Chef-owner Mario D’Elia knew what he’d be in for when he named his new restaurant Poppy’s Pizzeria & Italian Eatery. Legions of Seinfeld fans would undoubtedly joke “Poppy’s a little sloppy,” a reference to Poppie, a restaurateur on the comedy Seinfeld who didn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom. Sure enough,the jokes came…until the jokesters tasted the seriously outstanding authentic New York style pizza. Poppy’s pizza is no joking matter. So why would Mario subject himself to a spate of predictable and hackneyed jokes?
Poppy, as you might know, is an affectionate nickname given to a father, grandfather or a male authority figure standing in a similar position. Mario speaks with reverence and love about his poppy, the nurturing grandfather who encouraged and challenged him to always do his best. Mario’s Poppy would be very proud of the man his grandson has become. The precocious child who once giggled as he bounced on his grandfather’s knee has become not just quite a chef, not just quite a dad, but quite a good dude.
Born and raised in the same Bronx neighborhood Joe Guzzardi of Joe’s Pasta House also called home, Mario started cooking at age 12. Because culinary school wasn’t an option, he opted for unpaid kitchen internships at several restaurants, a process known as “staging” that generations of great chefs once followed. Those apprenticeships served him well, helping him build a very impressive “curriculum vitae” that includes garnering numerous national accolades.
Mario’s credentials include having worked as a chef for the Chicago Cubs. He fed major league baseball players at the Windy City and traveled with them for spring training in the Phoenix area. Before relocating to Albuquerque, Mario owned and operated four restaurants in the Atlanta area including a pizzeria that did two-million-dollars in sales one year. Every one of his restaurants received lavish praise from the public and the media.
Mario’s first stint in the Duke City was as executive chef for the Albuquerque Isotopes. For four years he cooked for aspiring major leaguers as well as such superstars as Josh Hamilton, then the American League Most Valuable Player. He also fed suite owners, picnic-goers and one persnickety coaching legend. When Hall-of-Fame Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda requested a pizza, Isotopes officials warned Mario to mask his Bronx attitude and under no circumstances mention Lasorta’s hated rival, the New York Yankees. Such was Lasorta’s antipathy for the Dodger’s world series rival.
After working for the Isotopes, he launched a meal prep service called “Shut the Chef Up” where he prepared health-minded meals for clients with dietary and allergy concerns. During its peak, Shut the Chef Up produced about 8,000 meals a week. There isn’t an allergy or dietary concern with which Mario isn’t familiar. Shut the Chef Up eventually launched a satellite operation at the Jackson Wink MMA Academy where he served mixed martial artists and patrons pursuing healthy lifestyles.
During the dreaded pandemic year of 2020, Mario came out of retirement to launch Poppy’s Pizzeria & Italian Eatery in the space which previously housed Amore Neapolitan Pizzeria. Mario inherited the high-heat, 905-degree oven Amore left behind. Though Neapolitan pizza ovens are rarely, if ever, used for New York style pizza (deck ovens are almost mandatory), Mario has learned over the years to control the temperature of any oven to create the perfect pizza every time.
Peruse Poppy’s Facebook page and you’ll see the audacious claim “New Mexico’s first authentic NY pizzeria.” If you’ve been around the Land of Enchantment for any length of time, you know a significant number of pizzerias claim to serve New York style pizza. So what makes Poppy’s pizza more authentic than other claimants? Mario will tell you New York style is also about the vibe, the attitude and the personality. It’s about the way customers are treated and the experience they’re given. Mario is a born-and-bred New Yorker who prepares and serves pizza the way New Yorkers enjoy it.
The only concession Mario will make to New Mexicans who insist on putting green chile on everything (up to and including dessert) is as an option on pizza. He will not–under any circumstances–add green chile to pasta, meatballs or any other authentic Italian dishes he plans on introducing soon. Because of government-imposed capacity limitations, Poppy’s menu is somewhat abbreviated but it’s undergoing a make-over that will truly showcase Mario’s cooking repertoire.
