Mark Twain, who quit school at age twelve after having completed the sixth grade, would go on to be widely acknowledged as the father of American literature. Despite being largely self-taught–valedictorian of the school of hard knocks and salutatorian of street smarts–Twain acknowledged in his posthumously published essay “Taming the Bicycle” that the self-taught man “seldom knows anything accurately” and “does not know a tenth of as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers.” That would have been especially true if Twain had a teacher like my dad.
An educator for three decades and still the wisest person I’ve ever known, my dad had the unenviable challenge of raising a brash and cocky know-it-all who believed everything I needed to know I learned by sixth grade, I delighted in pointing out all the educational untruths–misinformation, myths and sometimes lies–school systems were propagating. Such falsehoods as Columbus having discovered America, George Washington wore wooden dentures and that humans use only ten percent of our brains were an affront to someone who read as much as I did even back in the prehistoric days before Google.
Rather than asking me to accede to what I believed to be inaccurate and regurgitate rote “facts” in order to get a better grade, my dad would challenge me to make a case for my beliefs, to use empirical facts to disprove those long-established falsehoods. In my present avocation of reviewing restaurants, there is one blatant inaccuracy and one misperception I would love to have discussed with my dad. He would undoubtedly have allowed me to vent before uttering a profound piece of Yoda-like wisdom that would place it all in perspective and placate his eldest scion, still a loather of false facts, fake news and mostly prevaricating politicians.
The first falsehood is that pasta was brought to Italy by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Historians have proven that pasta was already quite popular in Italy long before Marco Polo’s excursions. The second falsus quod–more perception than outright fabrication–regarding food is that Italians don’t eat beef, a contention seemingly borne out by menus replete with prosciutto, porchetta, pancetta, lardo and speck. All of these are pork products, porcine perfection as only Italy can produce them. It’s no wonder Italy is associated more with pork than with beef, but I’ve got a beef with anyone who believes Italians don’t raise cattle for consumption.
To be certain, pigs are less expensive to raise and butcher than beef and according to Postcards from Italy, “pork is one of the pillars of the country’s historic “cucina povera”, or rural cuisine, tradition.” That doesn’t mean Italians don’t eat beef. In fact, Italian beef is considered among the world’s finest thanks to the combination of heirloom breeds, open grazing, and limited and strictly regulated pharmaceuticals. My friend David Wagner, author of the fabulous Rick Montoya Italian mystery series tells me “Once you have a Florentine steak, you’ll want to throw rocks at other steak.” In Cold Tuscan Stone, Rick Montoya enjoyed a Florentine steak made with Chianina cattle.
Chianina cattle, among the most iconic and most historic breeds in the world, is raised in Tuscany. It’s a type of beef I’d long heard about but never had the opportunity to enjoy, in part because it’s only been available in the United States since 1971 and remains rare and difficult to obtain. Chianna cattle are among the tallest and heaviest breed of cattle with mature bulls reaching 6’7″ and weighing 3,500 pounds. Of course, for gourmands, the “tale of the tape” isn’t as important as confirmation from our taste buds that we’re eating something special.
In April, 2019, M’Tucci’s announced the availability of Chianina beef at all three of its locations. Why the mayor didn’t declare the event a citywide holiday is beyond me. Initially M’tucci’s used Chianina beef in the construction of its iconic meatballs, replacing wagyu beef (which is a bit ironic considering some consider Chianina to be “Italian wagyu”). Our first opportunity to try the beatific beef was in the form of burgers from the Lava Rock Brewing Company whose kitchen is staffed by veterans of M’tucci’s Italian Café & Market, an eatery whose closure should have warranted an apron flying at half mast.
A quick perusal of the Lava Rock Brewing Company menu is akin to reading the menu at M’tucci’s Italian Cafe & Market. From the incomparable charcuterie boards to sandwich and pasta dishes, all our old favorites are there. That means Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR) can still get his beloved smoked mozzarella muffaleta fix though it’s unlikely the brewing company pairs with PBR. The menu had me at Chianina beef which was available as meatballs on the spaghettini and on all three of the featured burgers.
Each burger is one-third pound of Chianina beef beauty. Chef Shawn Cronin, late of M’tucci’s Italian Market & Pizzeria described the Chianina as having “a much richer flavor – much richer” than the wagyu previously used. That richness came across with my very first bite of the Diaviolo (yes, it translates from Italian to “devil”). The Diaviolo (Hatch green chile, chipotle aioli, aged Cheddar, lettuce, red onion, pickle and tomato) is Lava Rock’s version of a green chile cheeseburger. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to declare it one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the Land of Enchantment. As with some of the very best of New Mexico’s sacrosanct burgers (Santa Fe Bite and the Monte Carlo Steakhouse come to mind), this burger is all about the beef. Every other element is relegated to “supporting cast,” all excellent but only there to corroborate the greatness of the beef. Now if only M’tucci’s offered a Florentine steak.
Five pizzas grace the menu at Lava Rock, about half as many as M’tucci’s Italian Market used to offer. Available in ten- and fourteen-inch sizes, each pizza is baked in a high-heat (800 degree) oven that ensures your pie is cooked quickly and evenly. You’ll find plenty of char on each pie, a hallmark of the pizza at Farina where the Lava Rock chefs cut their teeth. If char is not a flavor you like much, you can ask for light char. My Kim’s favorite pie is called simply “Sausage” and it’s endowed with house Italian sausage, house meatballs (made with Chianina beef), fresh mozzarella, peppadew peppers, San Marzano tomato sauce). There’s much to love in and about this pie. One true revelation is just how well peppadew peppers work with the other components. Another is the Chianini beef meatballs, so good we just might want to throw rocks at other meatballs.
Okay, so we can’t give Marco Polo credit for having brought pasta to Italy, but somewhere out there is someone we can thank for the invention of pasta chips. Pasta chips are a crispy, crunchy hand-held snack often used as a substitute for potato or corn chips and typically served with marinara sauce instead of salsa. Lava Rock offers must-have Italian nachos (fried pasta chips, mozzarella and Morbier cheese sauce, house Italian sausage, tapenade and peppadew peppers. These nachos have supplanted most New Mexico queso-tortilla chip-based we’ve had. The mozzarella and Morbier cheese sauce, in particular, were superb, an exemplar of salty, creamy richness. The peppadew peppers offered a wondrous sweet piquancy.
If you’re still inclined to believe Italians don’t know much about beef, Chianina beef will make a believer out of you and you can get it at the M’tucci family of fabulous Italian restaurants. That Diaviolo certainly made a believer out of me.
Lava Rock Brewing Company
2220 Unser Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 5 January 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Diaviolo, Sausage Pizza, Italian Nachos