As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary condition, I used to think the most prominent delta in quality between restaurants in the Land of Enchantment and those in large metropolitan cities are in the areas of seafood, barbecue and Italian food. It’s easy to understand the dearth in outstanding seafood restaurants. We are, after all, a landlocked state some 800 miles or so from the nearest ocean. While many New Mexican restaurants have fresh seafood flown in frequently, it’s not quite the same as having seafood literally off the boat and onto your plate.
In recent years, the launch of several very good to excellent barbecue joints has done much to narrow the gap in the barbecue arena: Sugar’s BBQ in Embudo, The Ranch House in Santa Fe, Sparky’s in Hatch and Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House in Albuquerque. This terrific quadrumvirate has given us barbecue you can enjoy every day of the week, maybe even more than once a day. We may not ever have transcendent barbecue like Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, but the same can be said about everywhere else in the world.
My argument used to be that New Mexico does have some nice, maybe even very good, Italian restaurants, but there’s a world of difference between a nice or very good Italian restaurant in Albuquerque and say, a very good or excellent Italian restaurant in San Francisco or Boston. A friend of mine from Santa Fe took a defensive stance with my assertion about Italian restaurants in New Mexico, contending that you need not go further than Santa Fe to partake of an excellent Italian experience. He rattled off several Italian restaurants he believes are on par with Italian restaurants anywhere in America.
My ill-fated and misinformed retort was that Santa Fe is where you go for Southwestern cuisine in all its uniquely inventive and diverse deliciousness. It’s not a dining destination for Italian. Fearful that my opinions on Italian food in New Mexico would be influenced by a pessimistic Pygmalion effect (a self-fulfilling prophecy that essentially says you get what you expect), it took far too long before I finally succumbed to Santa Fe’s irresistible, siren-like charms and visited an Italian restaurant.
Ironically that restaurant, Il Piatto, reminded me of being anywhere but Santa Fe. From the outside, Il Piatto’s color palette is stereotypically Santa Fe–an adobe stucco facade trimmed with Taos blue. Step inside, however, and you might experience a sort of temporary astral projection in which you might feel as if you’re dining in a large urban area or maybe even a European cafe. Il Piatto has the feel of a rustic neighborhood trattoria in Italy with an ambiance wholly antithetical to the stereotypical Italian restaurant and its thematic red, white and green template. It manages somehow to be both understated and elegant, upscale yet modest.
The front room has limited seating, but because all patrons enter and exit through that room, it’s not a preferred seating location. The main dining room is more spacious. Surprisingly even though the restaurant is very small and tables are in tight proximity to one another, Il Piatto doesn’t have the sardine-can crowded feeling other small Santa Fe restaurants can’t escape, though in the when crowded, it’s more than a bit noisy. In 2010, the restaurant added another dining room with high-rise tables fashioned from wine barrels and began offering an “enoteca” service in which Italian style tapas (small plates) such as cheeses, antipastos, soups and sausage are served between 2 and 5PM.
The walls on the main dining room are decorated with a few contemporary art pieces, but also with menus from some of the most exquisite and exclusive restaurants in the planet–France’s Joel Rubuchon and Napa Valley’s French Laundry to name but two. It’s how I’d decorate my “man cave” given carte blanche to do so (reminiscent of the David Frizzell ditty “I‘m Going To Hire A Wino to Decorate Our Home”). All tables are adorned with fastidiously starched white tablecloths. On each table you’ll find a decanter of olive oil with herbs and peppers.
Il Piatto is the brainchild of chef/owner Matt Yohalem who plied his talents at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the United States (Le Cirque, Commanders Palace, Union Square Cafe, Coyote Cafe) as well as serving stints in Paris and the south of France. The front of the house is in the capable hands of Honey Howard, erstwhile owner of LeMoyne’s Landing and the chef’s dutiful spouse. Honey keeps things moving and prevents the chaos which can ensue in busy restaurants. We would rather she relaunch her fabulous Cajun-Creole restaurant, but she indicating that isn’t currently in the plans.
In 2011, the restaurant underwent a name change–from Il Piatto Cucina Italiana to Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen–which more accurately reflects Yohalem’s culinary philosophy, synopsized in the expression “what grows together, goes together.” He is one of Santa Fe’s most staunch advocates among restaurateurs of using local and sustainable ingredients and has forged very close relationships with farmers and local producers. The food prepared at Il Vicino is delivered directly from the farm in the back of a pickup truck, ensuring the peak of flavor and freshness.