2 May 2021: American writer Daniel Handler believes “Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.” In rare cases, meatballs themselves are the miracle, so good you’d swear celestial hands prepared them. That’s true of Poppy’s meatballs, two golf ball-sized homemade all-beef meatballs covered in tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. The garlic and oregano kissed meatballs are dense and firm, but cut easy with a press of a fork. The tomato sauce is tangy and acidic with herbaceous notes accompanying the flavor of fresh tomatoes. These are meatballs you might dream about, but don’t spend too much time dreaming. Mario makes only six or seven pounds of them at a time and once they’re gone, you’ll have to wait until your next visit to get them.
10 April 2021: In addition to a bake-your-own-pizza option, Poppy’s menu lists six pizzas, five of which are named for New York City area places: Da Bronx, Queens, Westchester, Brooklyn and Long Island. My Kim picked out the ingredients for our inaugural Poppy’s pizza: cheese, ricotta, sausage (from Chicago) and garlic (folded into the sauce). Within minutes of placing our order, Mario delivered a picture perfect sixteen-inch pie with a light char and just the slightest cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza. It’s only when a pizza has a very slight cornicione that it can be eaten the way New Yorkers* enjoy their pizza–by folding it vertically. “That’s so you can eat it as you walk,” Mario explained. “In New York, pizza is a street food,” he told us. *Except for Mayor Bill deBlasio who committed the mortal sin of eating pizza using a knife and fork.
Only contemporary NBA players flop as much as a slice of thin crust, light char pizza from Poppy’s, another sign you’re experiencing an authentic New York style slice. Now, theories abound that the main reason New York style pizza is so good is because of the city’s water. Pizzerias across the country have purchased expensive water filtration systems that mimic New York’s water and they still don’t do the trick. Crediting the water doesn’t quite do justice to the skilled New York City pizza chefs. The secret to the deliciousness of Poppy’s pizza is Chef Mario D’Elia’s experience and skill. Sure the sauce, the cheese, the crust and other ingredients are of the highest quality, but it’s Mario who puts it all together incomparably and deliciously.
2 May 2021: My friend Howie “the Duke of the Duke City” Kaibel, Community Director for Yelp started his review for Poppy’s by declaring “There ain’t nothin’ on the planet like Chicago sausage!” He’s absolutely correct. That’s why Mario uses it on his pizza. So does another New York born-and-bred über chef, Bob Yacone of Forghedaboudit in Las Cruces and Deming. Why would two proud New Yorkers insist on Chicago sausage? Quite simply because it’s the very best!
While the rest of the country prefers pepperoni, in Chicago sausage is king. It’s been that ways since before Carl Sandberg declared the Windy City “hog butcher for the world.” One of the pizzas in which that Chicago sausage shines best is the Veronese where a generous amount of that sumptuous sausage shares canvas space with pepperoni and meatballs. This is a true meat-lovers pie, good enough to convert the most staunch of vegetarians and maybe militant vegans, too. The sausage is well-seasoned and delicious, a meat candy you’ll be tempted to pluck off the pizza and eat separately. As tempting as that may be, your best bites come from that incomparable blend of meats, cheeses and crust.
10 April 2021: For Mario, the New York vibe of which I wrote earlier includes being able to get a scoop of Italian ice for twenty-five-cents a scoop no matter how many scoops you order. Italian ice is a refreshing treat that will make Albuquerque bearable in the summer. Mario procures it by the tubful from Pop Pop’s Italian Ice, an Albuquerque institution for nearly a quarter-century. We certainly enjoyed the two flavors available during our visit, watermelon and the curiously named Tiger’s blood, a mix of cherry and coconut.
Poppy’s Pizzeria & Italian Eatery offers a real New York pizza made by a real New Yorker and so much more. Mario is planning to close the restaurant at 4PM on Sundays to serve four-course Italian family dinners. He’s working on a new menu that will showcase his formidable Italian cooking skills. Soon he’ll be introducing a 30-item line of sodium-free condiments and he’s still preparing health-minded meals under the Poppy’s umbrella. The sky’s the limit for this little piece of New York in the Duke City.
Poppy’s Pizzeria & Italian Eatery
1700 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 May 2021
1st VISIT: 10 April 2021
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Meatballs, Pizza (Sausage, Cheese, Ricotta, Garlic), Italian Ice