In the 1978 movie Same Time Next Year, Ellen Burstyn’s character lamented that her husband considered his years in the Army the best years of his life. When Alan Alda’s character, her partner in a 26-year adulterous affair, commiserated that many men felt that way about their time in the military, Burstyn retorted, “but he spent two years as a prisoner of war.” Only a husband who wants to sleep on the couch would admit to any source of happiness outside of marriage… and only an honest answer to the loaded question “does this dress make me look fat” is more deleterious to any amorous prospects.
When I speak fondly to my lovely bride about my years in Massachusetts, it’s always prefaced or followed by “I wish you had been with me.” My two years in the Bay State were the best years of my life…outside of my married years, of course. Massachusetts converted this once gangly and naive lad of 19 who grew up in bucolic Peñasco, New Mexico into a more worldly and sophisticated young man ready to conquer the world.
Having been raised on a diet of northern New Mexican staples such as chile, beans and farm-raised vegetables, Massachusetts awakened my taste buds to an electrifying new world of cuisine. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, I wanted to sample it all. Here’s how culinarily virginal I was–until my years in Massachusetts, the only pizza I had ever eaten outside of Pizza Hut was out of the box, a wafer thin Chef Boyardee product with a cardboard-like crust. Is it any wonder Pizza Hut was my baseline for good pizza. I’d never even had Chinese food not to mention Thai, Vietnamese, French, etc. My experiences with “seafood” were limited to the fish sticks we ate during Lent (unless you count the German Browns and Cutthroats we caught in Peñasco’s high mountain streams).
In the Boston area, particularly in the North End, Italian restaurants are not only authentic and refined, they’re extraordinary–among the best in the country. I couldn’t always afford many of the North End restaurants so it’s a good thing every Boston metropolitan area neighborhood seemed to have a few personality-packed Italian restaurants. Most of the neighborhood Italian restaurants were of the “red sauce” and pasta variety whose genesis stems from the cuisine of Southern Italy. The cream sauce and meat dish Northern Italian cuisine was in vogue at the more expensive restaurants, while the little neighborhood Italian restaurants could always be counted on to serve hearty portions of soul-warming pasta and pizza.
One of the Albuquerque Italian restaurants which most reminds me of those wonderful neighborhood Italian “red sauce” restaurants of my days in Massachusetts is Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante, a venerable Duke City institution. That’s likely because fragrance is one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up memories. Among the most enduring sensory memories of my days in Massachusetts are those associated with the amazing aromas that greeted me each time I visited my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurants.
Mario’s conjures up those memories as well. The familiar aroma of garlic-laden tomato sauces over a stovetop and yeasty pizza dough in the oven envelop you like a warm hug from the minute you enter the restaurant. Mario’s culinary lineage goes back to the mother country. The Burgarello family immigrated to America in 1949, settling in the Knickerbocker area of Brooklyn, New York. Mario, the family patriarch, worked as a pizza maker before launching his own pizzeria in Queens back in 1965. As fate would have it, a 1972 family vacation in New Mexico reminded the Burgarellos of the climate in Sicily so much that they moved to the beautiful Southwest. The rest, as they say, is history.
Enamored of its traditional Sicilian cooking, Albuquerque has accorded Mario’s seven People Choice awards. That’s a lot of love–and it’s a love that’s reciprocated in the form of delicious food. If love can be served on a bowl, it might taste like Mario’s minestrone. This thick Italian vegetable soup might just be the essence of an Italian comfort soup. Mario’s version includes peas, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and other hearty vegetables, the type of which you hated as a child but would love in such a soup.
In 1995, Pizza Today, the leading trade publication in the pizza industry listed Mario’s among its “Hot 100” as one of the top independent pizzerias (#87) in the United States. By 2007, Mario’s had climbed to #76 among America’s highest grossing independent pizzerias. Even though the menu’s pizza section is entitled “Gourmet Pizza,” this is New York style pizza, not some colorful California concoction of disparate ingredients competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Mario’s will accommodate (within reason) any weirdness with which you may be inclined to imbue your pizza. The “create your own pizza” includes a treasure trove of ingredients (no sashimi grade sushi or in-season mangoes if you’re aching for a California pizza).
