Growing up in a Sicilian family in Queens, New York, Joe Guzzardi vividly remembers going out to eat as a kid in the 1970s. It was a big adventure, with one constant: you would always get to meet the charismatic restaurant owner. It’s no wonder, then, that Joe’s genial, round-the-clock presence looms large at Joe’s Pasta House, spurring a level of care and attentiveness that feels genuinely old-fashioned, not to mention just plain genuine.
From the outside––a former IHOP building in a shopping center in suburban Rio Rancho––you might not guess that Joe’s Pasta House is a throwback in all the best possible ways. Or that it’s an in-the-know foodie mecca that is increasingly drawing diners from Albuquerque, 30 minutes to the south, and beyond. But step inside the soothing interior, and you’ll quickly come to understand. The fine Italian products for sale in the foyer, from cannellini beans to balsamic vinegar, are the first tipoff, followed by the warm greetings, red and white linen tablecloths and soft jazz soundtrack.
“A restaurant, to me, is a gathering place, where a family comes together to offer not only food, but a cultural style,” Joe says. Along with wife and co-owner Kassie, he’s created a personality driven destination that makes everyone feel like they’re part of something special. “We want to welcome people like they’re coming to our home for a traditional Sicilian Sunday dinner,” Kassie says. “We want them to laugh, relax, have good conservation and not be rushed.”
At every opportunity, and yet never overbearingly, the staff at Joe’s engages with patrons. The good-natured servers hug longtime customers, share stories and infuse routine tasks with humor, while Joe checks in often to make sure everyone’s happy. Yet for all the mom-and-pop familiarity, there’s a polished professionalism to the black-clad waitstaff, who show up seconds before you even begin glancing their way. This combination of authentic friendliness and seamless service may be one reason the team won a “Best Waitstaff in Albuquerque” award in 2016.
“Our staff is truly part of our culture and our family,” Joe says. “If someone gets in trouble and can’t make their electric bill, we do what we can to help, like what you’d do with a son or a daughter.” Kassie jokes, “We also give them guidance like you’d do with a son or a daughter!” Since buying the restaurant—formerly known as Pasta Café—from a friend in 2001, the Guzzardis have slowly built not only a seasoned staff but a loyal following and an impressive list of accolades.
Executive Chef Rick Koenig holds the longest tenure at 18 years, since he actually started at Pasta Café before the Guzzardis took over. “You feel as if you belong,” he says. “I’ve worked at other places where you’re an outsider. And we’ve really tried to not have that here. We look out for each other.” He says he and Joe have “very complementary” roles, with Joe handling the front of the house and the weekend dinner specials, while he keeps the kitchen prepped and running smoothly. “We start every day doing the bread and the sauces from scratch,” Rick says.
The bread recipe comes from Joe’s dad, who ran two bakeries in Queens. But Joe, who lived with both his parents and grandparents as a kid, says the sauces come from “heart and soul, and grandma and mom.” You could say Joe’s Pasta House is a “red sauce restaurant,” and it would be true, as his is a stellar rendition that’s lightly sweet with intense flavor and low acidity. “It’s our foundation––it really is,” Joe says. But he has a broader description for the cuisine: “It’s immigrant food. It’s what I grew up with. When immigrants came to this country, they brought recipes, but they couldn’t bring the products with them. So they evolved other products into what I call East Coast Italian food.”
Thanks to globalization, however, Joe and Kassie can now get the exact products they want. They import reliably sweet, handpicked San Marzano plum tomatoes as well as all of their pastas from Italy. “Pasta made in Italy is just far better. Their wheat is non-GMO with no cross-contamination, because they won’t allow GMO wheat in the country,” Joe says. Other ingredients are also thoughtfully sourced domestically, including organic produce whenever possible, non-hydrogenated oils, hormone-free meats, New Mexico Certified Hatch green chile and sustainable seafood flown in three times a week from Seattle.
