Veggie Girl: Il Vicino

Like Little Anita's, Il Vicino is one of the few Albuquerque chains to survive the trip to Denver. But while Little Anita's has never been a top-tier spot back home (though it has some of the best chile I've found here in Denver), Il Vicino has always been one of the better fast-casual places in either town.

I've been frequenting the Italian restaurant's first outpost in Albuquerque's Nob Hill for most of its fourteen years. During my college days at the University of New Mexico, we craved its crispy, wood-fired pizzas, fresh salads, award-winning house-brewed beers and vegetarian soups.

Last Sunday night, nearly thirty of my Denver friends and I ventured into the Il Vicino at 550 Broadway, in an epic night out that nearly packed the place. Luckily, the order-at-the-counter set-up made it easy for our party to swell to unexpected proportions, and the waitstaff and kitchen kept up admirably.

My Il Vicino favorite dishes are also the simplest. For $5.50 you can get a bowl of vegetarian minestrone -- filled with chunks of vegetables, pasta spirals and spicy black pepper -- and a house salad, a basic romaine version with tomatoes and asiago, coated with the house vinaigrette. There's nothing fancy here, but that's what allows all the flavors to really sing. A few slices of the bread come with this order, and I love to drizzle it with the hot, red pepper oil that sits at every table.

The pizza margherita ($5.95) with fresh mozzarella and basil on top of tangy marinara is another great deal, big enough for two to share if they're also having soup or salad. I also like the pizza rustica (mozzarella, artichoke hearts, calamata olives, roasted garlic, capers), the pizza al pesto (basil pesto, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, Roma tomatoes) and the pizza melazine (mozzarella, grilled eggplant, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, oven roasted tomatoes).

I've never gotten a bad pizza at Il Vicino; the wood-fired oven always turns out a perfect chewy-yet-crispy thin crust. For more vegetarian options, there's the huge, vegetarian calzone (also cooked in the wood-fired oven) as well as vegetarian lasagna and several excellent salads, including the spinaci -- with gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts, roasted red peppers,red onions and pesto dressing creating such a harmonious mixture that I've tried to recreate the salad at home.

The space at Il Vicino is very adaptable, making it an equally good spot for a dinner with friends or a quiet date. Order a couple of glasses of Slow Down Brown Ale or house-brewed root beer, and you might want to linger all night -- whether there are two people in your party or thirty.

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