Just prior to a planned visit to Rome, Saint Monica and her son, Saint Augustine, discovered that Saturday was observed as a day of fasting in Rome. It was not, however, a fast day in their hometown of Milan. They consulted Saint Ambrose who advised: “When I am here (in Milan) I do not fast. On Saturday, when in Rome I do fast on Saturday.” That reply is believed to have been the genesis of the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It’s a good thing they didn’t ask Saint Gregory the Great for advice–especially if they enjoyed eating. Saint Gregory believed eating–or more precisely the pleasurable overindulgence in food–was viewed as “an ungodly preoccupation with temporal and corporeal pleasures at the expense of spirituality.” Those of you who enjoy reading this blog would probably be condemned to an eternity in Hell with me.
Church leaders of the Middle Ages didn’t just denounce the derivation of pleasure from eating in a general sense. They listed five specific ways in which gluttony was a sin: eating too soon, eating too expensively, eating too much, eating too eagerly, eating too daintily and eating wildly. By Middle Age standards, many Americans are gluttons and would be condemned to an eternity in Hell for the pleasure we derive from food. Fortunately, the provincial dogma regarding the enjoyment of food has been replaced by more “one dimensional” thinking that focuses on the sin of the inordinate desire to eat too much when there are needy going without food.
In The Science of Sin, Dr. Simon Laham posited that “If Pope Gregory the Great had it right, the French are going straight to Hell.” It’s a declaration that didn’t sit well with the French who in 2003 petitioned Pope John Paul II to remove gourmandise (gluttony in English) from the list of seven deadly sins. For the proud French, gourmandise reflects shared pleasure and generosity—sharing food as a social activity. Gourmandise respects moderation and portion control and is wholly contrary to the priggish conformity to propriety that describes gourmets. Rather than a cardinal vice, the French argued that gourmandise is a theological virtue. This virtue is practiced in many European nations, particularly France and Italy.
Alas, a leisurely pace of dining is not a virtue practiced often or well (or maybe not at all) in America where lunches tend to be hurried gobble-and-go affairs spent more attuned to the latest cat video on YouTube than on what we’re eating or with whom we’re sharing our meal. Contrast that with the gourmandise experience—a leisurely, three course, two-hour lunch spent in conversation with friends. Gourmandise is more akin to a marathon while the American dining experience has devolved into a sprint. In the United States restaurants try to optimize every transaction to save time and turn over tables. The faster you’re seated, served, and given the bill, the more money they make. In Italy hospitality comes first; it would be unthinkable to rush you through a meal.”
Perhaps no restaurant in Albuquerque exemplifies the spirit of dining “like the Romans do” more than the restaurant named for The Eternal City: M’tucci’s Bar Roma. M’tucci’s website declares “Our mission is to open a few restaurants that take care of our guests in every way–treating them like guests in our home, making sure that they feel embraced by the joy with which we extend our hospitality, and making sure that they become entranced by our restaurant. We understand the value of ‘regulars’ returning weekly and in many cases more frequently. We hope that all of our guests will feel that they belong to a private club, to which we welcome them again and again.” Few restaurants fulfill their mission as well.
The celebration of la dolce vita–“serious food in a warm environment“–is alive and well in all four restaurants in the M’tucci’s family where you’re invited to “Gather, eat, talk, laugh and connect with your community over a delicious meal.” Further, if you ate it at M’tucci’s, you can rest assured it was made at M’tucci’s. Why? “Because hand-crafted food made from the best ingredients is the Italian way. The M’tucci’s way.” M’tucci’s Bar Roma is the most recent gem in the bejeweled crown of exceptional Italian restaurants launched by Jeff Spiegel, Katie Gardner, John Haas and the superb management team at M’tucci’s. It may be their very best–and that’s saying something considering their award-winning family of restaurants.
Located on Central Avenue and Wellesley on historic Route 66, M’tucci’s Bar Roma “offers a bit of Rome in Albuquerque.” To be sure, there’s not much in Albuquerque that resembles Rome, but attitudinally, Bar Roma is about as Rome as it gets. It is the perfect place for a leisurely meal. Those of us who have lived in the Duke City area for a while might remember when the venue in which Bar Roma is housed was the drab and dreary home of Kelly’s Brew Pub. Few among us will remember that this site got its start as The Jones Motor Company. As one of the most modern facilities in the west at the time, it boasted of large curved front window which gave passing motorists a view of the latest Ford vehicles. The Jones Motor Company included a full-service gas station that serviced many of the west-bound motorists passing through the city. The Jones Motor Company thrived for nearly two decades before relocating.
