The coronavirus pandemic’s impact is starkly evident along Albuquerque’s restaurant row on Interstate 25. Even during the weekday rush hour, the lineup of eateries looks out over empty parking lots. A few small clusters of people loiter uncertainly outside the entrances, presumably waiting for takeout orders.
Dispiriting scenes aside, I was excited to be at M’tucci’s Twenty-Five, the newest arrival to the I-25 corridor, recently for a takeout order. Memories of a superb lunch last year at the since-closed M’tucci’s Italian Café and Market at Coors and Montaño informed me. Its Artisan Pizza, topped with pancetta, capocollo and prosciutto, was particularly outstanding.
M’tucci’s homespun approach – it makes its own pasta and bread and cures its own meat – has helped it grow from a single restaurant in 2013 to today’s roster of three locations. It also has an outlet at Lava Rock Brewing Co. on the West Side.
M’tucci’s Twenty-Five, the company’s first venture east of the river, opened in February, when coronavirus still seemed like a distant threat. What a difference a few weeks makes.
The restaurant occupies the old home of the Chama River Brewing Co. The new owners have dressed the space in warm Tuscan colors of sunflower yellow and cayenne red. Peering into the darkened space, I could see tables and chairs stacked against the walls and an expansive three-sided bar sitting idle in the middle of the dining room. Loaves of bread were piled on a cart by the entrance, part of the free meals M’tucci’s owners have been giving to furloughed workers. Set against this backdrop, the song playing from speakers above the entrance – “You Only Get What You Give,” a keep-plugging-along anthem from the New Radicals – seemed fitting.
M’tucci’s Twenty-Five is offering a pared-down menu for takeout. Among the six appetizers is a spicy feta dip ($7) served with grilled flatbread and a small cup of marinated cucumbers. The dip, flecked with pepperoncini and fire-roasted peppers, is as thick as spackling compound. A quick trip in the microwave helped loosen it up. Its assertive flavor – sharp and tangy, with modest heat – makes it a terrific accompaniment to bread or crackers.
An appetizer of three prosciutto wraps ($5) serves as a showcase for thin, buttery slices of dry-cured ham. The prosciutto is wrapped around shaved parmesan and baby greens tossed in lemon citronette, a citrus vinaigrette, for a nice contrast of textures and flavors.
There are three pizzas on the takeout menu; alas, none of the aforementioned artisan variety. The margherita pizza ($13) is a hefty, rectangle-shaped pie with splotches of mozzarella and leaves of fresh basil. The blistered crust, crisp on the bottom and soft in the middle, was the star, aided and abetted by the strong tomato flavor in the marinara. It’s a reasonable value, a few bucks more than you’d pay at Il Vicino or Scarpas, but a shade cheaper than a similar offering at Farina.
Pasta shows up in various forms, including spaghetti, tortellini and campanelle, a cone-shaped variety with a ruffled edge. Five pork Bolognese ($17) is described as slow-braised pork ragù, but the dish I got consisted mostly of cut-up, fatty pieces of sausage entangled in a nest of broad, flat pappardelle noodles. The pasta was exceptional, the marinara flavorful. A good ragù would have put it over the top.
The four desserts on the menu include a Twinkie d’Italia ($7) inspired by the iconic Hostess treat. M’tucci’s version pairs an airy vanilla spongecake with a dense, mildly sweet white chocolate mousse filling. It’s a worthy finish to the meal, not too heavy and with some candied pecans on board for crunch.
With Twenty-Five, M’tucci’s has established a beachhead on the hypercompetitive I-25 corridor. Based on the company’s history, there’s every reason to believe it will succeed. For now, takeout will have to suffice. That M’tucci’s is donating carryout tips to furloughed workers provides an added incentive to try the new restaurant.