Contrary to popular belief, Scalo was not already a Nob Hill fixture in 1706 when Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdés, governor and captain general of New Mexico, named a new settlement for the Duke of Alburquerque, then viceroy of New Spain. Scalo didn’t actually open until December, 1986, but during its lengthy tenure it has such a degree of permanence in our memories and taste buds that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t one of the fabled paradors (an establishment where travelers could seek lodging, and usually, food and drink) along the Camino Real. It would make sense because the word “Scalo” itself translates from Italian to “stopover.”
Then there’s Scalo’s revered spot on the now defunct Albuquerque Monthly. On its tenth anniversary, the magazine created a “Best Of” Hall of Fame, listing the ten establishments–restaurants, bars, card stores, clothing stores, computer stores, galleries and more–which had received more “best of” votes during the decade of the 90s than anyone else. The first establishment listed was Scalo Northern Italian Grill, which was also perennial selection on the magazine’s annual listing of the city’s top ten fine-dining restaurants (other mainstays still serving the city include the Artichoke Cafe, Prairie Star and the Rancher’s Club).
As hard as it is to believe Scalo hasn’t always been there, it may be harder to fathom that Scalo was once closed for more than a year. We frequently drove past one of the elder statesmen among Albuquerque’s Italian restaurants and wistfully longed for its incomparable Italian fare. Scalo belongs on the Duke City landscape. Fortunately new owners Kristie and Prashant Sawant thought so as well and reopened the restaurant in June, 2021. Before opening, they oversaw an extensive facelift that included the back kitchen, walls, flooring, electrical and plumbing. Once again, Scalo looks like the crown jewel it has long been.
Facing Central Avenue just west of Carlisle, Scalo’s facelift didn’t appear to have done much to its Route 66 frontage. It only seems that way because the expansive indoor-outdoor patio is somewhat recessed from the street. The east-facing patio is bright and airy and should be the preferred venue for dining weather-permitting. More traditional al fresco dining is available on a patio which butts up against the indoor-outdoor space. In either case, the views are of Route 66 where motorists still drive slowly. Alas, you can hear some of those motorists loud and clear courtesy of high volume sound systems and mufflers that reverberate like the front lines of a war zone.
Aesthetics and location alone don’t make a restaurant great. In fact, a more essential component of a dining experience is the kitchen staff. In 2022, Chef David Ruiz was brought in as executive chef at Scalo. Chef Ruiz’s culinary foundation is anchored in the farm-to-table movement and he doesn’t just pay lip service to that. It’s reflected in his menu and the freshness of the ingredients used at Scalo. A graduate of the California Culinary Academy, he is one of Albuquerque’s most accomplished chefs. Despite earning accolades galore, the wait staff with whom we spoke described Chef Ruiz as “unbelievably humble.” That’s a rarity in a profession of huge egos. Chef Ruiz has been featured on the Food Network’s Chopped in 2016 and Guy Fieri’s Family Road Trip in 2017. He was also the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project in 2018.
You won’t find a more honest assessment of any restaurant than from extraordinary photographer Bruce Terzes. If you’re familiar with Bruce’s photography, you know he’s a man of high standards. Here’s what he told me after his first visit to Scalo in October, 2022: “From our experience last night, it seems he has had a positive effect. Several of the staff commented that he has raised the bar a bit since his arrival, and the restaurant is doing well. We could see evidence of his visual artistry in a few of the dishes and were not surprised by how good the food was in so many subtle ways.” Like his photography, his words aren’t over-the-top in their effusiveness, but always honest.
We waited until New Mexico’s fickle weather to be perfect for our inaugural visit to Scalo reborn. We shouldn’t have waited. Scalo’s menu isn’t necessarily organized in the traditional Italian meal structure cultivated over centuries of eating, but it’s close. The menu begins with “antipasti e insnalate,” a starter and a salad. Next on the menu is “Pizze,” a three-item pizza menu. “Primi,” the first course to contain hot food, follows. There are three items on this section of the menu. Next comes the “Secondi” with meat and seafood options. Three items comprise the “Scalo Signatures” section of the menu. This section includes spaghetti and meatballs. “Contorni,” dishes served alongside secondi dishes, but definitely not on the same plate so as to allow for the preservation of the integrity of flavors. A “dolce” or dessert menu is also available. Of course you don’t have to order from each section of the menu, but the Italian meal structure has been shown to increase satisfaction with the meal experience (as well as the waistline).
Alas, we didn’t avail ourselves of the magnificent menu as our initial visit was for Sunday brunch. Yeah, I know brunch menus tend to be abbreviated versions of the daily menu, but they often include options you won’t otherwise find at the restaurant. There are ten items on the brunch menu, an almost equal share of breakfast and of lunch items. We should have waited until seeing menu items ferried over to other tables before we ordered. The brioche French toast (strawberries, toasted pecans, maple syrup), in particular, looked fabulous. Brunch cocktails are also available for those of you who imbibe adult beverages.
Bruschetta (grilled local sourdough, cucumber, tomato, balsamic, radish) was our first course. We were of course curious to see how it measured up to the gold standard in bruschetta as served at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. Our verdict (drum roll, please) was Scalo’s bruschetta is another winner, wholly different but just as good as Joe’s version. Yeah, that’s sacrilege, but we were impressed–particularly after our server told us the balsamic is made in-house. That balsamic had the taste and texture of a barrel aged balsamic. It enhanced the freshness of the cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes. We appreciate that it was applied lightly; it didn’t drench the other ingredients and render them soggy.
For me the most intriguing item on the menu was gnocchi (potato pillows, wild mushrooms, braised greens, golden raisins and pine nuts). Just look at the ingredient list. It’s the antithesis of most gnocchi served at many Italian restaurants in that the gnocchi is served without a sauce. Sometimes less IS more. Without a sauce overwhelming the gnocchi, we were able to enjoy the potato pillows (which, frankly, were similar in flavor though definitely not texture to the papitas on my Kim’s plate) and other ingredients. Golden raisins and pine nuts provided a wonderful contrast both texturally and from a flavor standpoint. The braised greens had very little of the characteristic bitterness some people don’t like.
In 1910, American poet Carl Sandburg described his poem “Chicago” as “a chant of defiance by Chicago… its defiance of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. The poem sort of says “Maybe we ain’t got culture, but we’re eatin’ regular.” And just what was Chicago eating? Sandburg’s poem answered that question by describing Chicago as “hog butcher for the world.” Indeed, Chicago has always been a pork loving town, but it’s also got a soft spot for beef. Some of the very best chophouses in the world are in Chicago. My Chicago born-and-bred bride reminds me how much she loves steak every time we see a menu in which it’s featured. To no surprise, her brunch choice was steak and eggs (marinated flatiron, two fried eggs, truffle potatoes, poblano sauce). As brunch steaks go, this one was quite good. Especially notable was the exterior char and perfectly prepared medium interior. That’s not easy to do. The truffle potatoes, in papitas form, were among the very best we’ve had in a city quite expert in preparing papitas.
Scalo may not be as permanent a fixture in the Duke City as the Rio Grande, but it’s been serving diners for a long time. If you haven’t been to Scalo since new ownership took over, you owe it to yourself to visit one of the city’s oldest new restaurants and its dynamic chef who’s making magic in the kitchen.
3500 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 7 May 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Gnocchi, Steak and Eggs, Bruschetta