Now, you may be saying, wait––green chile? Amidst old-school classics like Manicotti Bolognese, signature dishes like Veal Francese and upscale chops like hand-cut steaks, there are a few “local favorites” on the menu aimed right at the Achilles heel of New Mexicans, namely the Southwestern Fettuccini and the Green Chile Chicken Ravioli. Balancing ample, smoky, medium-heat chunks of green chile with Joe’s rich Parmigiano cream and Alfredo sauces, respectively, these two dishes are hugely popular hybrids that inspire many a craving. “It’s blending New Mexico culture, and it’s a must!” Kassie says of the couple’s own fierce love of green chile.
Other hit items include the beautifully seasoned Chicken Parmigiana, accompanied by a coil of thick spaghetti and that impeccable red sauce. This Italian-American comfort food staple can be a chewy, gooey mess in the wrong hands, but here, it’s fork-tender and deceptively light, melting pleasurably in your mouth. Swap in eggplant or portabella mushroom for a vegetarian delight. As for seafood lovers, they flock to the outstanding Frutti di Mare, which features black mussels, clams, calamari rings, scallops and shrimp in a spicy marinara sauce over perfectly al dente linguini. The “frutti” are as fresh as can be, while the marinara pops with strong notes of garlic and the natural sweetness of the San Marzano tomatoes, which are grown in the fertile volcanic soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius.
Over on the appetizer menu, the lip-smacking marinara also helps to make the Stuffed Eggplant a nostalgic standout, with its layers of pillowy ricotta cheese, sautéed spinach, salty prosciutto and paper-thin breaded eggplant. But perhaps the best starter may be Joe’s dad’s addictive bread, served warm with olive oil and a bowl of bright and fragrant bruschetta topping. It’s complimentary, so watch yourself lest you blow your ability to get through your generously portioned meal (yes, you’re going to need a to-go box) and still have room for the impossibly creamy tiramisu, which was named “Best Dessert” at the Taste of Rio Rancho.
If it’s easy to taste the love in the food, the clear affection between the Guzzardis is also equally nourishing––and contagious. Nick Guzzardi, Joe’s 27-year-old son, has been working at the restaurant in various part-time capacities since high school. He unabashedly calls his dad “the best guy ever.” A grad student at the University of New Mexico, where he’s earning an MFA in ceramics, Nick now waits tables during the week and works on the line in the kitchen on weekends. “The volume on the weekends is insane. They can do without me…but it’s much easier with me!” he jokes, displaying the family charm.
As for the gracious couple at the helm, Joe and Kassie make a point of spending mornings together as well as having dinner together every night, no matter what time Joe comes home. That’s because eight years ago, Kassie switched to working from home, where she handles the restaurant’s marketing, back office and social media duties, including personally responding to every online review. “Sometimes the bad ones are your best marketing opportunity!” she says. Yet fittingly, their love story began at the very restaurant they now own. Kassie’s sister, a singer who used to perform at the restaurant back when it was Pasta Café, told her, “I’ve met your husband. He’s Sicilian.” To which Kassie says she retorted, “Uh, that’s not on my to-do list!” Yet her sister’s bold prediction proved true. “We came walking in, and I stopped at the threshold when I saw him,” Kassie says. “It was like somebody punched me in my stomach. It was his eyes. Joe has the biggest heart, and it showed. I could see it through his eyes.” Hearing his wife retell the story, Joe’s piercing blue eyes shine a little brighter. Despite being “married” to the restaurant seven days a week––plus running a busy catering operation––Joe and Kassie have now gotten things humming along to the point where they were able to take a two-week dream vacation to Italy. “That was like our honeymoon, 14 years later,” Kassie says.
Now, as Joe’s Pasta House prepares for its 17th anniversary in April 2018, the couple is working on a new restaurant concept that they hope to roll out next year. They’re keeping the details mostly under wraps, but it’s Italian, it will be located in Albuquerque and the name will be different yet attached. Having started a restaurant-consulting business recently to help struggling restaurateurs avoid losing everything, in part by leveraging social media, the Guzzardis know the stakes involved. But as always, they’re prepared for the sweat equity. As Joe says, “Success is gauged hourly!”
Joe’s Pasta House is located at 3201 Southern Blvd SE in Rio Rancho, 505.892.3333, joespastahouse.com.
Story by Amy Morton