“The best ingredient I discovered in America was ‘freedom.’
The freedom to experiment in the kitchen and
the freedom to be open to those experiments in the dining room.”
~Massimo Bottura, Osteria Francescana Chef and Owner
Adesso basta! I’ve had it with the haughty pedantry of my Air Force comrades-in-arms who were blessed to have been stationed in La Bele Paese and to have dined on its incomparable dishes. They’re oh-so-quick to vilify Italian-American cuisine, calling it an inauthentic parody of the madrepatria‘s sacrosanct and sublime cuisine. They’re even quicker to criticize my devotion to such Italian-American restaurants as Joe’s Pasta House. I know damn well that the Italian-American cuisine millions of us enjoy might not be recognized in all of Lo Stivale’s regions. That doesn’t justify miei amici making it an object of mockery and derision.
What my colleagues might not know or care to acknowledge is that Italian-American cuisine long ago stopped trying to be Italian. Sure, when Italian immigrants first landed in the fruited plain, they tried to recreate the foods they enjoyed in the old country. When many of the ingredients they needed weren’t available or weren’t of the quality they desired, they had to improvise and adapt. In the process, they created a cuisine inspired by but different than that of Italy, a cuisine that has continued to evolve and improve, a cuisine which has actually started to break down resistance to culinary change in Italy.
That culinary evolution started with an influx of Italian immigrants coming to America between 1880 and 1920. The majority of them had been extremely impoverished in Italy, spending as much as 75 percent of their incomes on food…and contrary to stereotypes, we’re not talking pasta, meat and seafood here. Much of their daily fare actually consisted of vegetable soups, green beans and bread of poor quality. Pasta was too expensive to be a daily staple. Meat was served primarily during celebrations and religious holidays. Seafood was available only to Italians who lived near the coast.
Earning higher wages and finding a better standard of living, immigrants quickly made meat a staple (reflecting culinary trends across the broader American landscape)–in the process creating the dish probably best identified as Italian-American: spaghetti and meatballs. Instead of the majority of their wages going toward food, immigrants discovered they could eat far better on 25-percent of their income than they did in Italy on 75-percent of their wages. As Michelin three-star chef Massimo Bottura would observe a century later, Italians were no longer bound to the traditions and restrictions of their homeland. They could flex their creative muscle.
Let me also remind my friends who were stationed in Italy that what Italians consider “Italian food” varies from region to region even to this day. Remember, until 1861 what we now know as “Italy” was actually comprised of individual city-states with their own languages, traditions and foods. Each of the country’s twenty diverse and unique regions remains fiercely protective as to the authenticity and recipes for its cuisines. The food in Siciliy differsgreatly from the food of Tuscany which varies significantly from the food of Calabria (shout out to my brother Mario’s father-in-law Ted Calabrese, a great patriot and even better man). So, the foods my friends may have enjoyed during their Air Force assignments to Aviano and Naples were authentic to those regions, but don’t represent all Italian cuisine. So there…
Okay, my diatribe is over…at least until the next time my friends criticize my passion for Italian-American cuisine. That’s sure to happen immediately after they read this review. Rather than debate–facts and reason on my side, emotion and nonsense on theirs–I propose we continue our polemic over an Italian-American feast at M’tucci’s Twenty-Five. It’ll be hard for them to ply me with illogic and absurdity when their mouths are stuffed with Calabrese salami, Italian prosciutto, Chianina meatballs and other forms of deliciousness. Their arguments are sure to be betrayed by joyous exclamations mimicking Rachael Ray–not that they’ll concede an inch.
M’tucci’s Twenty-Five is the most recent addition to the M’tucci’s family of Italian (Italian American according to my friends) restaurants. Housed in a 10,000 square-foot space that was previously home to the Chama River Brewing Co, the cavernous space accommodates nearly 300 guests with patio seating for another 75 to 100 guests. M’tucci’s Twenty-Five is located on Pan American Freeway, paralleling Interstate 25, where it joins one of Albuquerque’s most prominent “restaurant rows,” one which includes such stalwarts as Tomasita’s and a number of prominent chains which will not be listed here.
