Greek mythology recounts the story of Tantalus, progeny of a divine parent (Zeus himself) and a mortal one. Uniquely favored among mortals by being invited to share the food of the gods, Tantalus abused that privilege by slaying his own son and feeding him to the gods as a test of their omniscience. The gods immediately figured out what Tantalus had done and in their rage condemned him to the deepest portion of the underworld where he would be forever “tantalized” with hunger and thirst. Though immersed up to his neck in water, when Tantalus bent to drink, it all drained away. When he reached for the luscious fruit hanging on trees above him, winds blew the branches beyond his reach.
For years, Duke City diners have been tantalized by the promise of signage beckoning us to visit “delis” only to realize, much like the gods of Olympus, that all is not as it appears. A sign does not a deli make nor do products from peripatetic distributors. As with Tantalus, we’re left to pine for the authenticity of a true deli, the type of which Albuquerque has not seen since the bygone days of Deli Mart. Savvy diners may not be able to vanquish the ersatz delis to the underworld, but we can banish these pretenders to the realm of chain restaurants we choose not to frequent.
By strict definition a “deli,” an abbreviated form of delicatessen, is a term meaning “delicacies,” “fine foods” or “delicious things to eat.” Over time delicatessen and its diminutive form came to represent the store, restaurant or combination thereof in which these delicacies, fine foods and delicious things to eat are sold, either for take-out or eat-in. For many of us who have lived in large cities, the term deli is synonymous with Jewish deli while for others a deli proffers specialty foods indigenous to Italy, Poland (see Red Rock Deli) or other European nation.
The hard-liners among us will never accept that Schlotzky’s, Jason’s, McAlister’s and others of that ilk are delis despite what their signage may say. Nor will we ever be duped by the deception of diners daring to call themselves delis. It goes without saying that we don’t believe a deli should feature products burnishing the labels of Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Kirkland, Butterball or even the ubiquitous Boar’s Head. An authentic deli should preferably cure, salt, dry and cut its own meats and make at least some of its cheeses–and if it doesn’t do that, it should procure and sell only the finest, most authentic meats and cheeses available.
With the December, 2014 launch of M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli, Albuquerque once again has an authentic Italian deli in the tradition of delis for which hard-core deli aficionados have pined for far too long. It’s a deli in which I’d proudly break bread with Dave Hurayt, Bruce Schor, Bob Sherwood and Gary Feaster with whom I’ve commiserated about the absence of an authentic deli in Albuquerque. Best of all, it’s a deli with a pedigree that promises authenticity and deliciousness.
Trust the ownership triumvirate of John Haas, Katie Gardner and Jeff Spiegel to do for their Italian market and deli what they’ve done for their restaurant. The trio launched M’Tucci’s Kitchina in 2013 and accolades quickly piled on (including “Best New Restaurant” honors from Albuquerque The Magazine readers and being named one of the top 100 neighborhood restaurants in the US by Open Table). M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli is located about 150 feet away from its elder sibling in the Montaño Plaza shopping center.
Ensconced within Lilliputian digs, M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli embodies the axiom “little place, huge flavors.” Add huge aromas and you might feel you’ve been transported to a small corner New York City Italian deli. You’ll be amazed at just how much is crammed into such a small space: seating for about ten guests in a plastic-sealed patio of sorts and another ten to your immediate left and right as you walk in to the deli. Because of space constraints, the deli’s take-out business will be a robust part of the operation. The rest of the space is devoted to mouth-watering Italian products, many of which are created on the premises.
In fact, the talented staff at M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli bakes its own breads (sourdough, rye, whole wheat, baguette, ciabatta, foccacia), makes its pastas and sausages, cures many of its own meats (prosciutto, cotto, sopressata, mortadella, etc.) and makes its cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, etc.). What isn’t made on the premises is procured from trusted, high-quality sources. On the shelves you’ll also espy jars of fresh herbs (basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc.) while refrigerated deli cases showcase pickled goods (eggplant, sweet or spicy cucumbers, cardamom carrots, giardinera, Sicilian green olives, Macedonian peppers and more). Your taste buds might go into sensory overload, not to mention involuntary salivation.
Optimally, you’ll be able to score one of the four tables for a unique eat-in experience that will allow you to browse and sample as you wait for your meal which, by the way, is so much more than sandwiches. First on the menu are three Italian charcuterie boards, all of which are accompanied by house-made artisan bread. After you peruse the four enticing appetizers and three scrumptious salads, you’ll be hard-pressed to choose from among seven featured sandwiches, including a build-your-own option and all served with one side. You can opt instead for one of three pastas. Either way, you might not have room left for one of the three luscious desserts.
