Can you imagine the outcry if Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham tried to abolish New Mexico’s sacrosanct red and green chile because the Department of Cultural Affairs Secretary convinced her that chile doesn’t bring out the best in New Mexicans? Such a treasonous and heretical act would probably provoke outrage, if not an outright revolution. Thankfully our Governor is a tremendous advocate for our home state’s hallowed and official state vegetable. Regardless of your political affiliation, you can’t help puffing up your chest with pride when she responds to a snarky tweet from Colorado’s governor claiming Colorado’s chile is superior.
That dystopian scenario sounds too outlandish to ever happen. It would be akin to Italy trying to abolish pasta. Wait, that actually did happen. In the decade before World War II, an up-and-coming art movement called The Futurists derided anything that wasn’t on the cutting edge of modern. They wanted Italy to be on the front lines of the future and saw one thing holding the entire country back—its love of pasta. The movement believed pasta was “heavy and anti-virile,” claiming that “no true fighters would ever eat pasta because of its tendency to weigh you down.” They also made it clear that pasta wasn’t a choice for a man’s man or a lady’s man, as no one ever got amorous with a stomach full of starch. While at it, Mussolini and the Futurists also wanted to eliminate bread (imagine a world with no pizza).
That movement gained momentum when Benito Mussolini began a domestic campaign to make Italy a self-sufficient country. In support of that campaign, he took aim at pasta, raising the fees associated with importing grains. As if that wasn’t enough, Il Duce insisted that Italians begin eating rice instead of pasta. Imagine Governor Lujan Grisham insisting New Mexicans begin eating carrots instead. Yeah, in a hokey posting of each state’s favorite pizza topping Barstool Sports insisted New Mexico’s favorite topping is carrots, but that post only brought criticism and ridicule. Can you imagine the green chile cheeseburger being supplanted by a carrot cheeseburger or green chile stew being replaced by carrot stew? I’d move to Colorado.
Not surprisingly, Mussolini’s movement to replace pasta with rice largely repulsed the Italian people. They wrote and signed petitions. “They refused to like—or even try—some of the trendier dishes the Futurists put forward in an attempt to get them to forget about pasta (because who doesn’t like chicken roasted with ball bearings?) and they even wrote verses that appeared in newspapers across the world.” In virtually every culinary survey you can find, Italian cuisine is the world’s most popular. Thank God, Italians were roused to action at the detestable attempt to eliminate pasta and bread.
Had Mussolini had his way Albuquerque wouldn’t have Saggio’s, one of the city’s most revered purveyors of pizza and pasta. Had the DiGregorio family had their way, the Duke City would be home to many more Saggio’s. Make that Nunzio’s. In the 80s, a humble UNM area pizzeria named Nunzio’s (named for family patriarch Nunzio DiGregorio) used to prepare the best pizza in my universe as I knew it before the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts. Ambitious efforts (too much, too soon) at expansion failed and the family sold the Nunzio’s trademark and recipes. It was an event warranting an apron flying at half mast. Thankfully, the DeNunzio family reopened under the name Saggios with pizza about as close as you can get to Nunzio’s without violating trademark.
Saggio’s remains a UNM area favorite, providing sustenance not only to starving students but to paramours of pizza and Italian food. Art aficionados also appreciate Saggio’s for the the imaginative tromp-l’oeil murals which festoon the walls. It wouldn’t be a stretch to name Saggios as one of the city’s most visually captivating milieus. There’s something to capture your eye no matter where you turn. The aforementioned trompe-l’oeil, an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery, almost creates the illusion that the depicted objects really exist, instead of being mere, two-dimensional paintings. It’s a must see!
One of the drawbacks to visiting Saggio’s in the UNM area has always been parking. The hunt for elusive parking spaces can eat up your entire lunch hour. If the parking predicament prevents more frequent visits to the heavily trafficked UNM area Saggio’s, the dawning of 2022 brought an alternative–Uptown Saggio’s (sounds like a Billy Joel song) in the Coronado Mall. Though Uptown is also heavily trodden, you actually might find it easier to find close proximity parking. Uptown Saggio’s is located next door to Fuddruckers in the space previously occupied by Bonefish. Esthetically Uptown Saggio’s is almost entirely different than its elder sibling with modern touches and an upbeat vibe. It’s an attractive space with comfortable, well-spaced seating.
