In Cold Tuscan Stone, the first in a series of spellbinding mysteries set in Italy, author David P. Wagner did such a magnificent job in developing relatable characters and creating a sense of place that I felt myself transported to the world of Rick Montoya, the affable protagonist in David’s series. Through David’s vivid imagery, I could almost taste, smell and experience la dolce vita of the Italian countryside. I laughed with delightful voyeurism at the bumpkinly naivete of Herb and Shirley, an American couple who came to Italy to find an Italian chef for a restaurant they planned to open in Davenport, Iowa. Not surprisingly their benchmark for Italian cooking was the Olive Garden. They were puzzled when the menus at the Italian restaurants they visited in the ancient Tuscan hill town of Volterra didn’t offer spaghetti and meatballs or pasta Alfredo. It baffled them that they had to ask for olive oil to dip their bread into. “It’s almost like they don’t know what Italian food is,” they decried.
Can it really be true that the Italian food we know and love across the fruited plain isn’t Italian at all? That’s what Food Network star Alton Brown contends. In the first episode of Good Eats: The Return, the network’s nerdiest star declared “What we believe to be Italian food is 100 percent an American thing, which came out of a very specific immigrant experience.” He elaborated further, using chicken Parmesan as an example of “an immigrant upgrade of eggplant Parmesan.” If Alton Brown is correct, many of us American sophisticates might fare exactly as the provincial chawbacons of Cold Tuscan Stone did, especially if we look for any of the following foods in Lo Stivale: Spaghetti and Meatballs (with apologies to Herb and Shirley), garlic bread, baked ziti, marinara sauce, Italian dressing and even Neapolitan ice cream.
Now, there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with loving Italian food American style. It’s irrefutably delicious. Moreover, when the National Restaurant Association compiled its report on Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America, it listed Italian food as the favorite ethnic food across the fruited plain. That ranking didn’t come with the qualifier “Italian-American,” “red sauce Italian,” “New York Italian” or any of the other labels ascribed to foods developed by waves of Italian immigrants over a period of more than two-hundred years. Only the most obnoxious of food snobs–those arbiters of authenticity who believe any “ethnic” foods born under spacious skies is cultural appropriation–would argue that American-Italian food isn’t Italian food.
When discussing with my Kim where we would celebrate our 34th wedding anniversary, we tossed around options with significantly more deliberation than even the best stir fry chef tossing ingredients on a wok. We wanted something special, of course, but preferably a restaurant we hadn’t previously visited. When I suggested Sassella in Santa Fe, I was at a loss as to how to describe it. I couldn’t very well call it “real Italian” or risk offending all so many great Italian-American restaurateurs (okay, scratch the dash American part) who might read this post. Describing Sassella as a “fine Italian dining restaurant” wouldn’t impress her. Neither would telling her about Chef Cristian Pontiggia’s aspirations to make Sassella Santa Fe’s first Michelin Star restaurant. And if I told her Sassella is better than Olive Garden, we might not make it to 35 years.
What won her over was explaining that one of Sassella’s co-owners is legendary Mexican chef Fernando Olea whose latest Mexican fine-dining establishment Sazón has earned AAA Four Diamond status every year since its launch in 2015. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” I suspect Kim has a bit of a crush on him…or at least on his cooking. Though we didn’t run into him at Sassella as we had hoped, his influence was certainly felt in the world-class service we received from the tandem service team. In addition to his ownership capacity, Chef Olea runs operations and staff training at both Sazón and Sassella. It shows!
While my Kim may not have been too impressed by Chef Pontiggia’s Michelin Star aspirations, they sure made an impression on me. Michelin starred restaurants are judged solely based on food: quality ingredients, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, personality of the chef in the cuisine, value for money and consistency over time. A restaurant’s appearance, atmosphere or service don’t weigh heavily as they do for James Beard restaurant awards which consider consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, service, and operations. Alas, Michelin guides aren’t published for Santa Fe. In fact, Michelin sleuths operate only in select cities (New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco) under the spacious skies.
Chef Pontiggia knows a thing or two about Michelin stars, having worked at two Michelin-starred restaurants in the Lake Como region of Italy. He also knows New Mexico, his home for the past decade or so, where he’s plied his formidable talents at The Stakeout in Taos, Osteria d’Assisi in Santa Fe and El Nido in Tesuque. His professional credentials include honors for cooking and wine knowledge from the Chaine des Routisseurs, the oldest and largest food and wine society in the world. In Italy he’s recognized as a master chef, holding a culinary degree that certifies him as a Doctor of Oenogastronomy which emphasizes the provenance of food and wine.
Chef Pontiggia hails from the venerable village of Sassella a hamlet in Northern Italy (not far from Genoa) renown for vineyards planted on terraces on the side of rocky slopes. Fittingly, the name Sassella is derived from the Italian word for “rock.” Sassella’s vineyards benefit from excellent drainage and a sunny southerly aspect. Its wines are regarded as being of particularly high quality courtesy of a very distinctive grape called the Nebbiolo (perhaps our sage sommelier Tom Molitor can elucidate for our edification). Some of those wines are showcased on Sassella’s wine menu.
Sassella is housed in a historic brick building (circa 1903 or 1904) which would be considered modern compared to the venerable edifices dotting the restaurant’s Italian namesake village. The building once served as military barracks, its bricks having b come from Fort Marcy, a Civil War military outpost not far from the Santa Fe Plaza. Sassella is adjacent to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in a complex that has housed several other restaurants. It has one of the most impressive Dude-friendly courtyards of any restaurant at which we’ve dined with our debonair dachshund. For al fresco dining under towering deciduous trees, it promises to become a local favorite.