If, like me, you believe Italian delis start and end with meats and cheeses, you’ve got to try one of the three Charcuterie Boards (Salumi Board, Pickled Board, Cheese Board). In America, the ancient European culinary art of charcuterie has recently started to become a highly revered and well-practiced art. Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more. M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli not only offers charcuterie, it is a charcuterie!
14 December 2014: The Salumi Board offers three options: pick two, pick three or pick four from among the meats. An outstanding option is the spicy coppa (short for capicolla), a traditional, rustic Italian cured meat with a taste and texture similar to prosciutto. If you’re a Sopranos fan, you might recognize capicolla by its slang name “gabagool.” By any name it’s delicious. Speck, which is cured with such spices as juniper berries, nutmeg, garlic and bay leaves before being cold-smoked, is another terrific option. It wouldn’t be a salumi (Italian cold cuts) board without Toscano salami, a dry, salami with large bits of fat, garlic and black peppercorns surrounded by leaner meat which provides a robust, distinctive but not overpowering flavor. It goes without saying you’ll also want prosciutto on your board. Accompanying these meats are slices of Italian bread, an addictive onion jam, house-made mustard, tomato relish and probably the very best spicy pickles you’ll ever have.
12 April 2015: M’Tucci’s pickled board is the very best we’ve had in New Mexico though there aren’t that many to compare with. Available in quantities of two, three or four pickled vegetables, it’s essentially a vegetable plate even vegetable-haters will love. Usually served with a local goat cheese, we lucked out during our April, 2015. Because the deli had run out of what is undoubtedly an outstanding goat cheese, a Bucherondin de Chevre, a luscious and creamy French goat cheese was substituted. Pierce the Bucherondin’s rind and you’ll enjoy a near-buttery soft, creamy and mild goat cheese that complements pickled vegetables very well. Our pickled board included sweet and hot pickles, carrots and eggplant, all of which were oh, so delicious with distinctive notes in each. Those pickles are absolutely addictive!
14 December 2014: The sandwich menu includes several familiar favorites such as the Cubano, BLT, Pastrami and Muffaletta, but while M’Tucci’s pays homage to traditions which spawned these sacrosanct sandwiches, it does not attempt to duplicate them. The muffaletta, for example, is not an exact replica of the muffaletta you might have at the Central Grocery in New Orleans, but it’s an outstanding Italian inspired sandwich in its own right. The canvas for this superb sandwich is housemade ciabatta which is generously topped with housemade capicola, mortadella, salami, an olive tapenade and house-smoked mozzarella. It takes two hands and a wide-open mouth to handle this mighty, meaty, magnificent sandwich. The yin to the muffaletta is a ferro salad (fresh grape tomatoes, walnuts, Tucumcari feta, pickled red onions on a lettuce leaf), one of the four available sides.
14 December 2014: Pastrami paramours often consider it heretical for pastrami sandwiches to be topped only with a good deli mustard with a dill pickle on the side. Before they become apoplectic at learning M’Tucci’s pastrami (made on the premises) sandwich is made with herbed goat cheese, fresh red onions, a housemade mustard on housemade rye, they had darned well better try it. It’s unlike any pastrami this aficionado has ever had and it’s a bit lean (fat is flavor) for my tastes, but it’s still a pretty good sandwich with that herbed goat cheese really standing out. This sandwich pairs well with oven-roasted herbed potatoes, red potatoes seasoned with rosemary, thyme and fresh garlic.
12 April 2015: For years, the benchmark against which I’ve measured all BLTs in New Mexico has been the TBL, a Gecko’s Bar & Tapas original stacked in triplicate with applewood smoked bacon, green leaf lettuce and ripe tomatoes on wheatberry bread. It took more than a decade to find a BLT that’s better. Like the TBL, M’Tucci Market’s version is also an original. In its standard form, it, too, is made with applewood smoked bacon though for a mere pittance, you can substitute bourbon-glazed bacon. Splurge! It’s the best bacon we’ve had in New Mexico, better even than the red chile-honey glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe. The BLT (butter leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, blue cheese aioli and wheat bread made on the premises) is all a sandwich should be though the hard-crusted bread scrapes against the roof of your mouth just a bit. The blue cheese aioli is rather mild which is perfectly fine because it lets the bacon shine. The lentil salad (pickled onion, carrot, zucchini, rosemary, sage, thyme and Tucumcari gouda) is an excellent accompaniment.