As at the original Saggio’s, you’ll place your order at a counter then you proceed to your seat with an alert coaster at hand. When that coaster flashes, you’ll pick up your order. It’s an efficient process. Uptown Saggio’s is subtitled “Scratch Italian Kitchen” and indeed, there’s so much more on that menu than pizza and pasta (Mussolini would not be happy). The dish that made Saggio’s famous, of course, is pizza and there are plenty of made-to-order options available, including several gourmet pizzas and really big slices (for you Elaine Benes). The menu also lists pasta, baked pasta and seafood pasta. If sandwiches are your pleasure, a phalanx of Tuscan sandwiches await you. Then there’s the decadent cheesecake.
22 November 2022: It’s rare for us to ever visit Saggio’s and not have pizza. A slice or two will invariably fill us up. Each slice is nearly as big as the Great Pyramid at Giza. An entire pie can feed the UNM Lobo offensive line. My favorite slice is adorned only with red onion (and sometimes sausage) while my Kim is happy with a slice of cheese pizza. One of the hallmarks of Saggio’s pizza is a just out of the oven baker quality crust. The crust tastes–and more importantly smells–like fresh baked bread. It’s a delicious canvass for whatever ingredients you pile on it. Pizzas are available in traditional Neapolitan crust or in a pan-baked Sicilian-style crust. Saggios pizza makes no claim to New York or Chicago style. Each pizza is crafted with the utmost of care as if your repeat patronage is paramount.
23 May 2022: A special of the day item on the menu during our inaugural visit was Steak & Tomato Cream Pasta (tender slices of New York strip steak seared over rigatoni and marinated vegetables served in a decadent creamy tomato sauce). In all honesty, the New York strip steak was much more reminiscent of “Steakums,” those so-called beef sheets used to make really bad Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. Both from a textural and flavor standpoint, the thin sheets of beef just didn’t convince us we were eating New York strip steak. Though we didn’t especially like the “steak,” we loved the tomato cream pasta, the perfectly al dente rigatoni and the asparagus steaks. Though finishing the pasta dish may have left us “heavy and anti-virile,” unlike Mussolini, we accept that it’s one of the things we appreciate about a good pasta.
22 November 2022: Impulse buying, the sudden and immediate purchase of a product without any pre-shopping intention, represents between 40.0 and 80.0% of all purchases. For the most part, I’m not an easy mark and have absolutely no problem resisting impulse buying. (My Kim will tell you the reason behind that is that I almost never go shopping.) My discipline, however, goes out the window at restaurants such as Saggio’s. Just as during our inaugural visit, the special of the day–spicy rigatoni tomato cream (with vodka cream sauce, tomato cream with Calabrian hot chili) proved irresistible. Sauces can make or break a dish and Saggio’s has them down pat. We surmise a rich heavy cream is one of the secrets. Heavy cream pairs wonderfully with tangy, acidic tomatoes, rounding out the flavor and texture. Add Calabrian chili peppers (25,000 to 40,000 Scoville heat units or about sixteen times hotter than jalapeños) and you’ve got a special dish. Native New Mexicans should have no problem with the Calabrian chilis while my Kim likened me to a disciple of Satan for enjoying another “pain is a flavor” dish.
22 November 2022: For years, desserts were deliciously decadent creations made by Eli’s Cheesecake Company of Chicago, a Windy City institution. Our server apprised us that cheesecakes are now baked in-house by a Saggio’s chef. Frankly we couldn’t tell the difference. Saggio’s in-house baked cheesecakes are just as good, if not better than Eli’s. Not even my Kim, a Chicago born-and-bred gal, disagreed with that assessment. Though we missed the Mercedes Benz yellow cab at the original Saggio’s in which several extraordinary cheesecakes are displayed along with some of the best chocolate cannoli in town. Perhaps it’s solely my imagination, but it seems you can have a different cheesecake every visit to Saggio’s. Uptown Saggio’s introduced me to the Butterfingers cheesecake, a melding of the popular peanut butter-based candy bar with decadent, creamy cheesecake. There’s no way Mussolini would try to outlaw this.
Uptown Saggio’s Scratch Italian Kitchen is every bit as good as its elder sibling with much better parking and a different look and feel. It’s pasta and pizza so good not even Mussolini would utter a disparaging word.
Uptown Saggio’s Scratch Italian Kitchen
6600 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 22 November 2022
1st VISIT: 23 May 2022
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Butterfingers Cheesecake, Caramel Cheesecake, Steak & Tomato Cream Pasta, Cheese Pizza, Onion Pizza