Under new ownership.
For devotees of a particular restaurant, those three words are enough to stir apprehension, carrying with them the specter of undesired changes to the menus and a decline in service.
Fans of Joe’s Pasta House, one of Rio Rancho’s oldest and most beloved restaurants, likely felt some of that unease last fall, when longtime owners Joe and Kassie Guzzardi sold the restaurant to local businessman Nadeem Shariff and his family.
Over the course of 23 years, the Guzzardis had built Joe’s into Rio Rancho’s most beloved restaurant. A spiritual cousin to the pasta-and-red-sauce places of Joe Guzzardi’s native New York, the restaurant offered Italian immigrant food with recipes derived from Joe’s Sicilian grandmother. It was a place where the owners wanted you to feel, as they stated on the website, “like you are joining us for the traditional Italian Sunday dinner in our home.”
No wonder, then, that Shariff and his family were quick to announce that little at Joe’s would change under their control. In a letter posted on the restaurant’s Instagram page, the Shariff family promised to maintain the “authenticity, quality and traditions of Joe’s Pasta House.” That included retaining staff and leaving the menu largely untouched.
Four months into their tenure, it looks like the Shariffs are adhering to that promise. Both the menu and décor at Joe’s looked largely the same and familiar faces staffed the place during a recent lunch visit.
Joe’s Pasta House occupies a freestanding building at the edge of Country Club Center, a strip mall on Southern dominated by the cavernous Elevate Trampoline Park. Inside is warm and cozy. A trompe l’oeil painting of an Italian coastal scene decorates one wall. The fire burning in the corner fireplace was appreciated on the cold, windy day.
The lunch menu is simple, with a few appetizers and salads and a handful of pasta dishes priced at $12 to $13 – a few dollars more for shrimp dishes. There’s a separate dinner menu with steaks, salmon, pork chops and a greater selection of pasta dishes. As with lunch, prices for dinner are quite reasonable, with most entrees checking in at below $25.
I was there for lunch with my friend from north New Jersey whose knowledge of Italian food is unimpeachable. The meal started off with some good Italian bread, its soft sponginess perfect for sopping up tomato sauce. It was served with butter and seasoned olive oil. Missing was the tomato topping they used to put out with the bread.
The five appetizers on the lunch menu start at $6.95 for the Tortellini & Meatball Soup and run up to $11.95 for the Fried Calamari. The calamari, presented in corkscrews rather than rings, was a little rubbery, but the crisp, peppery breading and dip duo of tomato sauce and herby, garlicky pesto cream sauce redeemed the dish.
There are four salads on the menu costing $9 to $10. The fixings in the Garden Salad ($9) – mixed greens, cucumber slices and a few grape tomatoes – were bright and fresh, although the shredded carrots described on the menu were missing. It came with a very tart and thick ranch dressing.
Spaghetti and Meatballs are the true bellwether of an Italian restaurant, and Joe’s version ($12) looked appetizing, a tangle of thick noodles under vivid red tomato sauce dusted with pecorino Romano. The sauce, stripped to its tomato essence, was good, but the pasta was a little past al dente and the meatballs, a fine-grained mix of beef and pork had both the size, and, unfortunately, the density of golf balls.
The Parmigiana dishes come in a choice of chicken ($13) or eggplant ($12). The eggplant version arrived under a mound of sauce and melted mozzarella. The eggplant was tough and the crispy coating didn’t stick to it. It was served with a side of spaghetti and tomato sauce.
The best dish we had was the Manicotti Bolognese ($13), pasta tubes stuffed with ricotta and herbs under a layer of meaty sauce. The sweet and creamy ricotta filling balanced the acid of the Bolognese, and the slow-cooking of the sauce left the beef very tender.
For dessert, we grabbed a couple of cannolis ($6.50) to go. These were very good. Lots of chocolate chips studded the sweet ricotta filling and the fried pastry casing stayed crisp even after a couple of hours in the fridge.
While the food was a mixed bag, the service was stellar. The server, a veteran of the place, was friendly and attentive, checking in on us often and keeping our waters filled.
Gluten-free options are restricted to some of the proteins on the dinner menu and unbreaded versions of the chicken and eggplant parmigiana. If the new owner wants to make a change, he might start by ordering a few boxes of gluten-free pasta.
The departure of Joe and Kassie Guzzardi has left some have some big shoes to fill. My experience suggests that the tradition of great service continues at Joe’s, even if the food isn’t on the level of M’tucci’s Moderno, the other prominent Italian restaurant in Rio Rancho.