12 April 2015: While judging the Taste of Rio Rancho in February, 2015, my friend Mario D’Elia, the uber-talented executive chef for the Albuquerque Isotopes, commiserated that guanciale (an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl or cheeks) isn’t that widely used in Albuquerque restaurants, Chef Maxime Bouneou, formerly of Torinos @ Home being one of the few to use it. Add M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli to what will hopefully become a trend. M’Tucci’s makes its own guanciale and it’s terrific. The guanciale is perhaps my favorite ingredient in a Carbonara dish constructed of superb ingredients (housemade cured egg yolk, Pecorino, sage, pepperoncini flakes, shallots and tagliatelle made on the premises). The tagliatelle (long, flat pasta ribbons) is fortified with an unctuous, but not overly excessive, sauce. The portion size is relatively modest, but being so rich, Carbonara isn’t a pasta dish on which many diners can over-indulge. This is a great one!
7 June 2016: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, has (as of this writing) visited MTucci’s Italian Market & Deli some 48 times. It’s easy to see why he loves this restaurant so much–as well as why your humble sesquipedalian blogger needs to increase the frequency of his visits. The Italian Mac & Cheese (Rosemary ham, Morbier Mornay, handmade penne, fresh Mozzarella, Aleppo pepper bread crumbs) warrants a visit or ten all by itself. After one forkful Larry declared it the best mac and cheese he’s ever had. High praise indeed. There’s a lot to love about this skilletful of deliciousness and inventiveness. Instead of the usual half-and-half mixture of Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, the Mornay sauce is made with Morbier, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese which, interestingly, is fashioned with a black layer of tasteless ash. The Morbier not only coalesces the penne, some of it melts into a delightfully oily pool at the bottom of the skillet. Chunks of Rosemary ham imparts resinous, savory and sweet qualities that blend magnificently with other ingredients while the Aleppo peppers (about 10,000 on the Scoville scale) lends a pleasant piquancy.
7 June 2016: When she hangs out with Larry and me, Dazzling Deanell is like a delicate flower among two wilted weeds. She not only graces our table with beauty, wit and charm, she always seems to order the right things. Take for example, the Market Reuben (fresh market-cured corned beef, homemade sauerkraut, red chile mostarda on rye bread) she ordered during our June 7th visit. Even as she ordered it, she declared the Reuben at O‘Hare’s Grille and Pub in Rio Rancho to be her favorite Reuben then conceded that M’Tucci’s version will probably be even better. She has the gift of prophecy! This is a fantastic Reuben, one she paired with a glorious beet salad. The housemade rye is the perfect canvas for the other components. The red chile mostarda (which has nothing to do with mustard and more closely resembles a relish) is a magnificent blend of fruity sweetness, piquancy and tanginess. As we enjoyed the sandwich, we discerned a flavor similar to cloves (or perhaps crushed lebkuchen, a type of gingerbread spice cookies), but weren’t quite sure what its genesis was. We surmise it may have come from the roasting of the corned beef itself. The corned beef is even better than M’Tucci’s pastrami and that’s saying something.
11 December 2016: There appears to be no limit to the talents of Chef Cory Gray and sous chef Shawn Cronin , the uber-talented chefs who “bake, cook, age, and cure their way to creative culinary bliss.” In November, 2016, the dynamic duo transformed M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Deli into M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria. It’s not just a change in concept or solely an exercise in re-branding, but rather an ambitious expansion that reflects the addition of 12 pizzas into an already outstanding menu. When you think about it, it just makes sense. They were already hawking some of the best cheese, meat and bread in the city. Why not put them all together? And, if you’re thinking to yourself, there’s already a top tier pizza at M’Tucci’s Kitchina, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria has one-upped its elder sibling. In fact, in our estimation, the only pizza in the Duke City that’s even in the same zip code is at the Eclectic Urban Pizzeria and Tap House.
Custom-made ovens that heat to 800-degrees will ensure your pie is baked quickly and evenly. You’ll find plenty of char on each pie, a hallmark of the pizza at Farina where Shawn and Cory cut their teeth. If char is not a flavor you like much, you can ask for light char. The menu indicates “Our pizza dough uses wild sourdough starter instead of yeast, giving a better flavor and texture. We cook it until a deep caramelization occurs. We source the best ingredients, either house made, local, or imported.” Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found a pizza menu like this one. Instead of last decade’s sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives and the like, this menu lists such ingredients as orange-herb gremolata, baby kale, smoked buffalo mozzarella and caramelized onion coulis. The result will make a believer out of you!
11 December 2016: Mike Greenberg, the metrosexual nerd who pairs with the brutish former NFL player Mike Golic to host the morning sports talk show Mike & Mike (on Albuquerque’s ESPN 101.7 The Team) contrasts the difference in their personalities by condescendingly pointing out he enjoys Caprese salads while his endomorphic partner prefers donuts. The implication here is that the Caprese salad (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction and olive oil) is enjoyed by worldly sophisticates while donuts are an opiate for the hoi polloi. In truth, Caprese salads are a favorite of all of us who enjoy salads.