This is pizza stretched to the edges where it puffs out like the sweet and savory yeasty oven-baked dough it is. Its outside edges are replete with tasty char and airy pockets of deliciousness. Even kids who don’t like the crust will love Mario’s pizza edges. They’ll also love the tangy tomato sauce and piled-on ingredients. Garlic is minced and potent, sausage is fennel-kissed and spicy, white onions are sweet and flavorful and the green chile has the roasted flavor New Mexicans love (though it doesn’t have the piquant kick fire-eaters like me relish so much.
There’s a lot to love in Mario’s stromboli, a meaty version of Mario’s calzones. It’s like a doughy half football stuffed with ham, salami, onions, green peppers, black olives, provolone and mozzarella cheeses. For a bit more zest, ask for it “Greek style” and the accommodating kitchen staff will add feta cheese and Kalamata olives. The stromboli is enormous, easily big enough for two to share. It is served with a small bowl of marinara sauce for dipping. The sauce is tomato rich and tangy, the quintessential red sauce I remember so well from Massachusetts.
The menu also includes all the favorite red sauce pastas Americans love so much. Steaming bowls of spaghetti, ravioli and lasagna are among the best-selling items according to the wait staff. Mario’s offers several pasta combos which allow diners to try a triumvirate of pasta dishes on one plate. The Goodfella combination plate, for example, includes chicken parmigiana, stuffed shells and lasagna. Easily the best of the three is the chicken parmigiana which, unlike so many of its brethren isn’t beaten into an envelope thin, desiccated slab of chicken then sheathed in heavy breading. Instead, Mario’s chicken is thick and moist even though the breading is a bit thick. The lasagna and stuffed (with ricotta) shells are completely covered over in a nicely seasoned meat sauce which has both sweet and savory qualities, the former probably from a high grade of tomatoes.
If you’ve always been under the impression that there isn’t much more that can be done with nachos than what is done at the concession stands of sports venues where salty chips are slathered over with melted, gloppy cheese and topped with jalapeños, you’re in for a surprise at Mario’s. Almost obfuscated in an appetizer menu replete with the de rigueur standards (fried mushrooms, fried zucchini, fried cheese, garlic bread, etc.) is something called Goumba Nachos, chips layered with a green chile cream sauce, roasted red peppers, mixed cheeses, jalapeños and a lettuce and tomato garnish. These nachos have two qualities which define all great nachos–they’re messy (courtesy of the cheese and green chile cream sauce) and they’re served in a mountainous platter. The green chile cream sauce lacks piquancy, but it’s quite flavorful. For this fire-eater, more jalapeños would have made these nachos even better.
The dessert menu (only the giant chocolate chip cookies and the brownies are housemade) includes several favorites such as real New York style cheesecake (or as reasonable a facsimile of as you can get in New Mexico). The tiramisu is always a hit. For me, Mario’s is the place in Albuquerque for spumoni, the molded and colorful Italian ice cream with layers of flavor. Spumoni at Mario’s means vanilla and chocolate ice cream with hidden surprises of pistachio and cherries. It’s like opening a box of assorted chocolates with flavor combinations that make your taste buds sing.
A number of cake desserts are always tempting, including a lemon berry mascarpone cake (cream cake topped with blueberries, cranberries and vanilla crumb. The cake is filled with lemon cream and finished with vanilla cake crumb on the sides and a dusting of sugar. It’s a very refreshing cake in which the lip-pursing qualities of tangy lemon and berries are tempered with the richness of mascarpone and vanilla cake crumb.
Albuquerque has been singing Mario’s praises for a long time and there appears to be no surcease to its success in Albuquerque. In fact, the Mario’s family has expanded in recent years with locations on Juan Tabo and Fourth Street. Mario’s is an august family-owned restaurant whose veneer may be showing a few signs of age, but it holds fast against a tide of trendy chains. The wait staff is genuine not saccharine. The food is authentic and delicious. It’s the way I remember Italian food in Massachusetts.
Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante
2401 San Pedro, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 18 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Stromboli, Pizza, Spumoni, Chicken Parmesan, Lemonberry Cake, Gouba Nachos