M’tucci’s Twenty-Five opened just shy of one month before Covid-19 changed life as we all knew and loved it. By the time my Kim and I planned to set off for our inaugural visit, the state had imposed a shelter-in-place that restricted restaurants to take out and delivery. As always, the M’tucci’s braintrust had a plan, introducing “M’tucci’s Prep Kitchen: Chef-Created meals to finish at home.” M’tucci’s began offering a new box every week with a meal for up to four people. It included all necessary prep, a recipe card and links for instructional videos of the restaurant’s chefs preparing the meal customers would be making at home.
12 April 2020: First up in the weekly offering was an herb-roasted rack of Colorado lamb, mint gastrique, roasted Rosemary and Pecorino saltwater potatoes and sauteed asparagus with four lemon ricotta cookies for the paltry sum of $49. The chef-created meals were available for order and delivery from all M’tucci’s locations though quantities were limited. With an instructive, professionally done video to guide us, we prepared one of the best Easter meals we’ve had in years. My Kim, who wasn’t exactly a fan of lamb became a convert. While many people eschew lamb because of its perceived gaminess and pungency, Colorado lamb, some of the best in the world, is relatively lean and has a rich flavor with slightly sweet notes. At medium-rare, they were juicy, tender and absolutely delicious.
15 November 2020: There are only seven items on M’tucci Twenty-Five’s appetizer menu, but each is so intriguing and inviting that you’ll be hard-pressed to limit yourself to just one. We actually toyed with the idea of ordering three or four appetizers and calling it a meal, but couldn’t pass up ordering entrees. Should we ever have an appetizers only meal, one absolutely has to be a board–either the prosciutto board (Italian prosciutto, house fresh mozzarella, caramelized onion mostarda, olives, house bread) or the larger family board. No restaurant puts a board together as well as M’tucci’s which has long made five types of breads, eight different pasta shapes, mozzarella and burrata and a variety of sausages and cured meats. The mostarda (which has nothing to do with mustard and more closely resembles a relish) is a magnificent blend of fruity sweetness and tanginess. It should be bottled and sold. Don’t forget to pick up a loaf or six of the sourdough on your way out.
15 November 2020: All M’tucci’s locations serve dishes made with pork from their new partner, Sackett Farms, which raises Berkshire-Duroc heritage pigs out of Iowa. You can taste the difference. It’s porcine perfection on a plate. If you’re under the impression that cold-smoking meats is something done only in Alaska and Iceland, you owe it to yourselves to order the cold-smoked 14-ounce bone-in Sackett Farms pork chop (cherrywood smoked and sous vide pork chop with a rotating gastrique, braised greens and campfire potatoes). 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.” A distinctive smoky flavor and beautiful sear define M’Tucci’s cold-smoked chop, but it’s the intensely porcine flavor and discernible moistness that may surprise you most.
15 November 2020: Food writer Claudia Roden contends “The smell of roasting meat together with that of burning fruit wood and dried herbs, as voluptuous as incense in a church, is enough to turn anyone into a budding gastronome.” Though I self-gloss as a gastronome, steak has never been something I crave. M’tucci’s “Cut of the Day” (a rotating hand-cut steak with smoked blackberry and bone marrow compound butter, garlic mashed potatoes (substitute campfire potatoes; trust me) and grilled asparagus) might just change my inclinations especially if the cut of the day is a five-ounce filet mignon, about as much steak as I can handle. Yeah, take away my man card. This is a fabulous full-flavored filet so good it might trigger more carnivorous cravings.
15 November 2020: M’tucci’s is no slouch when it comes to desserts, but while my Kim enjoyed a bowl of the chef’s rotating dairy-free Italian style sorbet, her savory craving husband didn’t make it to the dessert section of the menu. I made it only as far as the seafood bisque (Patagonian pink shrimp, tomato, lobster, cream, crab, salmon and leek garnish). This comforting elixir hits all the right notes – just the right amount of cream, background notes of leeks with a rich seafood bisque sauce providing plenty of depth of flavor. It’s an excellent “dessert” but would have been even better in a bowl instead of a cup. Lesson learned.
23 January 2021: Admit it, the notion of eating kale is barely preferable to impaling yourself on a rusty spike–even though kale is anti-inflammatory, full of antioxidants, detoxifies the body, provides heart support, and helps you leap tall buildings in a single bound, just to name a few benefits. As comedian Jim Gaffigan contends “kale is a superfood and it’s special power is tasting bad.” Just imagine how great kale would be if it tasted like bacon. You’re in luck. In 2019, researchers at Oregon State patented a new strain of marine algae that looks like translucent red lettuce, has double the nutritional value of kale and tastes like bacon when cooked. When it’s more widely available, we won’t have to eat kale any longer.