The Streamline Moderne-style complex changed hands several times over the next four decades, serving as everything from a moped shop to an Army surplus store. In 1999, six years after the building was officially designated as a historic building, Janice and Dennis Bonfantine purchased the old Jones Motor Company and repurposed it as Kelly’s Brewery. Antique Texaco Fire Chief gas pumps can still be found on what is now an expansive outdoor patio, destined to be one of the city’s most popular for al-fresco dining weather permitting. It is the interior of the capacious space where the biggest transformation has taken place. It’s a masterpiece worthy of Michaelangelo.
Few vestiges of previous tenants are in evidence. The most spectacular space is the bar area with its ornate and resplendent chandeliers which blend with natural light to make the room a brightly illuminated space. Mirrors adorn the west wall in the main dining room, giving it an appearance of expansiveness. Arches, perhaps an homage to the Romans, separate one dining room from another. In the main dining room, perhaps the most coveted seating is next to the curved windows mere feet from Central Avenue. No matter where you’re seated, you’ll be treated like royalty, especially if Brandy is your server. Remember that part of the mission statement which declares “treating them like guests in our home, making sure that they feel embraced by the joy with which we extend our hospitality?” Brandy certainly exemplifies those traits. One aspect of a Roman dining experience is that your server won’t wait for you to call her over. Brandy anticipated our needs and was on the spot with refills. The pace she set was relaxing and well-timed.
M’tucci’s Charcuterie Boards are inspired by the classic boards of Italy. In a section of the menu titled “Pane Madre” or “mother bread,” you’ll find three boards, the first fittingly being named for Rome. The Roma Board (soppressata salami, seared artichoke, Pecorino Romano, marinated olives, Colonnnata butter and lightly toasted bread) is excellent. Unlike similar boards in other Duke City restaurants who procure their meats, cheeses and breads from restaurant supply companies such as Cisco and Shamrock, everything on a M’tucci’s board (save the olives) is created in-house. M’tucci’s Provisions is responsible for the production of all the M’tucci’s restaurant family’s cured meats, fresh Italian cheeses, artisan breads and custom pastries. Many of these products are or soon will be available at other retail stores in the Albuquerque area. You can’t go wrong with any Charcuterie Board at any M’tucci’s restaurant.
In honor of Rick Montoya, the intrepid protagonist in il sottoscritto (humble author) David P. Wagner’s novels, I was determined to order one of Rick’s two favorite dishes–spaghetti alla gricia (his other favorite is New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile cheeseburger which is not on the Bar Roma menu). Alas, Bar Roma’s menu had other inducements. Duck gnocchi (confit duck thigh, braised greens, sauteed onions; pan-seared, hand-made potato gnocchi, fresh herbs, carrot and duck veloute, lemon-cracked pepper) proved irresistible. A simple, lightly applied veloute (one of the five mother sauces of classical French cuisine) imparted moistness, but did not drench or overwhelm the dish. Confit (meat slow-cooked in its fat) duck provides silky and tender meat (though slightly chewy and fatty) with rich, delicious flavors. As terrific as the gnocchi and confit duck were, the braised greens were ever so slightly over-salted. Still, this was a very well executed and delicious dish.
Pope Gregory the Great probably would consider ordering the choices my Kim’s and I made to be a mortal sin in that ducks are probably Catholic because they promise monogamy. Yep, we both had duck dishes. My Kim had the seared duck breast (herb polenta, seared duck breast, red wine blueberry reduction, braised greens, caramelized onions). The duck breast, sliced into thin medallions, was wonderful, especially with a smear of the red wine blueberry reduction (which should be bottled and sold). Each morsel of the duck breast was perfectly prepared at medium-rare (as recommended by the chef) which meant lots of moistness and flavor. Sadly, however, the braised greens and even moreso the polenta were over-salted. My Kim brought this to the attention of Brandy who offered to replace them. Instead, my Kim asked for “two or three” seared artichokes. Brandy ferried over five.
Bar Roma offers a seven-item dessert menu featuring some signature desserts as well as others with which we weren’t familiar. Also available are rotating gelato and rotating sorbetto. Brandy recommended the pear ricotta torte (vanilla ricotta mousse, sauteed pears, hazelnut daquoise) which might have been a bit too sweet for me had it not been for the hazelnut layer atop the daquoise (a French term referring to a type of cake with a meringue base). With that savory contrast, this is a wonderful dessert. My Kim enjoyed her favorite M’tucci’s dessert, salted caramel gelato.
Pope Gregory the Great might consider M’tucci’s Bar Roma a hellish restaurant, but most of us would call it a little piece of heaven in Albuquerque.
M’tucci’s Bar Roma
3222 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 20 November 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Duck Gnocchi, Seared Duck Breast, Roma Board, Pear Ricotta Torte