There are a few must-try Italian-American restaurants in Sassella (225 Johnson St., 505-954-1568, sassellasantafe.com), but they’ll likely be quite different from what you might expect. You can get a Caesar salad, but instead of the typical croutons and a vinaigrette made with Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, lemon and anchovy paste, expect your romaine lettuce to be served with fillets of white anchovies, capers, focaccia crostini and a tonnato dressing.
Chicken Parmesan, however, is not on the menu.
“Most Italian restaurants in the United States offer the same things, like spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, chicken parmesan, Caesar salad,” says executive chef Cristian Pontiggia, 41, who grew up in the Italian region of Lombardy. “It’s not really Italian food. The Caesar salad was created in Mexico. Many customers ask me to make a Caesar salad. But I change the dressing, the presentation, everything. I love meatballs, but in Italy it’s polpette.”
He’s sitting in his office at the nearby Sassella grocery store (216 Mckenzie St., 505-954-1568, thedeliatsassella.com). His many awards line up with a piece of furniture. His most recent: A large blue ribbon proclaiming Pontiggia is Chef of the Year, an honor bestowed in March by the New Mexico chapter of the American Culinary Federation. The award allows him to compete for the federation’s American Chef of the Year.
“Last year with COVID, our chapter looked at the different needs of the state,” says AFC chief Leonard Bailey, who judged the competition. “When I was looking at who was going to receive what award, I was looking at what their involvement was, not just for what they were doing in their own kitchens, but what were they doing in the community.”
During the pandemic, Pontiggia organized industry professionals, including Bailey, to cook meals for first responders at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe. Pontiggia, who started cooking in high school, is also a defender of the younger generations of cooks. “He and I talked about creating a team of American Culinary Federation students to compete for the ACF National Championships,” Bailey said.
“When you get to a certain stage in your career, you give back your knowledge to someone else,” Bailey continues. “You try to lift them in their careers because their success rests on our shoulders.”
After a brief stint working for a celebrity (no, he won’t say who) in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2010 (“They’d come home anytime and wanted me to cook at around four in the morning, and stuff like I quit after two weeks.”), he worked for a while at Locando del Lago, an Italian restaurant that closed in 2018 after 27 years. On a trip to Taos about Aged 10, with only four months left on his visa, he dined at Taos’ Stakeout Grill & Bar.
The risotto, says Pontiggia, was terrible. The owner at the time, Mauro Bettini, asked what the chef thought. Pontiggia was a diplomat. “He said, ‘Do you think you can do better?’ I was like, With risotto? Yeah. Of course, I can do better.
Pontiggia offered him his own risotto the next day. Bettini was not shy in his response. “He said, ‘I feel like I’m at home in Italy. It’s like the best risotto I’ve ever had.’
After a time at Stakeout, other executive chef positions followed: El Nido in Tesuque, Osteria D’Assisi in Santa Fe, and finally Sassella in 2019, which he co-owns with Lawrence and Suzanna Becerra.
“My wife and I met Cristian about eight years ago, more or less. At the time, he was working at one of the other restaurants here in town. We went to a Chain [des Rôtisseurs, a food and gastronomy society] dine there and were quite impressed with her cooking. We then followed it to El Nido. As we got to know him better, we liked his dynamism, his personality.
He adds: “Cristian is extraordinarily good at what he does, and he’s also a really nice guy. He just has great energy.
Its co-owners asked Pontiggia to name the new restaurant, which opened in the historic brick building on Johnson Street next to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “The name is not important to me,” he told them. “That’s what we do inside the restaurant.”
Eventually he hesitated, calling it “Sassella,” the name of his hometown in northern Italy. “There are only 60 people living there – maybe,” Pontiggia says, his forearms wrapped in sleeves of tattoos, his bearded face host to a perpetual smile. “It’s just a street. There’s no, like, exit. You must return to the same street before you can exit the city.
But there are, he says, grapes everywhere. The area is known for its sassella wine, which is made from Nebbiolo grapes. It’s a big part of the economy for the people who live there. Aside from a happy memory of tasting sassella with his father as a child, he never drank wine until he was in his twenties and still doesn’t like to drink it unless it’s part of his life. a meal. (He prefers gin.)
He learned to appreciate food and wine pairings while working in a restaurant in Italy.
“I was maybe 25,” he says. “It was my third job.” The chef told him he would never be a top chef if he didn’t learn to appreciate wine.
“Each night he would open a different bottle of wine for me to taste. After a while, my palette started to change. Eventually he was able to imagine the pairings and increasingly began to understand wine as an integral part of the dining experience. It is perhaps unsurprising that wine plays an important role in Sassella’s dining experience.
New Mexico expanded on Pontiggia. “It was something weird from the start,” he says. “It was a bit like this energy. Something was telling me to stay here. The longer I stay here, the more I like it.
As for Sassella, Pontiggia has no plans to give it up for another restaurant.
“I’ve had offers to go to Las Vegas or New York where I can make a lot of money, but I don’t care. I’m happy in New Mexico. It’s a place I don’t want to leave. » ◀