Like a taste of Little Italy from my youth
Latest visit: December 2, 2012
First visit: November 16, 2012
On its Baltimore pages, Urbanspoon lists 21 Italian Restaurants in Little Italy, all within walking distance of each other. Some are great; some are lousy (and too touristy). This area, just east of the Inner Harbor, is rich in tradition. Families celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, First Holy Communions, and so forth. Awkward and nervous high schoolers have their pre-prom dinners there (I did, way back in the early ’50s). Local politicians held court there. Indeed, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., famous father of the famous Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, was a fixture there, doing business and cutting deals.
These Little Italy places are mostly red-sauce-pasta and veal houses, southern Italy and Sicily in style and cuisine. Albuquerque has its share of red-sauce-pasta houses, too, but because of the widely differing demographics, they are spread out all over the area. The charm and ambiance of Baltimore’s ethnic neighborhoods doesn’t exist here. Nonetheless, I think that all in all, ABQ Italian food trumps that of Little Italy. Mimmo’s is one reason why.
Mimmo’s is a comfortable and welcoming place, and it instantly reminded me of some of the better places back in Little Italy. . It is a family restaurant, and has been open for 28 years. The variety of menu items is just what you would expect for such a place. Walk in the front door, and the sweet pungency of slow-cooked red sauce starts yous salivary glands pumping. We were quickly whisked to a table with sufficient light for me to see (I would not have seen my food had we been seated in the middle row of the main room). Our server for the evening was Daniel, who has been here for 6 years — 5½ as a busser and ½ as a waiter. He learned well, and expertly led us through the many choices.
Wine and Garlic Bread
Daniel suggested that I try a glass of their house red: a Ca Donini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Good choice. It reminded me of the Montepulcianos that Jane and I tried during our 1985 trip to Tuscany during which we visited Montepulciano and fell in love with the beautiful red. I carried six bottles home in my luggage.
The bread (included in the dinner price) was just right: soft inside with gently crisped crust. Garlic just right.
Many house salads in this town seem to be afterthoughts. Not so here. The ingredients were fresh and more interesting than most others: broccoli, carrots, cherry tomatos, cucumber, iceberg lettuce shreds, and lightly toasted croutons. Jane and I both dressed it with red wine vinegar and good oi. Not great, but good. Perhaps on the next visit, I will try toe soup instead.
I have had perhaps more fried calamari as an appetizer in Italian (and Greek) restaurants than any other dish, and it has become a benchmark for comparison. We ordered the single portion which was more than enough for two. Jane allows that this was one of the very best preparations that she has had, and who am I to disagree. The rings were small and very tender, and the tentacles were chopped larger and they browned slightly more during the frying. Served with many lemon slices and a delicious marinara, this wis the best version that I have had since 1976 in Chicago. Fabulous.
Buffalo Mozzarella Ravioli
Jane uses ravioli as her benchmark for Italian restaurants. Her top choice is that at Rego’s in Charleroi, PA, on the Monongahela River. The Mon Valley’s demographics include a huge percentage of Italian descent families. Rego’s ravioli, hand crafted, has been her favorite since childhood in that valley. Well, step aside, Rego’s, there is a new benchmark.
Mimmo’s stuffing is mozzarella made from buffalo milk, and is is richer, tastier, and smoother that any I have tasted. The marinara was perfect: spicy, herby, and just slightly acidic — a highly delicious sauce. Jane told Sal, one of the owners, that this dish is one of very few that she could not find anything to quibble with. High praise indeed from her. And I agree.
Calamari Fra Diavolo
Fra Diavolo (Italian for “Brother Devil”) is the name given to a spicy sauce for pasta or seafood. Most versions are tomato-based and use chili peppers for spice, but the term is also used for sauces that include no tomato, or that use cayenne or other forms of pepper. According to chef Mario Batali, the spicy sauce is an Italian-American creation and is rarely served in Italy.
Looks like this became a calamari night for me. The dish is excellent. The calamari was cooked perfectly: quite tender. It was served with a side on spaghetti (not home made) which was perfectly al dente and covered with that fabulous marinara. The fra diavolo was moderately spicy (piquant) and quite tasty. Lovely dish.
Cannoli are Sicilian pastry desserts. The singular is cannolo (or in the Sicilian language cannolu), meaning “little tube.” Cannoli consist of tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. They range in size from “cannulicchi”, no bigger than a finger, to the fist-sized proportions typically found in Piana degli Albanesi, south of Palermo, Sicily.
When our server asked if we wished desert, we declined, being somewhat full. I mentioned to him that the cannoli at the next table looked great, ha had Sal come to the table with two small finger-sized cannolis in a to-go-box. Breakfast, said he. Breakfast it was. A sure winner.
But wait. There’s more…
We returned on December 2, 2012, with Marie Brown-Wagner, a high school friend of Jane from Monongahela PA, Marie and I settled on Shrimp All’Amatricianaat the suggestion of Daniel, our star server. Foe a simple dish, pasta all’amatriciana is freighted with controversy. People in Amatrice say it originated in that central Italian town, as the name implies. But in Rome, about 60 miles away, chefs proudly claim it as their own and say its name has nothing to do with its origins. In Amatrice, the dish is simply pasta, tomatoes, cured pork and cheese. But Romans include onions and olive oil. Even the type of pasta is in dispute.
Purists claim that this classic sauce should be made with to be authentic, it must be made with guanciale — cured, unsmoked pig jowl, instead of bacon (too smoky) or pancetta (too lean). Rachel Ray (and others)pushes a recipe that has the shrimp wrapped in pancetta. And so it goes.
But who cares. Is what is sitting in front of you really good? The version at Mimmo’s is really good and is made with bits of pancetta in a slightly spicy sauce and it is quite delicious. The shrimp (nine on my plate) were perfectly cooked, and everything was served atop a bed of spaghetti. Both Marie and I loved this dish. On my next visit, I will ask them to replace the spaghetti with a tube pasta —rigatoni, penne, or ziti.
Start your meal with a cup of Italian Wedding Soup. Having nothing to do with Italian weddings (there is a mistranslation of the original name), this soup is a hearty vegetable and meat potion with a remarkably good flavor and texture. Almost as good as pasta e fagioli.
Urbanspoon lists 54 restaurants in ABQ that serve Italian food. Not all are primarily Italian. Mimmo’s is high up on my list. I will surely return often.
What others are saying
Gil Garduño — New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.
“Mimmo’s has no pretentions to being a trendy Northern Italian restaurant. This is a classic Southern Italian and Sicilian restaurant with more than a touch of New York City thrown in. It’s reminiscent of the “red sauce” Italian restaurants on the East Coast which is appropriate because its roots are deeply New York. Mimmo’s is a family restaurant in the classic sense of the word, too. It’s not uncommon to see several tables pushed together with family members of several generations sharing a bountiful repast.
“Set your expectations high at Mimmo’s. It’s not the type of restaurant for which you have to dress up, but you’ll be treated better than at most of the so-called four-star restaurants or those stereotypical chain Italian restaurants with their saccharine service. Even if your visits are spaced out by several months (or years), the wait staff will remember having served you before–or at least they’re professional enough to give that impression. The nattily attired–white shirts, black slacks and ties–wait staff is unfailingly polite, accommodating and energetic. Most of the wait staff has been with Mimmo’s for years.”