“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York.”
Jeff Spiegel, managing partner of the insanely popular M’Tucci’s family of restaurants has described flagship restaurant M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant (previously M’Tucci’s Kitchina) as “as good as anything we did in New York City.” That is really saying something considering over the course of 23 years, Jeff and his wife, life and business partner Katie Gardner owned and operated eleven restaurants in The Big Apple. Those eclectic eleven were highly regarded dining establishments, earning praise and acclaim from the dining public and media alike. One, The West End Bar & Grill, was a legendary Columbia University institution and veritable second home to students, faculty and staff. Two chefs who once worked for Jeff and Katie have earned Best Chef recognition from the James Beard Society while one has garnered significant notoriety as a chef, author and television personality (some of you might recognize the name Anthony Bourdain).
When Jeff and Katie returned to Albuquerque (his hometown) in 2007, they initially pursued other ventures. Eventually the lure of the restaurant world at which they had succeeded at the highest level pulled them back. In July, 2013, they partnered with über executive chef John Haas in launching M’Tucci’s Kitchina, the progenitor of a restaurant family quickly becoming dynastic. Some seventeen months later, the triumvirate opened M’Tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria 150 feet south of the mother ship in the Montaño shopping center. In July, 2015, they introduced M’tucci’s Cocina Grill (since closed), a Nuevo Latino concept and catering operation, in Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. Shortly after the dawning of 2017 M’Tucci’s Moderno debuted in Rio Rancho.
One of the keys to expanding their Duke City area restaurant empire has been the recognition, cultivation and flourishing of a very talented and inventive staff, six of whom have become partners. You get the feeling that Jeff and Katie don’t hold their young chefs back, that they allow them to be inventive and to stretch their creative bounds. The result is modern, contemporary restaurants which offer playful takes on classic dishes as well as a hint of local flavor. Chef Haas’s interpretation of traditional dishes often involves their deconstruction, refinement and reinvention. You’ll still recognize the traditional dishes you’ve enjoyed for years, but they might not be exactly as you remember them. They’re better!
Similarly Cory Gray and Shawn Cronin at M’tucci’s Italian Market & Deli have created a real niche by baking their own breads (sourdough, rye, rustic wheat, baguette, ciabatta, focaccia), making their own pastas and sausages, curing some of their own meats and making their own mozzarella and other cheeses. They’re New York City deli quality! M’Tucci’s is the only business in the Land of Enchantment authorized (by the state) to sell its own artisan salumi products.
Habitues of the M’Tucci restaurant family will recognize the influence of Chefs Haas, Gray and Cronin on the menu at M’Tucci’s Moderno, a menu which mostly resembles that of the flagship albeit with more steaks and chops than its brethren. In some ways, Moderno combines the best of its predecessors, offering for example, the charcuterie boards and market bread from the Market & Pizzeria as well as some familiar entrees heretofore available only at the mothership. The menu is a delight to peruse. Segmented into sections–antipasti, insalata & zuppa, pasta, secondi, artisan pizza/lavosh flatbread and contini–makes it easy to navigate though you might have a hard time deciding what to order.
M’Tucci’s Moderno is located at the Unser Pavilion, west of Rust Medical Center in the space which previously housed Prime and Vernon’s Open Door, both now defunct. Swathed in a neo-industrial aesthetic complete with exposed ceiling ductwork, it has some of the familiar eye-catching aesthetic touches Katie introduced at the couple’s first Duke City venture (without the life-sized alligator). The restaurant has three distinct main areas, all offering comfortable seating and just enough personal space proximity to neighbors.
Surprisingly considering Rio Rancho is often referred to as “Little New York,” there’s only one other Italian restaurant in town (though there are several pizzerias). That would be the much celebrated Joe’s Pasta House about five miles away. One hallmark of Joe’s has always been outstanding service, the best in the metropolitan area in my opinion and according to Albuquerque The Magazine‘s 2016 “Best of the City” poll. M’Tucci’s is also no slouch when it comes to service with M’Tucci’s Italian Restaurant finishing in the top five of the Magazine’s “best service” category. As has been our experience at the M’Tucci restaurant family, we found Moderno’s service convivial and professional.
12 February 2017: We also found every nuanced morsel absolutely delicious. On a blustery February day, the cream of wild mushroom soup especially hit the spot. Constructed from wild mushrooms, Shiitake, Cremini, Portabella, heavy cream, brandy and olive oil, it’s got the comforting, soul-warming properties of all great soups. It’s a soup that penetrates deep into your taste buds and thoroughly satisfies your palate and belly. It’s the type of soup this multi-time judge would love to see at the Roadrunner Food Bank‘s annual Souper Bowl next January (hint, hint).