Though listed in the Insalata (salad) section of the menu, the “Caprese Trio” is unlike any composed Caprese salad you’ve ever seen. Served on a slate board is a treasure trove of deliciousness: fresh mozzarella, Balsamic roasted tomato, fresh basil, smoked mozzarella, house Italian tomato jam, pesto, Burrata, fresh tomatoes, basil oil, ten-year old Balsamic vinegar and wedges of lightly toasted bread. It’s sheer genius to compile such individually delicious ingredients into a cohesive array of complementary, harmonious magnificence. Every single component is a shining star. Our favorite may have been the burrata, an unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella. Translated to “buttered,” it bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream. The smoked mozzarella is absolutely amazing and the tomato jam is addictive!
11 December 2016: Ordering the Carbonara pizza brought a broad smile to our server’s face. She said it was her favorite pizza. It’s easy to see why. M’Tucci’s pizzaiolos nonpariel have taken Carbonara to the nth degree, actualizing its potential and fashioning a pizza as good as it can possibly be. Not since Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California have we found a pizza that amazed us as much as this one did (Jim Millington, are you reading this?). This fourteen-inch masterpiece redolent with char is topped with house-cured and smoked Guanciale, caramelized onion coulis, sauteed spinach, Tallegio cheese and Rosemary cured egg yolk. The caramelized onion coulis imparts sweet notes while the Tallegio cheese provides an unusually fruity tang. Our favorite ingredient, however, is the guanciale (about which I rave above). The Neapolitan crust is light and chewy with the distinctive flavor of sourdough in evidence.
11 December 2016: While the Margherita may be the forerunner of all pizzas, it’s never been one of my favorites. It’s just too basic and unadorned to suit my “more is better” tastes. M’Tucci Market & Pizzeria has made a convert out of me with its Buffalo Margherita (smoked buffalo mozzarella, basil-infused olive oil, tomato jam and roasted garlic). Buffalo mozzarella, made from the milk of domestic Italian water buffalo, is a difference-maker. With a high butterfat content, it’s got a seductive tang you just don’t get from mozzarella made from cow’s milk. Then there’s the tomato jam with its rich, sweet-savory notes. It’s wholly unlike the savory acidity of the tomato sauce which typically graces pizza. Every Margherita should be this good!
25 June 2017: My friend Larry McGoldrick writes on his blog, “For my last dozen or so visits, I don’t even look at the menu. Cory and Shawn know what I like and what is healthy for me, and automatically start a custom meal as soon as I walk in the door.” You, too, can eat like Larry and not just vicariously. All you’ve got to do is roll the dice. A small placard over the door reads, “Don’t know what to eat? Roll the dice and let us decide with Chef Roulette.” Yeah, it requires a high level of trust and not every chef warrants such trust. Cory and Shawn do!
What is most amazing about the Chef Roulette concept is that the dish tailor-made for you may not be made exactly the same for the next intrepid diner who decides to roll the dice. I wouldn’t change a thing about the mushroom stuffed pork tenderloin, two thick tenderloins stuffed with mushrooms and local-roasted leeks over roasted potatoes, cannellini beans, piñon and scallions over a roasted tomato cream sauce. Along with Forghedaboudit‘s transformative pepperoni and sausage pizza and magnificent meatballs, this is the best dish I’ve enjoyed in 2017. The roasted tomato cream sauce has an element of piquancy that pairs perfectly with the sweet-tanginess of the roasted tomatoes. There is a complexity to this dish that extends far beyond its ingredients. This is a dish which will enrapt your taste buds. Knowing it may never again cross my lips is almost painful to contemplate.
21 October 2017: Almost universally, New Mexicans tend to consider autumn their favorite season and rightfully so. Autumn means the incomparable aroma of chile roasting, warm sunny days and cool crisp nights and canopies of brilliant yellow leaves on cottonwoods and aspens. Autumn also means pumpkin pie and even better, hearty butternut squash stews and soups. The very best we’ve ever had comes from M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria. It’s an amazing melange of magnificence, a coalescence of complementary ingredients that bring out the best in each other. This enchanting elixir is made with grade A Iberico house-cured bacon made from free-range, 100% Ibérico breed pigs that eat acorns. Iberico ham is considered the “Beluga caviar of hams.” That means it’s the absolute best.
Though Iberico house-cured bacon gives this stew a pedigree, it’s just one of several ingredients put together so well that each spoonful may elicit a swoon or ten. The sweetness of the butternut squash is counterbalanced by the piquancy of a local cayenne. Yes, cayenne. Louisiana may have made cayenne famous, but New Mexico-grown cayenne is more flavorful and it rates higher on the Scoville scale than the jalapeño. Other ingredients on the stew include cubed potatoes, cubed pear, kale and farro. The stews is served hot the way autumnal stews are supposed to be served. It’s the type of soul-warming soup which is synonymous with comfort food greatness.