By any name, this is a fabulous Italian restaurant with a sumptuous menu of traditional and contemporary Italian dishes crafted with fresh and innovative ingredients. The menu changes seasonally (as much as six times per year) to take advantage of seasonal harvests from New Mexico’s fecund farms with several standards offered in perpetuity. Il Piatto has long been a mainstay on the Santa Fe Reporter’s annual listing of top Santa Fe dining destinations, and has garnered accolades from such national publications as Esquire magazine, Travel & Leisure, Bon Appetit and the New York Times. On a personal professional level, Yohalem was a James Beard Foundation “Best Chef Southwest” nominee. The accolades are very well deserved.
In 2007, Il Piatto added another reason to visit–a prix fixe menu for lunch that includes an appetizer, entree and dessert for well south $20 a person. The Prix Fixe menu is also offered for dinner seven days a week where you can have three courses for just over $30. Prix Fixe at dinner is defined as one full entree or full pasta as main course or any combination of appetizer, salad, appetizer pasta or dessert for the remainder courses. The fixed price menu is just one of the many reasons you’ll rarely see empty tables at Il Piatto. Reservations are recommended, but if you can’t get there during peak times, there’s always late night dining which is available seven days a week from 9 to 10:30PM. Because of the menu’s seasonality and the chef’s creativity, the dishes described below may or may not be available when you visit.
One of several outstanding appetizer options on the menu is Il Piatto’s endive and radicchio salad with roasted beets, goat cheese and walnut pesto. There is a lot going on in this salad and your taste buds will relish each adventure in taste appreciation. The peppery and slightly acerbic radicchio complements the tangy and earthy goat cheese which has the creaminess of butter. Beets are an acquired taste, and if you do acquire it, you’ll appreciate how roasted beets can taste both sweet and salty and the same time. Both endive and radicchio are members of the chicory family and their texture is slightly more firm and crisp than lettuce used on most salads. Together with the walnut pesto, they give this salad an interesting texture.
On the opposite spectrum, texturally, is a pumpkin pistachio soup which will warm the cockles of your heart. In recent years I’ve become a convert to the surprisingly earthy and mellow taste of pumpkin sans pumpkin pie spice. This is an excellent soup wholly unlike the dessert sweet pie. It is rich, creamy and heart-warming, the type of soup which is especially wonderful in winter, but which is great any time of year. It is punctuated with pepper and creme Fraiche.
The Antipasti del Giorno (appetizer of the day) is a veritable treasure trove of Italian deliciousness. On any given day, a plate may be brimming with prosciutto (which, contrary to popular opinion does not taste like thin, unfried bacon), Italian olives, a head of garlic, pickled peppers and more. This is where you will come to appreciate New Mexico’s farm-fresh and in-season vegetables, some of which may well have been in the ground the day prior to being on your plate..
Still another fabulous starter, albeit available as a special of the day only, are prosciutto wrapped peaches with basil pesto, goat cheese and a gorgonzola dolce latte sauce. The contrast between the rich, creamy goat cheese; the well-seasoned, salt-cured, thin-cut prosciutto and the tangy, tart peaches is especially interesting. It’s a combination you might not expect to work so well. It’s a combination that will stimulate your taste buds with all its contrasting and complementary flavors.
Il Piatto’s rendition of Chicken Liver Mousse Terrine may resemble the pates we love so much in Chicago, but that resemblance ends with texture. The terrine has a somewhat coarser texture than pate. Both are minced and highly seasoned, but Chicago-based pate tends to be more powerfully seasoned, especially with garlic. The chicken liver mousse terrine at Il Piatto is delicate with a mild, almost sweet flavor so unlike the “cat food” taste detractors associate with chicken liver. The terrine is served with garlic crostini, mustard and capers. It’s an easy terrine to spread. The mustard and capers are good counterpoints to the mild sweetness of the terrine.
The Gorgonzola and walnut ravioli with sun-dried tomato pesto is a beautiful, albeit relatively small, entree. A creamy Gorgonzola sauce and Gorgonzola shavings give it a sharp bite while the sweet pesto imbues it with contrasting qualities that meld so well. Maxime and Daniela Bouneau of Torinos @ Home call Gorgonzola the blue cheese for blue cheese haters. It’s a pleasantly pungent, creamy cheese which complements pastas and sauces very well. The Big Chief tablet sized raviolis are perfectly al dente.
If you’re of the mind that grilled chicken has to take like the aleutaceous rotisserie chicken you might find at a grocery store, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise should you order the lemon and rosemary grilled chicken at Il Piatto. Served “stacked” with roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables, it raises the bar for grilled chicken. The vegetables–red onion, garlic cloves and green and red peppers–are grilled to perfection allowing them to retain a pleasant moistness. The roasted potatoes are similarly prepared, rendering them tender on the inside. As for the chicken, it is juicy and tender with a nice blending of tanginess from the lemon and distinctively astringent, wonderfully aromatic qualities of the rosemary. There’s virtually no skin to get in the way, just plump, moist poultry.