12 February 2017: Our hearts beat a little faster when we espied Charcuterie Boards on the menu–four of them, each offering sundry cheeses, meats and garnishes. Charcuterie, the art of salting, smoking, brining, or otherwise curing meats, is a culinary art for which M’Tucci’s has absolutely no equal in the metropolitan area. All four boards will merit your rapt consideration. We opted for Charcuterie Board C, a bountiful melange of Sopressata salami, Morbier cheese, house Rosemary grain mustard served with olive oil, sea salt and fresh M’tucci’s market bread. Morbier has a rich, creamy flavour with a slightly bitter aftertaste and delightfully pungent aroma. It pairs well with the whisper-thin Sopressata, a coarsely ground salami with a hint of piquancy. The market bread, as always, is the perfect canvas for the house Rosemary grain mustard.
12 February 2017: Previous visits to M’Tucci’s restaurants have taught us that any intentions we might have to save some of our entrees for later will go out the window as soon as we taste those entrees. Such was the case with the Shrimp Campanelle (sauteed Gulf shrimp, house heritage pork chorizo, grape tomatoes, lobster cream sauce, basil and Campanelle pasta). At first glance, the entree appeared too big to finish in one meal. At first bite, we knew we wouldn’t be leaving any for later. This is an outstanding dish–one with je ne sais quoi, qualities not easily described. We determined uniquely palate pleasing notes came from the house heritage chorizo and its cinnamony flavor pairing with the sweet brininess of the shrimp and decadent lobster cream sauce. The grape tomatoes provided acidity and served as a nice foil for the richness of other elements.
11 March 2021: Whether you like your pizza on a thin, but pliable crust (artisanal pizza) or an even thinner, crispy crust (lavosh flatbread), Moderno has a pizza to satisfy every preference. Ever since I introduced her to buffalo mozzarella several years ago, it’s been my Kim’s favorite cheese. Smoked buffalo mozzarella is only one reason she ordered the Affumicato. Other reasons included roasted grape tomatoes, San Marzano tomato sauce, roasted garlic oil, smoked prosciutto, local basil and extra virgin olive oil. For someone with as pronounced a carnivorous bent to have enjoyed this pizza as much as she did speaks volumes about how good it is…and how good buffalo mozzarella is. One of few people who don’t believe char is a flavor, Kim asked for a light char and Moderno delivered.
23 June 2018: Turophiles knowledgeable in the history of cheese appreciate that brie, a soft cheese made from whole or semi-skimmed cow’s milk, is considered the “queen of cheeses” and that in days of yore, brie was one of the tributes which had to be paid to the French kings. Thankfully today brie isn’t reserved for royalty. One of the best ways to enjoy this diverse and delicious cheese is deep-fried in a crispy panko crust. M’Tucci Moderno’s fried brie is a spectacular offering: crispy brie, strawberries, green apple slices, grilled market baguettes, baby greens all drizzled with a pomegranate reduction. There is so much going on in this plate. Both from a textural and flavor profile perspective, it’s a fun adventure in which to embark.
11 March 2021: According to the Oxford Dictionary of Food and Drink in America, mankind’s very first “salad” was popularized way back in the days of the Roman Empire. Then, a simple salad was comprised of raw leafy vegetables covered in salty, oily dressing. The etymology of the term salad, is in fact, sal, the Latin word for salt. Thankfully, salad has come a long way since then. So have diners demands for more creative, delicious and healthy salads. The grilled vegetable salad (mixed greens, Balsamic vinaigrette, roasted red peppers, grilled corn, zucchini, asparagus, Sonoma goat cheese) at M’Tucci’s Moderno fits the bill in all three areas.
It’s simply one of the best salads in the metropolitan area, made even better with a light sprinkling of ground pepper. Every vegetable on the plate complements the other with flavor profiles that range from sweet to savory to earthy and acerbic. From the sweet grilled corn to the bittersweet red peppers and earthy asparagus, your taste buds will enjoy every morsel. This salad is available in half and whole sizes and the gracious staff will happily split it for you. Rather that split a large salad, you could hardly be blamed if you order two large salads (even if you don’t share them).
23 June 2018: More than any Italian restaurant in the metropolitan area, the M’Tucci’s family of restaurants has a predilection for Pappardelle, large, broad, flat pasta noodles. These ribbon-shaped noodles aren’t nearly as thick as lasagna noodles, but they’re much thicker than almost every other noodle. Their thickness makes them a perfect vehicle for very rich, very heavy sauces and exotic meats such as wild boar. Though Pappardelle is often considered a winter pasta, it’s great any time of year, certainly worthy of its name which comes from the Italian pappare, a verb which means “to gobble up.”