21 October 2017: We all know diners who find something on a menu they love and would never consider ordering anything else. Then there are the adventurous among us who rarely order the same thing twice…or at least not until we’ve tried everything on the menu at least once. For us, M’Tucci Market & Pizzeria’s Chef Roulette concept makes great sense. Believe me, you can trust Cory and Shawn to create something absolutely wonderful every time. They’re the proverbial mad scientists only instead of steaming beakers and malevolent cackling, they experiment with ingredients, their quest being to concoct something delicious and different for all of their guests. Sarah, our delightful server, told us about a recent evening in which everyone at a table of six ordered the chef’s roulette. Every one of them was enthralled to receive something entirely different.
As an aspiring cook, my own efforts at concocting delicious dishes with disparate ingredients often result in discordant and contradictory ingredient combinations that just don’t taste good. As such, my admiration for Cory and Shawn grows with each Chef Roulette. They truly have the Midas touch when it comes to creating the harmonious interplay of ingredients seemingly reserved for only the most delicious dishes. Take for example the Chef Roulette pictured below–a pasta dish with the aforementioned Iberico house-cured bacon, kale and a butternut squash mostarda cream sauce. Though it’s tempting to pluck out the rich, fatty (well marbled) Iberico bacon and let it linger on your tongue like a fine wine, it goes best with the sweet mostarda cream sauce and the slightly bitter kale. This is one of those dishes a habitual “order the same thing” person should never order because chances are they’ll never experience anything quite this good.
21 October 2017: It’ll probably be a while (if ever) before my Kim can be convinced to roll the dice and order the Chef Roulette especially since she knows she can reach over and have a forkful or ten of mine. She’s enamored of the Neapolitan pizzas (characterized by its thin, slightly crispy texture; hand-kneaded and wood-fired preparation) and plans to try them all eventually. Her newest favorite (and it will be until her next pizza) is the Truffle (Morbier cheese, wild mushrooms, orange-herb Gremolata, white truffle oil and goat cheese). If you’re wondering what the differences are between mushrooms and truffles, those differences can be described in two words–scarcity and flavor.
Truffles need the right tree roots to grow on, some rain to fall, and the perfect temperature. Then it takes special teams with dogs to find them underground. Compared to the intensely robust flavor of truffles, mushrooms are fairly mild in flavor. Truffle oil either is made with high-quality olive oil that’s been infused with white truffles or it’s manufactured with aromatic components. M’Tucci’s uses the former, the good stuff. As a result, the white truffle oil imparts intensely earthy qualities–like mushrooms on overdrive. Kudos to the chefs for their use of an orange-herb Gremolata whose citrusy notes sneak through every once in a while. So does the Morbier and goat cheese blend with their salty, creamy deliciousness. This is a great pizza!
22 October 2017: Though the menu offers a buffalo pâté (house buffalo-heart pâté, tapenade and candied pecan on a baguette), my Kim asked instead for duck pâté, a Chicago area favorite. “Wait,” you ask, “didn’t Chicago ban pâté a few years ago?” Close, but no cigar. The Chicago City Council actually banned foie gras, a decision Mayor Richard M. Daley called “the silliest law that they’ve ever passed.” And yes, there is a difference between pâté and foie gras, which is actually a popular form of pâté. Pâté is actually French for “pie,” but it’s quite simply a mixture of seasoned ground seafood, poultry, meat or vegetables, and often a combination of several different base ingredients. Duck pâté is terrific on its own. With the addition of a sweet-tangy tapenade and candied pecans, it’s certainly not the “livery” taste you might expect. Instead, its flavor profile is a mild combination of duck seasoned very well. It’s spread generously on a baguette and will spread delight all over your face.
22 October 2017: On a lazy Sunday morning, Cory proved himself a mind-reader in addition to being an absolute genius in the kitchen. How could he have known that the perfect Chef Roulette for such a day would be two farm-fresh eggs over-easy, roasted potatoes, grilled red peppers, fresh local arugula and Iberico house-cured bacon with a housemade mustard. My breakfast preferences lean toward enchiladas, tacos and burritos, but this Chef Roulette–even sans New Mexico’s sacrosanct red and green–is as good an Albuquerque breakfast as I’ve ever had. Even without the iberico house-cured bacon, it would have been an off-the-charts breakfast. That bacon just makes everything better.
14 January 2018: Late in the evening of Saturday, 13 January 2018, we learned that Cory and Shawn had introduced a new menu. Cursing the lateness of the hour, we had to wait until Sunday afternoon to learn what wondrous surprises awaited. Instead of a wholesale purge, the new menu is a combination of popular favorites interspersed with new items. Among the latter is a ham and pineapple salad. While that may sound like ingredients on a Hawaiian pizza, any pizza would be greatly elevated the way M’Tucci’s transforms ingredients.
