The southside of Santa Fe is booming with new growth and construction which provides countless reasons to venture south of Siler or head north from Albuquerque to taste what’s new in The City Different. Having reviewed many restaurants over the last year, I have not yet featured a southside dining establishment. After a friend took me to Rustica for my birthday – which exceeded my expectations, I returned on another night to make sure this was the real deal. And it is.
Located off Cerrillos Road across the street from the highly successful sister restaurant, The Ranch House, owners Josh Baum and Ann Gordon are building a culinary empire. Though Rustica opened to mixed reviews one year ago, it was during Covid and anyone brave enough to open a restaurant during a pandemic deserves a break. However, having read countless rave reviews on social media as of late, I was delighted to make my inaugural visit.
The restaurant is a southside marvel. The tile in the lobby will immediately make you smile. Bright and bold, but not too bold, the tile is a statement piece that eludes happiness. With three dining areas to choose from, the inside dining area is large and filled with booths and four-top tables, the bar area offers high top chairs as well as a dining area, while the patio provides a covered space to enjoy good food and good weather.
While the clean, modern and sophisticated interior lends itself to high price points, the thoughtful menu is both approachable and affordable and a full bar invites guests to sip on a special cocktail to start the evening. We were entranced with the Rosemary Gin and Tonic ($7), Aperol Spritz ($7) and the Rustica Margarita ($10). The smell of rosemary when sipping the gin and tonic is clever and adds an herbaceous layer to a simple drink and the Rustica Margarita is made with homemade limoncello which gives this signature cocktail an Italian spin. A wide range of creative and homemade dishes promise something for everyone and the kitchen prides itself on gluten-free options.
Over two visits in one week, my dining companions and I savored the Caesar Salad ($10) and the Kale and Apple Salad ($10). Using pesto as a base for the Caesar dressing, this is a stand-alone salad and one that will linger with you long after you leave Rustica. The basil pesto dressing is so tasty, they could serve it on a flip-flop and we would lick the sandal clean. The use of romaine and baby kale is a healthy nod that was not lost on me and the shaved Parmesan makes you appreciate the kitchen’s attention to detail.
On the lighter side, the Kale and Apple Salad could easily be topped with protein of choice to make a light and healthy dinner. Baby kale is mixed with batons of crunchy and tart green apple, dried cherries, thinly sliced red onion and Gorgonzola crumbles for a combination that will knock your socks off.
For a comfort dish, we ordered Fried Calamari ($10) which features perfectly crispy squid rings and tentacles with fried pepperoncini slices for a nice pickled zing. Served with an aioli and a warm marinara, we were unsure which sauce we liked better.
Because gluten-free is often a challenge, this kitchen makes their own gluten-free pasta and pizza crust, so we ordered both. The Cavatelli Pasta ($18) is a savory and rich pasta dish that includes crumbled and homemade Italian sausage with a creamy rossa sauce, a sauce made with tomatoes and red bell peppers for a sweeter sauce, and a few stalks of broccolini for a punch of color. Though I think this dish would be best when cooler weather strikes, we devoured this serious pasta dish and the homemade gluten-free fettuccine was beyond impressive.
On the other hand, the gluten-free pizza wasn’t the best I have ever had, but it was decent. We veered from normal and ordered the Rustica ($14) with ricotta, fresh mozzarella, Gorgonzola, garlic, pecorino, red onion, prosciutto and Calbrian chile honey. The crust was chewy and the dough seemed to be quite wet before baking, but I admired the attempt.
For the second visit, my dining companions had Shrimp Piccata ($18) and Duck Ravioli ($18), while I ordered the Branzino ($24). Typically, branzino is served in high-end restaurants and can cost more than $40. Served with crispy potatoes and roasted tomatoes and a side of broccolini, this fish dish was delicious but definitely yearns for a light sauce to bring everything together – and the potatoes also could have used a sauce as they were a bit dry.
The sauce on the Shrimp Piccata was the show stopper. Briny capers combine brilliantly with butter, garlic, parsley, white wine and olive oil to make a sensational sauce that clings to the homemade pasta. Small tomato halves are cooked until almost broken down to add even more flavor to this sauce. The dish features six shrimp which were small, but not overcooked.
The kitchen also makes the pasta for the ravioli. Eight large ravioli are stuffed with shredded duck and covered in a stellar Marsala-mushroom wine sauce. Seems the kitchen has a knack for sauces, which makes the lack of a light sauce for the branzino seem like an oversight.
Even though we didn’t have room for dessert, we had to make sure their desserts were up to par. During my first visit, we shared the Warm Chocolate Budino ($8). Think really undercooked chocolate lava cake. The pudding did not do it for me, but I was captivated by the textural combination of warm pudding and cold salted caramel ice cream. On the same note, we were not mesmerized by the Apple Crostada ($8). The crust was overcooked and there were barely any apples in the filling. But the vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce were just what we needed on a hot summer night.
Overall, we found the staff welcoming, caring and proud of the high-quality food and unique dining experience. Savannah took care of us on the patio during our first visit and though we waited for a bit before our server reached us on the second visit, having Divine take care of us made it well worth the wait. Her dimples, smile and genuine happiness lifted our spirits. During courses, Divine placed a new rolled napkin with fresh silverware in front of me as she surreptitiously snagged my cloth napkin from my lap. It was magical the way she did this and it made me feel super special.
The next time you want classic Italian with a contemporary spin at a fair and reasonable price, know that Rustica awaits with a cheery interior, homemade pasta, long simmered sauces, convivial staff and a competent kitchen. This is a powerful combination that deserves a lot more attention.