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Il Vicino has tasty options at family-friendly prices

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Il Vicino restaurant serves wood-fired oven pizzas, among a host of other selections. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Il Vicino restaurant serves wood-fired oven pizzas, among a host of other selections. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Il Vicino is a tasty New Mexican success story. Business partners Greg Atkin, Rick Post and Tom White opened the flagship in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill in 1992. It was one of the first to promote pizza baked in a traditional wood-fired oven. The restaurant expanded to Santa Fe and beyond and now has 10 locations. The menu grew to include sandwiches, salads and pastas.

Santa Fe can be a tough town on restaurants. For a place to survive it has to do several things right. The brains behind Il Vicino understood this. They found a prime spot downtown near the popular and busy Hilton and Eldorado hotels. Their menu is simple, non-fussy and affordable. You can almost hear the visitors, especially those with kids, breathe a sigh of relief when they see it. Pizza for around $10! Beer! Even house-made root beer for the kiddos.

We locals like this place too. I’m partial to it because the pizza has a nice thin crust and the salads are great. In my days as a soccer-baseball-basketball mom, Il Vicino’s carry-out saved my sanity more than once.

I hadn’t been here for a while, so friends and I stopped in for dinner. Although we noticed a few glitches, we left happy.

The restaurant has an order-at-the-counter system, so customers study the menu and make selections while standing in the entry. We weren’t sure what we wanted, so we asked if we could sit at an empty table to make up our minds. It took a bit of discussion but, since there were several open spots, the manager reluctantly agreed.

We sent a delegate to order and drinks came quickly, followed by squeaky-fresh salads. The house salad ($3.95) – greens and tomatoes with a mild vinaigrette – is a pleasant and healthful accompaniment to the main courses. The spinach salad is more creative with roasted red peppers, pine nuts and red onion topped with gorgonzola crumbles. At $6.75 for a small, it seemed pricey. We liked the minestrone ($3.95), which included plenty of vegetables, spiral pasta in several colors and a tomato broth. I’m partial to beans and a beef base, but this was very good, light and fresh tasting.

The main courses arrived before we’d finished the salads. We loved the calzone ($10.25), partly because it made a stunning first impression: practically as big as a football and golden brown. It smelled so good it would make even someone who wasn’t hungry start to salivate. Inside were some of my favorite things: melted mozzarella, thinly sliced capocollo (a type of cured meat), feta cheese, roasted garlic, a touch of fresh basil, roasted red peppers and just the right amount of mild marinara sauce.

The lasagna was satisfying but not spectacular. We ordered the vegetarian ($9.25) with bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, spinach, cheese and tomato sauce, finished with a bit of pesto. I found it lacking the depth of flavor that makes this baked pasta sing. The Bolognese version with ground beef and sausage might have more pizzazz.

We tried two pizzas. The Da Vinci ($9.95) sounded yummy with ham, tomatoes, artichoke hearts and portobello mushrooms. But it needed a heavier hand with the toppings and especially with the sauce. The Molto Carne’s combination of tart kalamata olives, mushrooms, slightly chewy rounds of pepperoni, a bit of sausage, ham, fresh oregano and mozzarella worked very well together ($10.50) and made a well-covered pizza. The pizzas are enough for two and Il Vicino offers plenty of additional toppings, including goat cheese, shrimp, green chile, eggplant and/or roasted chicken.

Dessert options include cannoli, the classic Italian pastry tube stuffed with sweetened ricotta cheese and chocolate chips, as well as tiramisu, cheese cake and a root beer float. We tried Torta Di Seta ($3.95), a house-made flourless chocolate cake. I was surprised at how good it was, better than I would have expected for a casual in-and-out place. The cake had a great dark chocolate topping finished with walnuts, and a buttery crumb based with more crushed nuts. It found the right balance between sweet and rich. Yum.

In addition to its Santa Fe location, Il Vicino operates three restaurants in Albuquerque.

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