No ordinary ham graces the salad; it’s rosemary ham which melds the sweet, salty, smokiness of ham with the fresh, piney flavor of rosemary. Nor is the pineapple your garden variety pineapple; it’s pickled pineapple with discernible ginger notes (all pineapple should be pickled with ginger). An olive tapenade gives the salad an umami intensity while feta cheese crumbles lend a sharpness which contrasts well with the apple and sweet pepper vinaigrette. Red onions and kale, that ubiquitous leafy green vegetable you either hate or love, are perhaps the most common salad ingredient on the plate. As with all great salads, this is a medley of ingredients which come together so very well.
14 January 2018: Over time we’ll try every new item on the menu and somday I’ll break my streak of ordering the Chef’s Roulette. Another new menu item, a 14-hour braised pork collar almost accelerated that “someday.” My Kim wanted it, too, but doesn’t particularly like the sauteed spinach with which it’s served. I reminded her that Cory and Shawn could walk over to the nearby bosque, rake up a pile of leaves and make them absolutely delicious. The only other words she uttered about the sauteed spinach were “wow” and “oh, my gosh”–and the sauteed spinach may have been what she enjoyed least about this magnificent entree.
Pork collar may be destined to be the “next pork belly,” in other words a food trend that’ll sweep the nation. We became acquainted with it in England and are heartened that it finally made it across the pond. Pork collar is beautifully marbled and very flavorful. It’s the perfect braising meat because its flavor intensifies. M’Tucci’s version, a slow-cooked Duroc (a red hog) is served with red chile potatoes, red onions, the aforementioned sauteed spinach and a generous dollop of roasted apple mustard. This is not an entree you eat one component at a time. It’s meant to be enjoyed with a bit of everything in each forkful though you really need to savor the braised pork by itself. It’s porcine perfection!
14 January 2018: My Kim jokingly chided me “you always order the same thing!” That’s true only in that my recent trend has been to trust Cory and Shawn with feeding me whatever they want by ordering the Chef’s Roulette. It not only saves time perusing the menu, but guarantees a pleasant surprise every visit. Your humble blogger’s New Year’s Resolution will never be “try something new.” As faithful readers have come to realize, “something new” is one of my favorite dishes. If indecision is part of your make-up or if unexpected surprises are what you love most, the Chef’s Roulette is for you, too.
My first Chef’s Roulette of 2018 included some of my very favorite items served on a slate serving board. On one side of the unique serving vehicle was a jumble of deliciousness: sauteed spinach, oven-roasted potatoes, roasted zucchini and the crowning ingredient Iberico house-cured bacon. On the other side of the slate plate was a single roasted butternut squash gourd glistening with melting butter. In between was a dollop of herbed goat cheese. If you’re wondering how best to eat such an array of deliciousness, my recommendation is as much of everything as you can get in each forkful, but enjoy the butternut squash by itself. It’s the butternut squash for people who think they don’t like squash. It’s the antithesis of the syrupy novelty pumpkin-spiced coffee drink some of us hate as much as we do mountains of snow..
1 September 2018: Brisket is known as the “Holy Grail of Jewish Food” and as “the National Dish of Texas.” It’s become a very popular cut of meat despite being leathery, chewy and tough (because it contains a lot of connective tissue) and difficult to eat unless prepared patiently at a very low and slow temperature. When cooked properly, a brisket will be fall apart tender and delicious. We thought we knew fall apart tender and delicious. We thought we knew how to prepare a moist and juicy brisket. M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria showed us there are degrees of tenderness, deliciousness and juiciness and our brisket isn’t quite there yet.
An appetizer house brisket (house-cured Angus brisket, house BBQ sauce, spicy pickles, toasted bread, Tallegio) is the very essence of fall apart, an expression of incomparable tenderness, an exemplar of juiciness. It’s unlike most brisket we’ve ever had. In fact, it’s more akin to a corned beef than it is to what we typically see in brisket. Just look at the pinkish hue of that succulent brisket, perhaps the result of being braised with similar braising ingredients as corned beef. The barbecue sauce may bear a resemblance to many other reddish barbecue sauces, but it’s not as ketchupy sweet or vinegary tangy as most barbecue sauces. It’s got some smoky properties and maybe some molasses, but it’s got a personality all its own.
1 September 2018: It’s become pretty fashionable for pizzaioli to describe their handiwork as “artisinal” pizza, but some might still consider it a bit audacious to christen a pizza “The Artisan.” By definition, that name indicates something “made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high-quality ingredients,” but it implies so much more. Anything bearing the name “Artisan” should be an exemplar of deliciousness, above and beyond what’s to be expected of ordinary dishes.
