Steve and Cathy Garcia revive a ‘gone but not forgotten’ local favorite, adding a few nostalgic and savory touches along the way
Photo by Wes Naman
By Kevin Hopper
The Itsa Italian Ice logo — a figure of a man in a chef’s hatholding a huge lemon, the juice of which is dripping into a cup —dominates one of my earliest memories. As a kid growing up inAlbuquerque in the 1970s and 1980s, spotting that logo on the back oftruck in the dead heat of summer was akin to being lost in the desertand seeing a city of lemonade stands. In fact, I always passed over theregular ice cream truck guy in favor of Itsa’s unique micro iceshavings that came in more flavors than a kid like me deserved.
Flash forward 30 years years later, and almost 15years after Itsa’s sole location on Washington and Lomas closed itsdoors. Imagine the flood of memories that pulsed through mygastrointestinal tract when that unforgettable logo flashed before meas I drove along Second Street, just north of Lomas (next to LowSpirits Bar & Stage).
Reopened in 2008 by new owners Steve and Cathy Garcia, the humble little restaurant, awash in ‘50s diner-esque nostalgia, has not only brought back cooling Italian ice flavors such as Black Raspberry, Watermelon, Banana, Tangerine and Chocolate, among many others, it offers throwback standards like hot dogs and hamburgers, as well as a pretty wicked Philly Cheesesteak.
After numerous visits to the kitschy, checkerboard floored mom and pop eatery, it’s fair to say that Itsa Ice is not only a summertime respite from the sometimes brutal Albuquerque heat, but a haven for diners who like like their food fast, but also prefer to keep their food dollars local.
Photo by Wes Naman
The centerpiece is, as billed, the myriad flavors of shaved ice ($1.25/$2.50/$4.50) that, unlike snow cones, isn’t a crunchy affair. Rather, the super smooth dessert treat sort of slides down your throat and really does help to cool you down. Italian ice is made in a much different manner than other frozen desserts; all the ingredients — sugar, water and flavoring (corn syrup is not usually involved) — are combined prior to being batch frozen, much like ice cream. Other Italian ice flavors include Strawberry, Blue Raspberry, Cantalope, Cherry, Lemon, Lime, Grape and one called Blue Moon. For those who just can’t decide, try two flavors on top of each other. Curiously, a mix of chocolate and tangerine yielded the very distinct flavor of a Tootsie Roll. And though the lack of coconut, piña colada and root beer flavors was a bit of a let down, there are more than enough flavors on the Itsa Ice roster to keep kids of all ages content and cool.
Other dessert offerings here include gelati, which is Italian ice layered with ice cream ($3.50/$5.50), ice cream (spumoni, vanilla and chocolate, $2.50) and Frontier cinnamon rolls.
But what is really refreshing at Itsa 2.0 is the non dessert menu items, grill selections that, though minimal, are crafted in a way that harkens back to the bygone era suggested by the restaurant’s decor. In other words, the burgers and hot dogs here are made to order with quality, rather than, speed, being the focus of attention.
For instance, the beautifully priced hamburger ($2.59) has a very basic approach that yields a lot of character, due in great part to the soft, slightly sweet bun and the mustard only factor. Ketchup (or catsup if you prefer) on a burger or a hot dog is a thumbs down in this reviewer’s culinary world. Save for my addition of the requisite green chile and American cheese, this is how it arrives at the pick up counter without having to ask for “extra this” or “hold the that.” Just the right amount of toppings of onion, lettuce and tomato round out the burger’s classic taste. For larger appetites, the double meat burger ($3.84) will more than suffice heartier appetites.
Photo by Wes Naman
The hot dog ($2.45) at Itsa comes from none other than the original Coney Dog
, which is much better quality than you’ll find at the corner hot dog stand. Toppings are just as standard — relish, onions, mustard (ketchup? - don’t get me started), with a chile and/or cheese option. The one glaring omission here is sauerkraut, which, interestingly enough, Itsa neither carries nor is familiar with — the person at the counter asked me how sauerkraut is made and what it tastes like. I have half a mind to drop off a five gallon tub at the back door.
The french fries at Itsa are also notable. Far from the crisp and crunchy variety, these babies are the handcut, skin-on soft version of french fry that always hold much more potato flavor than the frozen stuff. Top the fries with green or red chile (or both) and cheese, and you have yourself a full meal.
But the pièce de résistance here is the Philly Cheese Steak ($6.25), a moderately sized sandwich that does a great amount of justice to some of the more well-known originals in the City of Brotherly Love. Again, the bread plays a big role in making this happen as the softness of the french roll acts as a canvas of sorts that takes in all the classic tastes of a Philly — roughly chopped Angus beef, mildly sweet onions and gooey cheese — and melds them together in a way that will likely leave you speechless. And, if you can string a word or two together, it would likely be “Wow” or Oh... my... goodness.” Though I enjoyed and savored every bite, I did yearn for a bit more guts of the sandwich and less bun. That being said, a finer Philly in Albuquerque would be a difficult thing to find.
So while the Garcia’s have successfully revived a franchise that, to many, might have seemed lost forever, they were also quite wise to fold in some classic American flavor from the grill. Combine them both, and you have what might just turn out to be your favorite no frills restaurant.
Itsa Italian Ice
215 Phoenix NW, 505.268.2560
Summer Hours (beginning in April)
Grill closes at 7:30p