Bar Roma another jewel in M'tucci's crown - Albuquerque Journal

Bar Roma another jewel in M’tucci’s crown

Pork Bolognese with gluten-free penne pasta at M’tucci’s Bar Roma. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

With all the talk about staffing shortages at restaurants these days, the scene at M’tucci’s Bar Roma on a recent Saturday night was a surprise.

A small army of servers gathered in a space just off the entrance for a pre-dinner meeting and pep talk. Moments later, they were released into the dining room, where they almost outnumbered the patrons. Everyone appeared happy to be there, including our server, who told us how much he preferred the job to his previous gig pouring concrete.

The ample staffing and the menu, a comprehensive selection of Italian favorites, reflects the bold ambition of M’tucci’s, the breakout star of our city’s dining scene. From one restaurant at Coors and Montaño on the West Side, M’tucci’s has expanded to Rio Rancho, the I-25 corridor and, now, Nob Hill – all in less than 10 years.

The Nob Hill outpost opened in early May at the former location of Kelly’s Brew Pub on the south side of Central.

Artichoke Bisque topped with fried artichoke leaves, an appetizer at M’tucci’s Bar Roma. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The historic structure, built for Jones Motor Co. in 1939 as a gas station, repair shop and auto showroom, remains much the same on the outside. The exquisite stepped tower, rounded edges and long, horizontal lines are all characteristics of Streamline Moderne, the architectural style popular in America between the world wars. Rain that night had shut down the expansive patio in front, where gas pumps still stand in homage to the building’s origins.

Inside, the former pub has been classed up with chandeliers, a tile-faced bar and arched mirrors on the walls.

The menu will look familiar to anyone who’s been to the other M’tucci’s locations, but the frequently updated roster of food and drink specials keep things interesting.

A cocktail special of White Negroni ($12), for instance, swapped out the Campari that gives the traditional Negroni its red color for a colorless bitter bianco. A hint of sweetness from the clear vermouth took the edge off the bitterness. Served in a glass with a giant ice cube, it was bracing and spicy, an exemplary palate cleanser.

A Trio Salumi Bruschetta Special ($8) offered up three of M’tucci’s house-cured meats atop grilled slices of its naturally leavened bread. The dish presented prosciutto prepared two ways: dry-aged, thin-sliced cotto that’s mild in flavor, and slow-cooked crudo that’s richer and sweeter. The addition of seared mortadella adds to the salty, fatty goodness. The meats were topped with arugula and thin slices of Parmesan and drizzled with olive oil that seeped down into the terrific bread.

Outside of the specials, the Bar Roma menu has a few differences from the other M’tucci’s. Where the West Side M’tucci’s offers a Potato Leek Bisque, Bar Roma serves up an Artichoke version ($7) with fried artichoke leaves on top that have the texture of shiitake mushrooms. An undertone of brine cuts the creamy earthiness of the bisque.

Bar Roma’s menu offers not only breadth but depth. Someone looking for a snack and a drink at the bar can choose from Italian tapas called Cicchetti that range from $6 to $9 or a variety of Antipasti from $8 to $13. There are plenty of shareable dishes like flatbreads, pizza and charcuterie boards, and almost everything is under $20. It’s the ideal neighborhood spot. You could wander in once a week for a year and never have the same thing.

Twinkie d’Italia, one of the desserts at Bar Roma. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

House-made pastas star in a range of dishes like Spaghettini and Meatballs ($17). The pasta, about the size of ramen noodles, had that wonderful chewiness that dried pasta cannot duplicate. It sponged up the bright tomato flavor of the marinara. The finely textured meatballs, made with beef, veal and pork, were tender and succulent. The full-sized portion costs $17, but the server steered me to the half-size option ($8), which included two meatballs and was more than enough for one person.

There is a wealth of vegetarian and gluten-free items on the menu. We tried the Pork Bolognese Pasta ($18) with gluten-free penne in place of the rigatoni. The pasta was perfectly cooked and the Bolognese, made with slow-roasted pork in a red wine and tomato cream sauce, was hearty and flavorful. There was enough left over for lunch the next day.

Like the entrees, the desserts are reasonably priced, with nine options sitting between $5 and $7. Friends at a nearby table praised the Lemon Ricotta Cookies ($5) and the Salted Caramel Affogato ($6), espresso poured over a scoop of gelato at the table. We had the Twinkie d’Italia ($7), more like a sticky bun than a Twinkie with a dense cream filling, and the Pear Ricotta Torte ($7), one of the gluten-free selections, an airy cylinder laced with diced pears. Both were solid.

Service throughout the meal was attentive without being overbearing.

M’tucci’s Bar Roma appears to be living up to its ambitions. It’s another jewel in M’tucci’s crown.

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