As an essayist of the New Mexico culinary condition, it’s easy to be lured in by new restaurants, those bright and shiny beacons of promise. Sadly, critics (and those of us who play them in movies and television) gravitate toward new restaurants with the expectation of newness, something heretofore different and amazing. We often do this at the expense of tried-and-true, established and proven restaurants which haven’t ever let us down. For every new restaurant I visit, there are hundreds of old favorites to which I don’t return often enough. One such personal favorite is Scarpas, a long-time fixture on Academy. Prior to our visit in January, 2023, our previous visit was in December, 2006. That’s far too long!
Academy has been home to Scarpas since entrepreneur and restaurant impresario Jim Schumacher opened it in 1995. For years later, he opened a second Scarpas, this one on Montgomery. Schumaker, you might remember, was the long-time owner of The Cooperage, a Lomas mainstay since 1976. In 2020, Joe Sommers, a Scarpas employee from day one, purchased the restaurant from Schumacher. Not too much later, The Cooperage shut down for good.
In 2021, year two of year the world’s nightmare, the Montgomery instantiation of Scarpas lost its lease and was shuttered. The facility was redeveloped as a gas station (just in time for gas price escalations). Sommers indicated at the time that he would be searching for another location in which to open another Scarpas location, possibly in Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side. We’re still waiting. In the meantime, Scarpas remains a lodestar for New Mexicans who love brick oven pizza that despite being waifishly thin, is generously topped. Other diners make a Scarpas pilgrimage for gourmet salads while some, like Albuquerque’s most pulchritudinous pugilist Holly Holmes prefer the pasta.
Another reason Scarpas remains popular is its practice of getting you in and getting you out quickly without compromising great (among the very best in town) service. It may take longer for you to decide what to have from among copious menu options than for your order to be filled. The kitchen crew fills those orders remarkably quickly, particularly if you order a pizza. Custom-built brick ovens will heat your pie in mere minutes and if you’re not inclined to consider “char” a flavor, you’ll be happy to see relatively little char around the edges and not much on the pizza bottom either.
If you were weaned on thin pizza being crispy, almost cracker-like, you’ll appreciate Scarpas thin-crust. It’s so pliable that you can fold it over vertically New York style. In fact, unless you want to eat your pizza with a knife and fork (like former New York City mayor Bill Di Blasio), you’d better fold it vertically. Ultimately it feels like you’re eating less pizza, but that’s definitely not the case. Scarpas pizzas are fired with a blend of Mozzarella and Fontina cheeses, unless otherwise specified. California inspired ingredients such as Thai chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, shitake mushrooms and even rosemary potatoes are available on a menu that features nineteen different pizzas. You can, of course, create your own, but why would you want to when there are so many delicious options.
That includes such sure-to-please pies as chicken enchilada pizza (with a homemade red chile sauce), “Pizza The Greek,” Spicy Hawaiian Pizza (with green chile) and so many more. An assortment of additional toppings is also available. One pizza requiring no adornment is the Thai Chicken Pizza (Thai barbecue sauce topped with Shiitake and domestic mushrooms, caramelized onions, cilantro, mozzarella and Gouda cheese. If I’m not mistaken Scarpas was offering a Thai Chicken Pizza even before the California Pizza Kitchen and Saggio’s. There’s no mistaking that this is the best Thai Chicken Pizza we’ve had. It’s a pulchritudinous pie that combines the sweetness of the Thai barbecue sauce and caramelized onions with the earthiness of the mushrooms and saltiness of two superb cheeses. Though I try not to ever polish of an entire pie, this one was so good that there was no taking home any left-overs.
There are fourteen pasta dishes on the menu, each one portioned for big eaters. Over the years my Kim has supplanted me as the one most likely to order pasta carbonara. She loves this rich Roman dish and can tell you when carbonara is authentic and when it isn’t. We’re both forgiving enough to recognize we’re not likely to get Rome-worthy authenticity in Albuquerque, so we’ll take any carbonara that’s delicious. Scarpas pasta carbonara with chicken (Linguini tossed in a rich cream sauce with oak grilled chicken, hickory smoked bacon and fresh green peas. Topped with shaved Asiago cheese.) violates several of the Roman tenets for preparing pasta carbonara, but it is quite delicious…and it is rich. We couldn’t quite finish it all so we took a hearty portion home. Even reheated, this is good carbonara.
Scarpas torta di meli is one of the most popular dessert items in the City. This specialty dessert is easily big enough for two to share. It starts with a warm puff pastry apple tart baked in the wood burning brick oven then it gets even better from there. This pastry is topped with your choice of either Vietnamese cinnamon ice cream or Cappuccino Commotion ice cream (both are deliciously decadent), cinnamon, caramel sauce, whipped cream and shaved dark chocolate. Unfortunately you can’t have both ice creams because portions are measured. Still, with either ice cream, it’s a delicious dessert you won’t soon forget. Nor will you forget the smokiness of that dark chocolate.
Scarpas is a favorite of business people and families alike. It’s frequently packed and usually noisy, but is always a restaurant on which you can count for a solid meal and outstanding service.
Scarpas Brick Oven Pizza
9700 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 28 January 2023
# OF VISIT: 4
BEST BET: Torte Di Mele, Sausage Pizza, Cheesy Bacon Pizza, Pasta Carbonara, Thai Chicken Pizza