Sunday, February 21, 2010

So What is "Authentic"?

“This is a great place to go for real Italian food.”

So enthused one of the reviewers of Vivace, an Italian restaurant in the “stylish” Nob Hill area of Albuquerque*. This set off a debate on whether or not Vivace’s food was authentically Italian. Now I am of the opinion that authentic food – be it Italian, Mexican, French, Irish, or Cajun – can best be defined as “what my mother cooks.” Authentic or not, the food at Vivace was delicious.

“Featuring over 30 individual pasta dishes, Vivace chef and owner Joey Minarsich makes every dish from scratch. 'Nothing happens until a guest places an order,’ claims Chef Minarsich. ‘We serve the freshest fish every day, and our veal, beef, chicken and other meats are the best we can buy. Plus we work very hard to feature daily specials that help to feed our culinary curiosity....' Founded in 1996, the little Trattoria has grown to over 100 seats.” (From the restaurant’s web site).

So many choices. Should I have an appetizer? Should it be the Bruschetta Di Pomodoro—grilled house-made, Tuscan-style bread topped with fresh diced tomatoes, chopped basil and Pecorino Romano cheese? Or the fried calamari served with a leek and pepperoncini pepper cream? How about the Melanzani Fritti – lightly battered eggplant fries served with a mint pesto dipping sauce? Or the Insalata Di Panzanella—baby spinach tossed with pancetta, red bell peppers, sliced red onion, mushrooms, cubed bread, and a warm red wine vinaigrette?

My first question to our server was: “Do you have a dessert on the menu that I am not going to be able to resist?” Her reply sent me directly to the pasta menu. Here I found Fettucine con Gamberi (shrimp sautéed in olive oil with garlic, white wine, diced tomato, and mushroom and tossed with fettuccine pasta), Penne con Gorgonzola e Asparagi (penne pasta tossed with melted gorgonzola cheese and asparagus), and Spaghetti alla Carbonara (spaghetti tossed with whole egg, parmesan cheese, pancetta, onion, and garlic).

I chose the Farfalle al Salmone Affumicato (bow tie pasta with smoked salmon, bell peppers, asparagus, and cream), while Chuck selected the Penne all ‘Arrabbiata or penne pasta with a spicy sauce of pancetta, tomato, and fresh basil.

We placed our orders and enjoyed a basket of warm focaccia with an olive oil that tasted lightly of lemon. I’m not sure if the lemon was there – but the taste was. We looked around the stylish dining room and admired the watercolors depicting well known Italian scenes that were hung against a Tuscan red wall opposite the wall of beveled mirrors that reflected the modern and somewhat industrial looking lighting fixtures (see the first photo above).

Seated next to us was a table of five high school English teachers enjoying their President’s Day off. As a tribute to Vivace’s warm hospitality, the server, after presenting the table with one check, said that she would “be happy to write you separate checks.”

Our pasta arrived and both had been cooked flawlessly al dente. Chuck’s somewhat thick sauce contained chunks of tomato, small cubes of pancetta (frequently referred to as Italian bacon, but unsmoked), red pepper flakes, fresh basil, and a copious amount of slightly cooked garlic. If you are not a garlic lover, this might be too much garlic for you. To me it was perfect. While I don’t care for the taste of raw garlic, this had been cooked just long enough to mellow and sweeten the flavor.

My creamy smoked salmon sauce tasted mildly of cheese and contained a most generous amount of salmon. The salmon pieces were larger than flakes but smaller than slices and each bite contained a piece of the smoked fish. The sweet red peppers were still crisp as were the inch-long pieces of asparagus. Pasta dishes with a lightly-cheesy cream sauce are among my favorites, and this certainly lived up to my expectations.

Time for dessert. Our server had told us that, among the usual suspects, they had a Nutella (a hazelnut and chocolate spread popular in Italy) gelato. No two of us sharing one dessert at Vivace. We each ordered a large three-scoop bowl. Gelato contains less air that ice cream, so the resulting product is denser with a more intense flavor. We had no difficulty finishing our individual servings.

Many consider Vivace to be the best Italian restaurant in Albuquerque. Since it is the only Italian restaurant in Albuquerque we have eaten at, we can’t verify that opinion. But we enjoyed our lunch enough to warrant a 4.5 Addie rating.

*Yes, we're back in Albuquerque and Kate has been to see her surgeon for a follow-up visit. She feels fine, has her appetite back, has good oxygen utilization, and is walking just about every day. However, the surgeon and radiologist saw the same spot they saw two months ago on the c-scan. It's smaller, but they are not sure what it is. So, they want us back in Albuquerque in mid-May for another check-up. Plans for post-Albuquerque in May are still in flux.

O.R. Deal, the one-month old kitten we found hanging by one paw caught between two plastic stack chairs has fully recovered and is six months old now. He goes non-stop and will find his own entertainment from burrowing under this small quilt to hiding pencils to playing "Fetch" with a ball of aluminum foil.

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