Undoubtedly the most oft-quoted line on Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” is “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, a four-time Pulitzer Prize award winning American poet certainly didn’t have Il Vicino (“the neighbor”) in mind when he penned his prose. Fortunately fences are no obstacle to patrons of this popular contemporary Italian trattoria. A well-regarded neighborhood eatery with three Albuquerque locations, Il Vicino is probably best known for its wood-oven pizza and award-winning brewery with popular micro-brewed ales but it offers much more than that. Known in some circles for prized beers, Il Vicino has a private wine label designed to complement its menu. Victuals include salads, panini and piadine-style sandwiches and baked lasagna, too.
Il Vicino has long been a fixture in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill area (3403 Central Avenue, S.E.) with a second location in the far Northeast Heights (11225 Montgomery Boulevard, N.E.). In November, 2009, a third Il Vicino was launched in the burgeoning Northwest side (10701 Coors Blvd, N.W.). You’re never too far away from Il Vicino. Every year, Pizza Monthly, a highly respected trade publication, mails out surveys to independent pizzerias across the nation. Using their responses, they compile a “Hot 100 list” — a ranking of America’s 100 largest independent pizza operations based on sales. With nearly eleven-million in sales, Il Vicino (three locations in Albuquerque, one in Santa Fe, two in Colorado Springs and two in Wichita, Kansas) ranked 12th, just missing the top ten.
To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of pizza in America, James Beard Award-winning food writer Ed Levine ate nothing but pizza for an entire twelve month period, taking a representative pulse of the best from among thousands of pizza purveyors. His terrific tome, Pizza A Slice of Heaven, published in 2005, provides a definitive guide to a beloved staple that in its elemental form is simplicity itself–bread, cheese and whatever toppings a pizzaioli artisan might care to add. Il Vicino was one of only two New Mexico pizzerias mentioned in Ed Levine’s terrific tome.
When it’s on its game, Il Vicino does it well–a wood-oven baked, thin-crusted pie with just a hint of char on a (usually) crispy crust replete in its outside edges with airy holes. Because of the thinness of the pizza, the pizzaiolis sometimes extricate it from the oven before it’s completely done. That means you’ll occasionally get a doughy, incompletely baked pizza. Unlike cookie dough, near raw pizza dough is nearly inedible. All too often, this is the type of pizza Il Vicino has served me–and other victims…er, guests. At other times, the pizza is crispy and done to perfection. It’s this lack of consistency that prevents me from rating it higher than I have or from returning with more regularity.
Obviously my experiences with doughy pizza may vary from your experiences–or from that of “culinary authorities.” Consider that in July, 2019, The Daily Meal compiled “The Best Pizza in Every State” and its choice for New Mexico’s best was Il Vicino. With four New Mexico locations, Il Vicino’s “pizzas are baked hot and fast in a wood-fired oven, made with fresh, high-quality ingredients, and inspired by chef Tom White’s trips to Italy.” The basis for naming Il Vicino the best in the Land of Enchantment is the opinion of a panel of culinary authorities who weighed in and voted for their favorites from more than 800 great pizzerias across the fruited plain.
At the Northeast Heights location, the mouth of a ferocious lion serves as the door to the oven in which more than a dozen different pizzas are prepared. Having visited all three Il Vicino restaurants, I believe the leonine oven is responsible for the most consistently well-baked pizzas in the triumvirate of neighborly restaurants. In all three Duke City Il Vicino restaurants, the cynosure–that is, the focal point of the restaurant is most definitely the wood-burning oven. The aroma of wood smoke permeates the dining room, helping allay the bite of winter winds.
Il Vicino’s prowess is by no means exclusive to pizza. It also crafts some of the most highly regarded panini and piadine sandwiches and most colossal calzones in town as well as sizeable salads and pasta al forno. Two lasagna entrees are among the latter. One, the lasagna giardiniere is a vegetarian’s delight, replete with layered pasta, fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, mushrooms, spinach, ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella, marinara sauce and pesto. Meat lovers will enjoy the Lasagna Bolognese, pasta layered with marinara sauce, ground beef, tomatoes, onion, mozzarella, ricotta, mushrooms, fresh oregano and parmesan. It’s a filling pasta dish though somewhat on the salty side–and the level of doneness may result in a relatively dry lasagna you can literally scrape off the plate.
Il Vicino has certainly managed to discover the perfect balance of ingredients when crafting both folded flatbread (piadine) and conventional panini sandwiches. Neither vegetables nor meats nor cheeses or sauces dominate the competition for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Instead, the ingredients meld together like a well-orchestrated musical arrangement. These aren’t behemoth Dagood sandwiches that tower over your plate. They’re “right-sized” so that even hardy eaters will eat half at the restaurant and take the other half home for later.
19 January 2020: My very favorite of the folded flatbread sandwiches on Il Vicino’s menu is the Hero. Not only is “Hero” one of the many aliases (submarine, hoagie, grinder, etc.) for America’s favorite hand-held delight, its apropos for this delicious piadine. Like the very best hero sandwiches, this one is heaped with layers of thinly sliced meats, vegetables and cheeses: Capocollo ham, hard salami, Dijon mayonnaise, mozzarella, provolone, pepperoncini, red onions, Roma tomato, romaine and house vinaigrette. Il Vicino does not scrimp on ingredients nor does it make your jaw sore with its girth. It’s perfectly “right-sized” for most. Two things stand out for me–the Dijon mustard which has a definite attention-getting tang and the pepperoncini, a rare addition to sandwiches, but one which definitely belongs on the Hero.
19 January 2020: On the panini section of the sandwich menu, you’ll find the Pollo E Pesto (roasted chicken, pesto mayonnaise, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, red onions, roasted red peppers). With the recent upsurge in the popularity of fried chicken sandwiches, a notable roasted chicken sandwich is becoming a rarity. This is a good one thanks in large part to the invigorating flavors of a traditional basil-based pesto. My Kim likens most pesto to freshly mowed grass, but she raved about Il Vicino’s version. The melding of nutty-rich artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers play very well with the pesto with the roasted chicken proving a worthy foil.
19 January 2020: In the latest episode of Mars and Venus Misaligned or Ralph and Alice Kramden visit a restaurant, I was rebuffed repeatedly in my attempts to convince my Kim that the salad we should split is the Pescatore Salad (Romaine, light albacore tuna salad (dolphin safe), sun-dried tomato mayonnaise, pesto dressing, feta, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, diced tomato, capers). Fortunately, a female passer-by overheard our debate and told my Kim it was the best salad in the restaurant. Obviously this stranger carries more weight with my dear wife than I do because we ordered the Pescatore Salad…and of course, after my Kim ate most of it, she gave copious credit and lavished praise on that woman. Go figure.
19 January 2020: Arguably the most memorable line in Mario Puzo’s immortal The Godfather was “Leave the gun. Take the cannolis.” It’s rare that we visit an Italian restaurant and leave the cannolis. They’re harder to resist than the snooze button on your alarm clock. Il Vicino’s cannoli (sweetened ricotta cream cheese with chocolate chips inside a crisp pastry) is more than a bit on the sweet side which made it a perfect dessert for my bride. For me, the plain cheesecake proved far superior. It’s dense, firm and lush, a forkful of deliciousness.
Libations are ostensibly as good as the food–or at least Il Vicino’s root beer is. It’s a hearty, full-bodied adult root beer with little froth and just enough sweetness to appeal to children of all ages.
One visit and you might wish all your neighbors were like Il Vicino.
3403 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2020
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: The Hero, Root Beer, Cheesecake, Canoli, Pollo E Pesto