If you’re in pursuit of porcine perfection, you’ll find it in Il Piatto’s stuffed pork chop with talleggio (a washed rind Italian cheese), pine nuts, prosciutto, potato gratin and a rosemary wine jus. The bone-in pork chops are cut on the premises and are about an inch thick, topping the scales at about eight to ten ounces. It’s as well-seasoned, moist and tender a pork chop as you’ll find in New Mexico and the stuffing is fantastic, an amalgam of complementary ingredients in perfect proportion to one another to maximize their flavor. The potato gratin is rich and delicious, not overwhelmed by gooey cheese as tends to be the case at inferior restaurants.
Adventurous diners might opt instead for squid ink spaghetti with calamari, lemon zest, tomatoes and white wine. Contrary to what you might think, it’s actually squid ink–what squid emit as a defense mechanism, spraying dark clouds of it into the water to confuse their predators. It’s also not merely a coloring agent. Squid ink has its own distinctive flavor profile, too, one that complements seafood (especially squid) very well. Squid ink pasta has a briny flavor with iodine notes you’ll definitely notice. Il Piatto’s squid ink spaghetti is al dente and beautifully black. It’s served with ringlets of calamari and chopped tomatoes in a buttery sauce punctuated with lemon zest. If you’ve never had squid ink pasta, there’s probably no better restaurant in which to have it than Il Piatto.
Another entree children of all ages have turned their noses up at is chicken livers. Perhaps that’s because they haven’t had truly great chicken livers. Il Piatto’s sauteed chicken livers are served “Agre Dolce” (an Italian term for bitter-sweet) with pine nuts, raisins, caramelized onions, vinegar and mashed potatoes. Chicken livers are rich in several nutrients which might account for the “mineral” flavor some find off-putting. Worse, they can easily be tough and rubbery if the stringy fibers in the chicken livers aren’t adequately broken down by buttermilk or ingredients with acidity. Hence the agre dolce components. Il Piatto’s chicken livers are perfectly prepared with a crispy outer crust and a moist inner organ meat redolent with agre dolce components which don’t detract from the native flavors of the chicken livers. This is an entree for anyone who has never had or may think they don’t like chicken livers.
From the specials of the day menu comes yet another entree which I would wish to be on the daily menu. It’s Penne Bolognese Cassoesula with mozzarella, veal and pork. Served in a casserole bowl, it is a rich (but not overwhelmingly so) entree with a perfectly prepared pasta complemented by some of the best Bolognese sauce I’ve ever had. That’s despite the fact that the sauce is almost entirely baked into the pasta and its complementary ingredients. Its flavor is distinctive and delicious.
Desserts are terrific, too. On the plate, the sweet marsala zabaglione just sort of lies there like a lump of mashed potatoes drizzled with a gravy, but on your tongue, it will set off explosions of flavor. I’ve seen marsala zabaglione described as “one of Italy’s great gifts to the rest of the world” and wholly agree. This is one phenomenal dessert! This sweet Italian egg, sugar and Marsala wine custard is punctuated with an attention-grabbing Balsamic reduction that gives it a sneaky tanginess which melds harmoniously with streaks of dark chocolate sauce and the sinfully rich custard. In my first two visits to Il Piatto, the zabaglione has been served with thinly sliced strawberries and even more thinly sliced apples which give the dessert yet another flavor dimension. This may be the single best dessert I’ve had at any Italian restaurant.
Another nice dessert option is the chocolate and pistachio cannoli, served two to a plate. Each crunchy chocolate-covered cannoli filler is engorged with ricotta cheese and topped with green bits of savory pistachios. On any other dessert menu, this might have been the star but the marsala zabaglione usurped all the dessert glory. It is that good! The zagaglione is also better than Il Piatto’s bread pudding which, though dense, has a very moist texture almost like French toast that have been thoroughly egg-washed.
Il Piatto is that good, too–an Italian restaurant on par with some of the very best Italian restaurants in which I’ve dined across the country. It is, in fact, better than the rest because it’s less than an hour away. It’s the reason I’m kicking myself black and blue for not having listened to my persistent friend’s sagacious advice about Italian restaurants in Santa Fe.
Il Piatto Cucina Italiano
96 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 November 2012
1st VISIT: 19 December 2007
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pumpkin Pistachio Soup, Endive & Radicchio Salad, Gorgonzola Walnut Ravioli, Lemon & Rosemary Grilled Chicken, Chocolate & Pistachio Cannoli, Sweet Marzala Zabaglione, Prosciutto Wrapped Peaches, Penne Bolognese Cassoesula, Parmigiano Potato Gnocchi, Stuffed Pork Chop, Squid Ink Spaghetti, Sauteed Chicken Livers Agre Dolce, Chicken Liver Mousse Terrine