well the asparagus played with the gorgonzola thyme cream sauce.
5 October 2021: In April, 2019, M’Tucci’s announced the availability of Chianina beef at all three of its locations. Why the mayor didn’t declare the event a citywide holiday is beyond me. Initially M’tucci’s used Chianina beef in the construction of its iconic meatballs, replacing wagyu beef (which is a bit ironic considering some consider Chianina to be “Italian wagyu”). Our first opportunity to try the beatific beef was in the form of burgers from the Lava Rock Brewing Company (which is sadly no longer affiliated with M’Tucci’s).
5 October 2021: While Lava Rock offered several burgers showcasing Chianina beef, M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant offers only one–the Chianina and Sackett Farms Burger (half-pound Chianina beef and heritage pork patty, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, aged mozzarella cheese, sesame seed bun). In the spirit of full disclosure (and not solely because my burger was delivered at just a shade below charcoal), this burger was the very first item we’ve ever had at a M’Tucci’s restaurant that wasn’t absolutely mouth-watering. It’s a credit to the Chianina beef and Sackett Farms pork blend that I still ate more than half of it.
So why didn’t we send it back? As with so many restaurants impacted by Covid and economic woes, M’Tucci’s was understaffed and as such, our entrees were slow to be delivered. As all classy restaurants are wont to do, our entrees were comped. Even at a degree of doneness only a masochist would enjoy, the burger wasn’t half bad. We look forward to ordering the burger during a future visit and specifying medium-rare. The truffle fries are a good accompaniment.
According to the M’Tucci’s Facebook page, an ancient proverb once declared that if four or more desserts gather in one place, at one time, you will have the power to change the world. Whether or not that proverb rings with truth, one thing is for certain: desserts at this fantastic new Italian restaurant are fantastic. M’Tucci’s inaugural pastry chef was Eric Moshier who was named America’s best new chef in 2000 by Food& Wine. Moshier has moved on, but the restaurant’s dessert offerings are still among the very best in Albuquerque.
5 October 2013: Desserts aren’t only spectacular, they’re inventive–some of the Duke City’s most unique and uniquely delicious pastries. The most inventive might be the Twinkie L’Italia which Cheryl Alters Jamison described as “zeppelin size fantasy of sponge cake with a cream-and-white-chocolate center under candied pecans and a caramel drizzle.” Fantasy is right! This is a terrific dessert. So is the Cannoli Di Sicilia (crispy cannoli shell, sweet ricotta filling, chocolate chips) with tantalizing citrus notes.
10 October 2013: Another transformative dessert is the Crostada De Limone, a lip-pursing lemon tart as artistic and beautiful to ogle as it is to eat. It’s one of few lemon tarts in the Duke City that’s actually made well in that it doesn’t reek of artificial ingredients and flavors. The lemon is actually allowed to taste like lemon, not artificial in the least. It’s the type of lemon dessert you might find in Florida.
27 August 2016: Of all Italian desserts, panna cotta may be the most delicate. While Italians tend to think nothing should sully its purity, American pastry chefs like to partner it with everything from fresh fruits to fresh fruit sauces. M’Tucci’s Torta De Panna Cotta is an interesting variation on an Italian standard. In Italy, a torta is normally a pie consisting of a filling (sometimes even vegetables) enclosed in thin dough and baked in an oven. M’Tucci’s torta is a chocolate Genoese cake topped with strawberry-rhubarb Jam with a single pine nut bark wedge leaning on the chocolatey creation. Delicious as we found the cake, we enjoyed the single pine nut bark most. The pine nuts are redolent with the roasted flavor of good piñon, intensely–sweet with a subtle hint of pine.
5 October 2021: If there’s one Italian dessert that seems to be de rigueur it’s cannoli. By and large most cannoli is pretty much the same as any other. There are rarely any surprises. We were delighted to have encountered one of the most surprising and delicious cannoli we’ve had in Albuquerque. Instead of the predictable ricotta, the cannoli shell is impregnated with a honey and orange mascarpone and is served on a drizzle of cherry limoncello with roasted cherries. These flavor combinations awakened and delighted our tastebuds and showed once again that restaurants need not strictly follow a template for preparing a dessert.
The restaurant’s coffee is made by Villa Myriam Specialty Coffee, a start-up franchise owned and operated by Juan and David Certain. The hand-picked Colombian Arabica bean is hand-roasted in Albuquerque. It’s an excellent coffee, best described on the Villa Myriam Web site: “A very intense fragrance and aroma with an exotic flavor and a medium to heavy body, very balanced cup with a strong character and very pleasant after taste. With nutty cacao and hints of caramel smokiness notes. With the richness and flavor that makes Colombian coffee famous.”
You can never have too many good, must less truly outstanding Italian restaurants in town. M’Tucci’s Kitchina falls into the latter category. With a formula that includes great food and great fun, M’Tucci’s Kitchina has the right stuff needed to succeed in a tough market.
M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant
6001 Winter Haven Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 October 2021
1st VISIT: 5 October 2013
# OF VISITS: 7
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Twinkie L’Italia, Chocolate Cannoli, Borlotti White Bean Soup, Fauxpaccio de Barbabietola Arrostite, Pan Seared Duck Breast, AL-BQ Italian Beef, Alla Campagna Pizza, Crostada de Limone, Seafood Risotto, Pappardelle con Salsiccia, Eggplant Parmesan, Cacio E Pepe, Pappardelle alla Crema di Porcini, Pappardelle Noodles and Meatballs, Golden Beet Salad, Torta De Panna Cotta