Fate dropped two new pizza places into my lap this week, and so here I find myself writing about Italian food

again

. I must admit, I am constantly amazed by how much truly decent Italian food there is in Santa Fe. This is especially interesting when you consider that Albuquerque sucks for Italian food. Often, when it comes to ethnic food, our bigger and busier neighbor has the edge. But little old Santa Fe definitely has the upper hand on Italian.

First up this week is Al Di La. There's been a bit of buzzing in my e-mail inbox about this place since it opened a few months ago. I was particularly persuaded by one reader who wrote, "Being a former Jersey Shore and NYC guy-where as you may know, we

regard our local Italian food as the 'gold standard' against which we measure all others, especially pizza-I am pleased to report that finally…'real' pizza and 'real' Italian food has arrived in Santa Fe."

Then one day last week I swiveled in my chair to ask Arts and Culture Editor Patricia Sauthoff if she was interested in lunch only to find her sitting with the accordion file of takeout menus on her lap and a menu for Al Di La in her hands. It was fate. We had to go.

Tucked away in a storefront downtown on Galisteo Street, Al Di La has been so completely renovated that it's hard to even remember what was here before. A rug store? Antiques place? The first thing you notice when you walk in is the wood-fired pizza oven. Faced in stacked stone, it could be the lost pizza oven of Chaco Canyon. But no, the stonework on the oven (and on the restaurant's back wall) is supposed to evoke a Tuscan village, according to the restaurant's owner, Peter Kaufman. Tuscan, Anasazi, whatever. It's nice.

A series of huge paintings lines the south wall of the restaurant. I know nothing about art, but the dabby-styled colors were bright and rustic and seemed to fit. I learned later that the paintings were done by Kaufman's partner, Rasoul Akhmatov, who is also the restaurant's chef. So when Kaufman said of Akhmatov, "He's an artist," he really meant it.

Obviously, a restaurant that bothers to put in a wood-fired pizza oven is going to specialize in pizza. And it does. The crust is pleasantly crispy on the bottom even when the toppings don't quite cook all the way through, as was the case with the too-translucent shrimp on our slice of Fra Diavlo ($3.75). But, as Patricia noted, the pizza was pleasantly unencumbered by a thick blanket of cheese. We could actually taste the mild sauce and snippets of fresh oregano through the perfectly restrained lace of melted mozzarella. Pizzas, which are available by the slice or whole pie, also come with homemade pesto, spinach and alfredo sauce, four cheeses, eggplant and goat cheese, Italian sausage and a few other variations.

All of the pasta here is housemade and cooked fresh daily, Kaufman told me. He praised the flavor of fresh pasta and the texture, too, explaining that it's easier to cook fresh pasta to

al dente

. Literally translated as "to the tooth,"

al dente

pasta retains a bit of resistance when you bite into it. I appreciate the theory, but in practice, the spiral noodles in our bowl of pasta La Boheme ($9) were definitely on the soft side. At the time, I thought they were rather pleasantly soft, and even without reading the menu I could tell they had been made fresh. Both Patricia and I liked the light, creamy mushroom sauce on the pasta, and the portion was big enough that she took some home.

We also split an Insalata della Sole ($5), baby lettuces tossed with long quarters of Roma tomato, thin planks of cucumber, chunks of avocado and black olives. It was definitely big enough for two-and tasty.

We didn't have room left to try any of the sandwiches, which are made with house-baked focaccia or Italian bread, although the Spicy Italian Sausage sandwich did look appealing. There are also a variety of calzones, chicken dishes and a few traditional entrées such as chicken with pesto cream sauce, roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Kaufman told me he set out to create "a family type of restaurant offering good value and quality for a fair price," a humble goal that is all too often unreachable. Al Di La has a few wrinkles to iron out, but the atmosphere is very pleasant, the menu appealing and the prices affordable enough that I'll definitely be willing to check it out again soon.

I also want to briefly mention the other pizza place, Ferragamo's, which boasts Neapolitan pizza. A reader, one who is a self-described Neapolitan pizza aficionado, told me about this brand-new place. I had to admit to him that I'm no expert on Neapolitan-style pizza and beg for a description of the good stuff. "Even in Naples, there is a range of pizza styles," he replied, "but all fall within a pretty narrow range of what is a great tradition for them, which verges on the religious…First and foremost is the crust which, although thin, is light and airy, almost fluffy." I'm eager to try Ferragamo's. If you've already eaten there, do write in and let me know what you thought. I promise to have a report soon.

Al Di La

227 Galisteo St.

983-6766

Open 8 am-10 pm every day

Ferragamo's Pizzeria and Cafe

945 W. Alameda St.

629-4500

Open Monday-Thursday 11 am-3 pm and 5-9 pm;

Friday-Saturday 11 am-3 pm and 5-9:30 pm;

Sunday 3-8 pm


Tell me where to eat! I need your input. Send all of your tips, gripes and raves to

.