The Summer, 2018 menu introduced another fabulous Pappardelle option. Seeing Pork Cheek Pappardelle (braised Duroc pork cheek, market pancetta, prosciutto crudo, roasted carrots, handmade Pappardelle on a savory braising sauce) on the menu put an immediate stop to my perusal of a superb menu replete with temptation. Pork cheek (guanciale in Italian) comes from the jowl of the pig, one of my favorite cuts of pork, albeit one not that commonly offered. It’s a robustly flavored and deliciously fatty pork that stars on any dish in which it’s a part. Though it may be the named pork on the dish, it shares space on the plate with two other fabulous in their own right Italian pork staples, pancetta and prosciutto, a terrific triumvirate unmatched on any dish anywhere in the Albuquerque area. The stew-like savory braising sauce and carrots did evoke a slightly wintry feeling on a 100-degree-plus day in which it was much needed.
Among the foods scientifically proven to keep humans warm during winter is meat, the type of which author Mark Twain celebrated in “A Tramp Abroad:” “imagine an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porter-house steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms.”
Maybe winter’s looming approach explains the “Carne Rossa” (red meat) section of M’Tucci’s fall menu, a veritable treasure to sate carnivorous cravings that seem so much more exaggerated in cold weather. It’s a tempting tease of magnificent meats: hangar steak, pork chops, braised beef short ribs, twin lamb chops and the house cut of the day. Better still, in larger portions the accompaniments for these meats would make satisfying meals in and of themselves (admit it, sometimes you select or reject a dish because of the accompanying sides).
23 June 2018: For my Kim, she of carnivorous cravings, the menu’s most tantalizing offering was a grilled, hand-cut hangar steak served with roasted potatoes and asparagus spears. Hangar steak is so named because the cut of beef is taken from below the cow’s diaphragm where the muscle “hangs” over the animal’s stomach. It’s a naturally thin and quite lean cut of beef which lends itself best to being prepared at rare or medium rare. At M’Tucci’s Moderno, the hangar steak is sliced for you into slightly larger than bite-sized hunks of moist, magnificent meat. Hangar steak may be value-priced, but prepared well, you might feel you’re eating a premium cut at a Chicago chophouse. M’Tucci’s prepares it extraordinarily well
13 October 2019: During one particularly onerous cold snap, the staff of MASH 4077 used duplicity, charm and especially bartering in an attempt to get their hands on Hawkeye’s thermal underwear. The camp cook traded a lamb and mint jelly to Radar for them. He sure got the bad end of the deal. Few things in life are as wonderful as perfectly prepared lamb chops. Even in a sub-zero blizzard, I’d certainly trade my thermal underwear for the twin lamb chops (grilled house-cut free range lamb T-bones with a mint and vanilla brine and a side salad of chilled farro with grilled eggplant, feta, grilled asparagus and a rosemary gastrique) at M’Tucci’s Moderno. At medium-rare and about a half-inch thick, these chops are succulent, moist and decadent with just a hint of mint sneaking out. Oh, and that side salad, Mark Twain would have celebrated it in verse. It was without doubt the best farro I’ve ever had.
13 October 2019: If the twin lamb chops are worth risking life, limb and comfort for, M’Tucci’s cold-smoked Duroc pork chop (BBQ brined, cold-smoked, house-cut Duroc pork Porterhouse topped with an apple, bacon and bourbon chutney and organic arugula), might be worth your car or your house. Cold-smoked pork is a revelation! Scientifically, it’s a very challenging process to smoke meat without exposing it to heat and the results range from salty, desiccated meats to the risk of botulism. Done correctly, the benefits are a complex flavor development where savvy diners can discern the nuances of the cold smoke.
M’Tucci’s definitely understands the cold-smoking process takes meticulous precision and care. It takes expert knowledge to seal in flavors, retain moistness, prevent that dreaded “freezer burn” and more importantly, prevent health risks. Beginners should never attempt cold smoke. A distinctive smoky flavor and beautiful sear define M’Tucci’s cold-smoked meats, but it was the intensely porcine flavor and discernible moistness that surprised us. The apple, bacon and bourbon chutney is one of those accompaniments of which I wrote earlier, the type of which you could devour by the plateful.
1 February 2021: In the Deep South one of the most popular ingredients used in preparing Southern fried chicken is buttermilk. The slightly acidic buttermilk helps tenderize chicken by breaking down some of the poultry’s proteins. Similarly the acidity of lemons tenderizes chicken and has the dual benefit of lending a citrusy flavor. If you’ve ever had lemon chicken at a Chinese restaurant, you’ve also experienced a tangy sweet and sour lemon sauce which demonstrates the versatility and deliciousness of lemons. So, when life gives you lemons, you should squeeze them over raw chicken.
