When Andiamo! opened in 1995, a reviewer for The Santa Fe New Mexican was wowed by a six-dollar polenta appetizer that “resembled a square of moist cornbread” with a crispy top, placed on a generous puddle of creamy Gorgonzola sauce that was flavored with fresh rosemary. In 2015, this old standby is still on the menu, and it’s still good — the only difference being that it now costs $7.25, which strikes me as an impressive example of a restaurant keeping costs stable over time.
How it strikes you may vary, depending on what you’re looking for in a dining experience. Do you seek the culinary cutting edge, where chefs are doing amazing things with unfamiliar ingredients and artsy presentations? Look elsewhere. Would you like to eat some pretty good bistro food without emptying your wallet? Then Andiamo! is a reliable choice.
The name means “Let’s go!,” and the original mission of founders Joan Gillcrist and Chris Galvin was to create an affordable-but-upscale Italian spot that felt modern, relatively light (compared to a 1970s Italian restaurant in a strip mall, that is), and cheerful — an alternative for locals and visitors who needed a break from spicy, often heavy New Mexico food.
They achieved that, and Andiamo! is still a pleasant place to be, thanks to the original concept and the work of Esteban Parra, a New Mexico native who has been head chef here since 1999. Andiamo! is housed in a cozy old white stucco building on Garfield Street. The space inside is bright and fairly quiet, even when it’s full of patrons, and tables are set close together but not so close that you feel crowded. During two trips, the servers we met were consistently friendly, brisk, and capable.
As for the menu, it’s a little dated, a snapshot of what, for better and worse, forward-thinking cooks were doing in the mid-1990s: using good ingredients in recipes that showcase the food without overwhelming or disguising it, employing the kitchen’s grill and griddle a bit too much (to char-stripe and blacken things like salmon and vegetables, for example), and serving up familiar desserts like tiramisu and pot de crème. Some of these creations still work because they’re timeless, and they’re prepared well. Some feel a little tired. And there is, alas, the occasional strike-out.
For dinner one night, we started with the polenta appetizer and a salad that’s been a mainstay here for a long time: darkred roasted beets, arugula, and goat cheese, served with a strip of focaccia and spicy tapenade. The salad is simple to make; the crispy polenta is trickier. (Try it at home. It’s hard to achieve that blend of mushy insides and a crispy surface.) Both are very good, and if you’re looking for a snack rather than a full meal, you can’t go wrong by ordering these two things along with a glass of wine or a bottle of Peroni, the refreshing Italian beer that Andiamo! serves.
I was less thrilled with my entree, a pricey ($30) piece of beef tenderloin that didn’t seem like beef tenderloin at all — it lacked the distinctive shape (long and narrow, with oval slices once you carve into it) and texture (finegrained, like prime rib) that I associate with this cut, and instead seemed like a flat, narrow steak. Whatever it was, the beef was accompanied by somewhat stiff mashed potatoes and a glistening medley of vegetables — including red onion, red peppers, squash, and greens — that had been pushed around on a hot surface until they were charred and limp. This technique always seems uninspired to me, and I ended up ignoring the vegetables after a few stabs.
My dining companion ordered the fish of the night, a grilled salmon steak served on a saffron risotto fritter, which she loved. We shared an order of tiramisu, which came out looking great. But despite an impressive list of ingredients — ladyfingers, espresso, mascarpone, chocolate shavings, and hazelnuts — it was watery inside, and tasted bland without the expected kick of alcohol or the flavor of rich chocolate.
During a second trip, for lunch, I ordered a pizza margherita that I’d gladly have again: great crust, a tomato sauce that wasn’t too garlicky, a nice layer of melted mozzarella, and a side salad that had a zingy citrus dressing. My friend had a bowl of butternut squash soup (good) and a side order of sweet potato fries (not so good — they were overcooked). We tried another dessert — the chocolate pot de crème — which came on a plate instead of in a cup and was surrounded by a moat of strawberry coulis. Like some other things on the menu at Andiamo!, that coulis squirt is one old trick that should’ve been retired years ago.