M’Tucci’s The Artisan pizza (San Marzano tomato sauce, sliced mozzarella, house-cured pancetta, house capiccola, shaved Parma prosciutto) is an Italian meat-lovers bonanza showcasing some of our favorite salume cuts, all delicious. The San Marzano tomato sauce with its rich flavor, mild acidity and tasty personality is the perfect foil for the salty meats, generously proportioned so there’s meat in virtually every bite. That characteristic M’Tucci’s char is the perfect canvas for a pizza which truly earns its name.
1 September 2018: With the advent of Twitter, “hash tag” has become a familiar part of the American vernacular while “hash” is practically an anachronism. Hash, an English term for either messing up a situation or just throwing something together, was once very common in the American dining parlance. Corned beef hash, once the most popular of those “thrown together dishes,” dates back to the fruited plain’s colonial days. It was a veritable staple, a food that could be preserved and extended. Cooking dishes with end pieces of corned beef and diced potatoes provided sustenance for generations. My dad loved it, but his progeny (even me) were somewhat indifferent to it, largely because the corned beef came out of a can.
M’Tucci’s Market & Pizzeria elevates the simple, unsophisticated hash dish so familiar to my dad to an art form of decadence and deliciousness. Its capicola hash is the essence of things thrown together: cubes of crispy, salty capicola; sweet baby red potatoes; earthy wild mushrooms; herbaceous and slightly bitter kale,; an unctuous, runny poached egg and a very salty, sharp blue cheese dressing. This capicola hash has its roots in an homey, earthy, wholly American dish, but it’s interpreted with contemporary sensibilities that make it the best hash I’ve ever had. Sorry, dad.
1 September 2018: The European trend of enjoying cheese instead of a dessert at the terminus of a good meal has been catching on across the fruited plain, especially in California which is home to happy cows. While any type of cheese can be served as a dessert course, true turophiles like variety, both in texture and flavor. Typically, a postprandial cheese plate will include a rich and creamy cheese, a full-flavored and sharp cheese, a hard-textured sweet and salty cheese and a veiny blue cheese with a distinctive aroma. M’Tucci selects and serves excellent cheeses in its “dessert” cheese plate though it might not be the same cheese plate served to us.
For rich and creamy, it’s hard to top Burrata, a rich, soft and creamy cheese which translates from Italian to “buttered.” It’s a derivative of mozzarella, but much more decadent and unctuous. Not quite as creamy is the Fromager D’Affinois, a French double-cream soft cheese made from cow’s milk. With a flavor reminiscent of brie and a texture comparable to cheesecake, it’s very enjoyable. Our blue cheese was a soft, mild, and pungent variety that pairs well with the accompanying tomato jam. Our fourth cheese was a manchego with sweet, rich caramel notes and a crumbly texture.
9 December 2018: In addition to the regular menu, M’Tucci’s has a small, one-page menu entitled Cicchetti followed in parenthesis by “Italian tapas.” Cicchetti aren’t exactly “tapas,” but they are Venice’s answer to Milan’s aperitivo and to Spain’s tapas. As with tapas, cicchetti are small plates of food, usually nibbled over glasses of wine and among friends in the evening or at lunchtime. The cicchetti are value-priced at three dollars per. They’re not quite shareable sized and it would probably take every one of them on the menu to equal a single entree, but that’s not the point.
Among the cicchetti is one showcasing burrata, the unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella. Nestled on a bed of fresh, crisp arugula, the burrata is spritzed with a glistening Balsamic and strawberry glaze combination which impart tangy and sweet notes that counterbalance the peppery arugula and salty burrata. This cicchetti highlights the versatility of burrata, increasingly one of the most popular cheeses offered at Italian restaurants.
9 December 2018: Auguste Escoffier, the French culinary artist, known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings,” once said “Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.” In every way, soup earns its distinction as the ultimate comfort food. That distinction is certainly true of M’Tucci’s caldo di spalla, an enchanting elixir our server described as “an Italian ramen.” As she approached our table, we thought “not ramen…pho.”
The unmistakable aroma of anise wafting toward us was reminiscent of some of the best pho we’ve had in the Duke City area. Instead of the long ramen noodles, penne pasta swam in a rich, translucent onion-enhanced broth made even more sublime by the generous presence of tender tendrils of pork. Caldo di spalla translates from Italian to pork shoulder soup. Perhaps a better translation would have been “absolutely delicious.”
9 December 2018: Amatrice may be a small, humble town in central Italy, but it has a reputation for simple, but excellent food. Tradition holds that throughout the ages, Popes would recruit cooks for the Vatican from Amatrice. Amatrice is also renowned for its sauce all’Amatriciana which is said to have been inspired by the shepherds who tended their flocks along the hilly countryside. Those shepherds used to bring with them a slice of pecorino, dried pasta, pepper and bacon, simple ingredients they would combine to prepare a quick but delicious meal.
