This sports bar is no joke-o
Unfortunately, Albuquerque doesn’t have a deep bench when it comes to local sports bars. But there is a rookie out there showing some real potential.
If you like playing with your food—and who doesn’t?—go for the pork belly party.
Gioco opened next door to O’Niell’s in Nob Hill last September, giving sports fans a new bar where they can watch their favorite team on one of 16 screens, the largest ones measuring 80 by 130 inches. The space is on the narrow side, so big events, especially Lobos games, will have you squeezing in.
Once situated, don’t expect a plain, beer-and-pretzels kind of menu. Gioco is an upscale bar and restaurant, and its cuisine is heavily Italian. There are unavoidable New Mexican influences—like carne adovada on nachos and pizza—but dishes like the grinder sandwich and caprese salad are as thoroughly Italian-American as it gets.
On the starting lineup of appetizers, there are a few standouts, all very shareable. The shrimp cocktail ($9) comes served in a petite martini glass with shrimp in either cocktail sauce or marinating in herbaceous olive oil. Our server, friendly and helpful, recommended the marinated option. Excellent choice as the olive oil had a fruity quality, and a healthy squeeze of lemon made for a delectable bite.
Chicken wings are a sports bar staple, but the ones at Gioco lack a spicy kick, so I’d suggest skipping them in favor of Korean pork ribs ($11). The pool of sweet Asian dipping sauce alone is worth it.
If you like playing with your food—and who doesn’t?—go for the pork belly party ($9). The name seals the deal for me. This porcine platter comes with a couple of handfuls of cubed pork belly served piping hot in a brown paper bag. Intrigued yet? The bag comes with a dish of powdered sugar, intended for sprinkling into the bag before folding and giving it a shake. The result is sweetened chunks of salty pork with just a bit of bite before they melt away in your mouth. Dump the contents out to share with others, or hog the bag yourself; I won’t judge.
Gioco’s pizza selection is pretty sizeable. For the most Italian of topping choices, pick the salumeria ($13). With pepperoni, Genoa salami and spicy capicola, it’s the Italian version of a meat lover’s pizza. The parmesan and mozzarella cheeses help solidify and round out the Italian flavors. The margherita ($9) is a good meatless option. The pizzas are on the lighter side, a trend on the menu as a whole. The crust is thin but with a toothy bite. The pizzas come in one size, measuring around eight inches. They’re good for one or two diners but not something to share with the whole table on game day.
Instead of a burger lineup, Gioco offers a sandwich menu. The grinder ($9), featuring the same capicola seen on the salumeria pizza, is underwhelming, despite the addition of jalapeño bacon. I expected far more heat. The saving grace was the side of pasta salad. It must have the same extra fruity olive oil they used in the shrimp cocktail because I wanted to spoon up every last bit.
The real delight among the sandwich choices is one called the Thanksgiving ($9). It’s an indulgent layering of turkey, stuffing and cranberries. It’s like your Italian nonna is visiting for the holidays and trying to fatten you up with leftovers sandwiched between focaccia with Swiss cheese. The sliced turkey and herbaceous stuffing might be too heavy on their own, but the chunky cranberry sauce cuts through with a welcome sweetness. It was easily the favorite item at the table.
Gioco pays homage to our hometown heroes with a Lobo margarita ($6.25) and a sugary concoction called a Lobo bomb ($7), wherein a shot of cherry vodka and grenadine are dropped in a glass of Red Bull. Perhaps there was a point in my time at UNM when I might have attempted to chug the Lobo bomb, but I stuck with the Lobo margarita, made with Camarena Gold tequila and dyed cherry red with a splash of grenadine. It was certainly on the sweeter side but still a nice drink.
Overall, Gioco’s fare leans on the light and flavorful side. Service was attentive, there’s not a bad seat in the house, and the noise level never got so loud you couldn’t enjoy your company. As someone who goes to sports bars for the grub, not the game, I say Gioco hits a home run, scores a touchdown, sinks a basket, or whatever it is you sports people say.
4310 Central Ave SE