In its defense, there are things you can do to make kale taste much better. M’tucci’s proves it with its blackberry and goat cheese salad (kale, Italian greens, toasted walnut, golden raisins, blackberry shrub vinaigrette). Sure, the addition of much more palatable components mitigate the intensity of kale’s inherent bitterness, but his salad isn’t about masking an objectionable flavor. It’s about the confluence of ingredients that taste great together. That starts with the named ingredients–succulent, sweet and juicy blackberries and earthy, tangy goat cheese, an odd-couple marriage that brings out the best in both. Then there’s the complementary flavors of toasted walnuts and sweet golden raisins. The catalyst which brings it all together is the blackberry shrub vinaigrette, a dressing you’d happily lap up.
23 January 2021: Calvin Trillin, one of the best food writers in America once suggested that instead of turkey, Americans should gather around the table for pasta carbonara. It wasn’t just because he loathed turkey, calling it “basically something college dormitories use to punish students for hanging around on Sunday.” He happened to love carbonara though he believed the Pilgrims would have hated it, believing it to be “heretically tasty” and the “work of the devil.” Similarly, the Indians at the First Thanksgiving would have been so disgusted by a Thanksgiving meal of carbonara that they would have called the Pilgrims “a bunch of turkeys!”
Call me a turkey if you will, but when carbonara is on the menu, I rarely look much further. M’tucci’s capicola carbonara (house applewood-smoked pork shoulder, Italian prosciutto, red onion, fresh peas, sage, spaghettini, cream, pecorino) has the qualities turkeys among us love about carbonara. It’s got just enough eggs for optimal sauce richness and creaminess. It’s got an optimal ratio of pasta to pork and cheese. The sauce has a nice viscosity. The spaghettini is al dente. Should an analysis of all that flows through my veins ever be performed, doctors might be surprised at just how much carbonara (as well as salsa) does flow through those veins.
23 January 2021: There are more than 350 types of Italian pasta, each uniquely different with its own texture and style. Not only are the pastas unique, so are their names. Ah, those names. For starters, there’s the quaintly named strozzapreti, a term which translates to “priest stranglers.” There’s orecchiette which translates to “little ears,” Lumaconi which means “little snails” and Campanelle which means “little bells.” In comparison, pappardelle from the Italian term for “to gobble up” is a rather ho-hum name for a really terrific pasta.
M’tucci’s pappardelle porcini pasta (roasted chicken, wild mushrooms, scallion, porcini cream sauce, pappardelle, pecorino). The thickness of pappardelle, a large, broad, flat pasta makes it a perfect vehicle for very rich, very heavy sauces, exotic meats and earthy mushrooms. Though Pappardelle is often considered a winter pasta, it’s great any time of year, inspiring the very act of “gobbling up” for which it’s named. Porcini is prevalent–both on the sauce and in their brown-capped form–with “meaty,” umami-rich notes and an intense woodsy flavor and subtle nutty undertones. The roasted chicken is a nice addition.
25 January 2021: Usually when I ask a server to recommend a dessert that’s not as sweet as my bride, they’re at a loss. I just don’t like cloying desserts. Our server recommended the Bougie brownie (dark chocolate brownie, house marshmallow, dulce de leche Chantilly cream, house limoncello-soaked cherries, house Toblerone chocolate). Like me, she doesn’t like overly sweet desserts. The bougie brownie is a perfect dessert for those of us who would rather have soup for dessert than some teeth-decaying treat. While every single element of this dessert is wonderful, the Toblerone chocolate hunks studded with hazelnuts are fabulous. So is the dulce de leche Chantilly cream. So is the house marshmallow. What a great dessert!
M’tucci’s Twenty-Five has Italian and Italian-American dishes to sate even those savage nay-sayers who don’t believe you can find great Italian food under spacious skies.
4939 Pan American Freeway
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2021
1st VISIT: 12 April 2020
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Rack of Lamb, Prosciutto Board, Cold-Smoked Bone-In Pork Chop, Filet Mignon, Blackberry & Goat Cheese Salad, Bougie Brownie, Capicola Carbonara, Pappardelle Porcini Pasta, Seafood Bisque