All’Amatriciana sauce derives its depth of flavor from guanciale, the Italian salt-cured pork jowl praised heavily on this blog. M’Tucci’s Pappardelle all’Amatriciano is perhaps a more elegant rendition than what the simple shepherds enjoyed, but that’s just because of the progress of time and culinary practices. There’s just enough of the slow-roasted San Marzano tomato sauce to ameliorate the tender ribbons of pasta, but it’s the guanciale that’s the star here.
9 December 2018: My Grandma Piedad had the biggest sweet tooth around. She would have let her grandchildren enjoy our desserts before dinner if my parents wouldn’t have objected. There was only one sweet thing she loathed. That was Brach’s chocolate covered cherries (Maraschino cherries wrapped in sugar then dipped in melting chocolate). You may as well offer her a snake egg as give her a chocolate covered cherry. As a prank, one year for Christmas, my sisters and I wrapped a box of these dreaded delicacies and labeled it as a gift from our brother George. The look on Grandma Piedad’s face as she unwrapped the bane of her existence was priceless. She practically disowned George right then and there.
Those chocolate covered cherries came to mind when our server delivered the cheesecake we ordered. In between the four wedges of rich, decadent cheesecake drizzled with basil oil and ten-year vinegar, were four cherries as sweet as those Grandma Piedad disdained so much. She would probably have tossed out the entire dessert. Thankfully we didn’t. The cheesecake has the characteristic sour qualities we so love about cream cheese punctuated by basil oil and ten-year vinegar. It’s a unique interpretation of one of America’s most popular desserts.
9 December 2018: Listed on the dessert menu is an item called cookies and cream. Not only is that an innocuous description, it’s somewhat misleading. Cookies and cream more than likely conjures images of your favorite ice cream flavor with cookies mixed in. At M’Tucci’s perhaps the term “deconstructed” should be listed with its cookies and cream dessert. This dessert showcases the gelato du jour, a rotating variety of frozen deliciousness, and cookies on the side, not crumbled up and mixed with the gelato. The gelato of the day during our visit was a rich, decadent double chocolate with s’mores, the dessert two biscochitos. Both were terrific. They were even better together.
12 April 2015: Not that long ago you could practically count on one hand, the number of Italian restaurants offering cannoli as a dessert option. For the most part, it’s been pretty standard–tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta and often, mascarpone. “Radical” versions sometimes included chocolate toppings. Yawn! During our visit in April, 2015, M’Tucci’s served a cannoli pila (an Italian term meaning “stacked” or “piled”) that was essentially a deconstructed cannoli. Instead of the standard stuffed shell, bits of shell were topped with a mascarpone-ricotta mix topped with a cherry-walnut compote. It’s a deliciously different way to enjoy one of the most popular of Italian desserts.
7 June 2016: When Larry first tried M’Tucci’s Italian bread pudding, it immediately rocketed to the coveted number one spot on his Bread Pudding Hall of Fame. It was so good that both he and Deanell regretted not having ordered one each instead of sharing a portion. One of my life’s greatest regrets is not having driven over immediately as soon as they told me (months ago) how fabulous this bread pudding is. There are several reasons it’s so good. First, the bread isn’t the mushy, squishy mess so often used on bread pudding. It’s a housemade foccacia. Secondly, it’s not cloying as bread pudding is oft to be. Third, it’s made with premium ingredients. The version to which I was introduced included blueberries and piñon and was topped with a seasonal melt-in-your-mouth gelato. This is transformative stuff!
Pop culture enthusiasts will remember the scene from the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan experienced delirious joy from her sandwich at New York City’s revered Katz’s Deli. Similar reactions at M’Tucci’s are sure to be repeated and when they are, you can tell your server “I’ll have what she’s having.”
M’TUCCI’S MARKET & PIZZERIA
6001 Winter Haven Road, N.W., Suite G
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 9 December 2018
1st VISIT: 14 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Italian Charcuterie Board, Pickled Board, Pastrami Sandwich, BLT, Muffaletta, Carbonara, Farro Salad, Lentil Salad, Oven-Roasted Herbed Potatoes, Cheesecake with Fig, Crostata with Butternut Squash, Cannoli Pila, Italian Mac and Cheese, Market Reuben, Italian Bread Pudding, Carbonara Pizza, Buffalo Margherita Pizza, Caprese Trio, Mushroom Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, 14-Hour Braised Pork Collar, Cheese Plate, Capicola Hash, The Artisan Pizza, House Brisket, Spaghettini all”Amatriciano, Caldo di Spalla, Cookies and Cream, Cheesecake; Burrata, Strawberry Glaze, Balsamic;