While Herb and Shirley, the backwoods couple from Cold Tuscan Stone, might not recognize Sassella’s menu as Italian, the terrific tome’s author David P. Wagner certainly would. Before becoming an accomplished littérateur, David served as a foreign service officer where he enjoyed three assignment in Italy, first in Milan and twice in Rome, for a total of nine years. David and I have shared Jack Handey-level deep thoughts about Italian food, but have yet to break focccia together. Maybe during his next foray into the Land of Enchantment, I can convince me to join me at Sassella. Two weeks after our inaugural visit, Sassella transitioned to its fall menu, one so enticing another visit beckons.
We were happily ensconced on the capacious courtyard when our server ferried over a bowl of bread with a basil butter to our table. Yeah, I know that Italian dining etiquette (in Italy, not Santa Fe) dictates that bread be eaten with your meal, as an accompaniment to your primi (main courses, usually pastas) and secondi (main courses, usually meat and fish), used for dipping into leftover sauces, but we were famished. The bread, especially the focaccia, was outstanding and the basil butter had an herbaceous summery flavor. Unlike Herb and Shirley we would never have considered asking for olive oil or vinegar.
Italy’s proximity to the sea means an abundance of seafood dishes, including oysters (ostriche). Sassella’s summer menu showcases a daily selection of Ostriche Gratinate (oysters served au gratin with bechamel, Parmesan, Italian bread crumbs, pancetta, orange tobico, black caviar and baby spinach). Fate decreed the oysters featured during our visit were gold band oysters from Louisiana where your humble blogger consumed the bivalve mollusks by the boatful. Gold band oysters are unique in that they’re pre-shucked thanks to a high-pressure process which causes them to release from the shell, precluding the need for skilled shucking labor. These plump, fat oysters would be worth the effort. French poet Léon-Paul Fargue, declared eating an oyster was “like kissing the sea on the lips.” These were so good I grew immediately envious of Diamond Jim Brady who was known to consume as many as three-hundred in one sitting.
For our antipasti (appetizer), we followed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s advice and ordered “one by sea” (ostriche gratinate) and “one by land,” an Affettati Misti (Italian cured meat platter). This Chef’s board of prosciutto crudo, speck, coppa, salame Toscano, Calabrese, prosciutto cotto, Parmesan, provolone and goat’s milk cheese may be the very best we’ve ever had. This delightfully diverse collage of textures, colors and flavors (fatty and lean, spicy and mild, strong and delicate, tender and chewy) is arrayed like a meat and cheese rainbow, each item beckoning. Not surprisingly, there are protocols for plating and eating affettati misti (for example from mild to sharp for cheeses). Over the years we’ve tried in vain to follow these protocols but invariably succumb to the temptations of “next on the plate.”
In an episode of “No Reservations,” peripatetic chef Anthony Bourdain declared that cacio e pepe “could be the greatest thing in the history of the world.” My Kim would agree. Cacio e pepe (literally cheese and pepper) is a progenitor of one of the earliest known recipes for macaroni and cheese, a 13th-century Italian cookbook called “ Liber de Coquina.” Sassella’s Capellini Cacio e Pepe (angel hair pasta, Pecorino Romano, fresh cracked black pepper) is anniversary celebration-worthy. The cracked pepper lends a pleasant assertiveness while the Pecorino adds a nutty tang with several shaved slivers topping the dish. Just enough pasta water was used on the dish to prevent the pasta from sticking. The capellini (angel hair pasta) is cut into shorter strands than spaghetti, making it easy to handle and absolutely delicious to eat.
Not that very long ago, it may have been easier to locate Forrest Fenn’s elusive treasure than to find truly transformative risotto in the Land of Enchantment. For years, I actually kept track on fewer than five fingers the number of outstanding risotto dishes to cross my lips. Sassella’s Carnaroli Risotto (porcini and cremini mushrooms, Parmesan Reggiano, black truffle infused extra virgin olive oil) is easily among the very best we’ve had. Much of the credit goes to the carnaroli rice which is considered the preferred rice for risotto in Northern Italy. Carnaroli rice has a higher starch content, slightly larger grains and a firmer texture than the more commonly used arborio rice. This results in a creamier risotto with none of the gummy texture of arborio. Earthiness from the porcini and cremini mushrooms as well as the black truffle-infused extra virgin oil permeates every grain of rice.
Our friends from Davenport would probably be disappointed not to find Neapolitan ice cream and Italian wedding cookies (both invented in the colonies) on Sassella’s dessert menu. They wouldn’t quite know what to make of the Cioccolato Bianco (a white chocolate dome, banana pudding gelato with Italian Chantilly, dark chocolate ganache with caramelized pistachios over berries) which I photographed in sequence. We were almost mesmerized watching the ganache being poured slowly atop the white chocolate dome until a molten pool of beautiful chocolate surrounded that dome. This is a dessert which will make your eyes roll back in your head in pleasure. It’s one you’ll eat slowly so as to luxuriate in every glorious bite. Not surprisingly the last dessert we enjoyed this much was Chef Olea’s sweet symphony.
Sassella may one day earn that elusive Michelin star. It certainly earned our admiration and it made the 34th wedding anniversary with my soulmate and love of my life a memorable one.
225 Johnson Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Cioccolato Bianco, Carnaroli Risotto, Ostriche Grainate, Affettati Misti, Capellini Cacio e Pepe, Carnaroli Risotto, Bread with Basil Butter