My dear friend Becky Mercuri has long regaled me with her experiences preparing and enjoying Italian lemon chicken, but it’s not a dish which has crossed my path until visiting M’Tucci’s Moderno with that simile savvy sommelier and walking Wikipedia Tom Molitor. M’Tucci’s Italian fried chicken, a confit herb-crusted dark meat chicken tossed in a lemon and sheep’s milk marinade and served with truffle French fries and a house Pecorino dipping sauce was a great introduction. Though the chicken isn’t breaded, being confit in its own juices rendered it delightfully crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. Bite through the crispy skin and the tangy flavor of lemon is discernible–not to a lip-pursing degree, but just enough for the lemon to blend with the chicken’s inherent flavors. If you want a little more lemony flavor dip it into the Pecorino dipping sauce which has the dual qualities of sharpness from the cheese and acidity from the lemon. Alas, the hummingbird sized dark meat pieces left me hungry.
11 March 2021: If ever there was a culinary misnomer, it would have to be spare ribs. Whenever they’re served, there are never any to spare. Every last morsel is devoured. So, obviously the term spareribs does not refer to having ribs to spare. The term finds its genesis in the German Rippenspeer which literally translates to “spear ribs,” as this type of ribs were traditionally roasted on a spit or spear. Spare ribs are cut from the ends of baby back ribs, have more meat between the bones and less meat on top, and generally have more marbling (and more flavor). Spare ribs are straighter, longer, and flatter than baby backs. While baby backs tend to be associated mostly with barbecue, there seem to be no end to the ways in which you can prepare spare ribs.
Predictably there were no ribs to spare with my order of grilled Northern Italian style spare ribs. A half-rack (eight bones) of meaty bones is slathered with a garlic-herb sauce similar to a pesto and like some pesto, lends a very aromatic, very lively flavor to the ribs. Even better, the ribs have a wonderful crispy texture that makes even the fatty part more delicious. These ribs are as much fun to gnaw on as they are to eat. Worthy accompaniment for the spare ribs comes in the form of roasted corn studded with jalapenos and an apple slaw.
12 February 2017: Desserts are a medley of familiar M’Tucci’s standards and some heretofore unavailable. Among the former is the Twinkie L’Italia which four-time James Beard award-winning author 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.” Only the bread pudding (port wine cherries, Stracciatella gelato, dark chocolate ganache) could pull us away. This is an excellent bread pudding elevated to rarefied air with the addition of the Stacciatella (vanilla gelato flecked with fine chocolate) drizzled with dark chocolate ganache veins. The tart-sweet port wine cherries are a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of the bread pudding. It has already vaulted to the top of Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame. The professor with the perspicacious palate is pretty selective when it comes to bread pudding. Trust us. This is a great one.
13 October 2019: Back when he was known as “America’s dad,” Bill Cosby had so much credibility that when he hawked Jello Pudding Pops, they made $100 million their first year. For a long time, the Jello product pretty much defined pudding for many Americans. More than a decade later, enterprising chefs began offering a thicker, richer pudding they referred to by its Italian name: budino. It didn’t take long before budino became a cult item on menus throughout the fruited plain. Not only is budino simple to prepare and absolutely delicious, it inspires nostalgia. Hey, hey, hey!
When we espied chocolate budino on M’Tucci’s winter dessert menu, there was no reason to read further. Resembling a chocolate brown skating pond in a brandy snifter glass with a small dollop of macerated strawberries and a basil shrub whip flanking a brandy vanilla tuile, it was almost too pretty to eat. Almost! This is no instant, pre-packaged Jello product. Though significantly thicker than most American pudding, it’s still light, airy and smooth. Moreover it’s much more intensely flavored. That meant intense chocolate. The longer strawberries are macerated, the more intense and rich their flavor. This truly was a truly intense, truly flavorful and absolutely wonderful dessert.
11 March 2021: Ever since the “Searching for Italy” episode in which Stanley Tucci visited Campania where he enjoyed lemons on the Amalfi Coast, we’ve been obsessed with limoncello, a delicate and delicious liqueur. Thankfully M’Tucci’s incorporates the tart, citrusy aperitif on several menu items, including several desserts. Not among them is the Italian cheesecake (Graham cracker crust, blood orange curd, almond crumble), but it’s flavor had us contemplating “what if.” This may be the very best cheesecake in the Albuquerque area with those citrusy notes making a windy March day feel almost tropical…or like lounging on the Amalfi Coast.
It could well be argued that Duke City diners are even more persnickety and demanding than their counterparts in New York City. What can’t be disputed is that–just as they did in Metropolis–Jeff Spiegel and Katie Gardner have made it in Albuquerque. As restaurant impresarios and developers of restaurant talent, they just might be peerless. Their restaurants certainly are!
M’Tucci’s Moderno Italian Restaurant
1908 Wellspring Avenue, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 11 March 2021
1st VISIT: 12 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 4
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bread Pudding, Shrimp Campanelle, Affumicato, Charcuterie Board C, Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup, Twin Lamb Chops, Cold Smoked Duroc Pork Chop, Chocolate Budino, Italian Fried Chicken, Italian Style Spare Ribs, Italian Cheesecake