Spaghetti and meatballs, bread sticks and lasagna are not what the new Italian restaurant Sassella — opening sometime in early July — is all about.
Sassella, adjacent to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, will offer menu items like Frito de Misto di Mare y Vegetali — colossal shrimp, calamari, smelt fish, artichoke, zucchini, agrumato (crushed olive) aioli and mielle mustarda (honey mustard).
Executive chef and co-owner Cristian Pontiggia picked up this dish in coastal Liguria, the Italian region along the Mediterranean Sea that curves around the boot toward France.
Another item at Sessella is one Pontiggia discovered in Turin in northern Italy: Bagna Cauda, a dish with white anchovy and garlic-infused fondue, lavash (a type of flatbread) and farmers market crudité (raw vegetable platter). The first time he saw the recipe, Pontiggia said, was in a “medieval book.”
“This is Italian,” he said of Sassella, rejecting the idea of specializing in northern Italian, Tuscan, Roman or Sicilian cuisine.
“I don’t want to represent one region,” he said. “Every dish is from a different part of Italy.”
Italy is a mix of cultures, he said, and while cuisine from various cultures are borrowed and blended in the U.S. and other places, “If you travel to Italy, in every town the recipe changes.”
The restaurant is named for a village of 60 and a wine region in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Pontiggia grew up in the town next door, he said.
“My first glass of wine was in Sassella,” he added.
Pontiggia, who has cooked at venues around the globe, arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago via an American film company he cooked for in Italy. He first lived in Santa Monica, Calif., but visited a friend in Taos three months later and met the woman who became his wife. He worked at Osteria D’Assisi in Santa Fe and El Nido in Tesuque before Lawrence Becerra recruited him to head up Sassella.
Pontiggia, Becerra and two other owners of the restaurant, Suzanna Becerra (Sassella’s interior designer) and Fernando Olea (executive chef at Sazón), are shooting for a AAA Four Diamond designation and a Michelin star.
The Becerras and Olea achieved Four Diamonds at Sazón, a Mexican “New World” restaurant in downtown Santa Fe that temporarily closed in May following a fire in an upstairs room. It will reopen in early July.
Sazón is one of only three Four Diamond restaurants in New Mexico — all in the Santa Fe area. The other two are Geronimo on Canyon Road and Terra at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado near Tesuque.
With Sassella, the owners hope to go a step further.
“We’re hoping this will be the first Michelin star restaurant in New Mexico,” Lawrence Becerra said. “Sazón should be a Michelin star, but they don’t focus on Mexican. Italian, they do.”
Becerra hopes to achieve this by perfecting what he calls the “Holy Trinity” of fine dining: great food, great ambience and great service.
“What a person will experience is what it really is like to eat in Italy — north, south, east, west,” Becerra said. “It’s the wine, the aperitif, the digestif after dinner. It is true Italian, not with an American spin on it. That was our starting point.”
Pontiggia is creating a virtual Italian region in Northern New Mexico, making his own mozzarella from New Mexico cow’s milk and sourcing many of the ingredients for his dishes from four farms in Santa Fe, Dixon and Velarde. They are growing Sassella’s mixed greens, beets, peppers, asparagus, potatoes, four types of tomatoes, basil, rosemary and more.
Buffalo, bison and venison also will be locally sourced, he added.
Sassella, which the owners plan to open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, will seat 100 in a main room, bar and patio. The 225 Johnson St. property was occupied by the restaurant Maize until early May and previously was known as Georgia, in a nod to the nearby museum.
As at Sazón, Becerra said, service at Sassella will be a primary focus, and staff will be rigorously trained.
“It starts with your server,” Becerra said. “They walk you through the experience.”
Two or three servers may be coordinating delivery of a meal.
“It’s a show in itself,” Pontiggia said.
“It’s a dance, a ballet,” Becerra added.
Sassella is as much about the bar as the restaurant. A wide range of Italian wines will fill the cellar, along with some Napa Valley selections.
“We work hard to curate a very good wine list,” Becerra said. “Italian wines in my opinion are the greatest in the world. They are different from the north to the south.”
Though it will stock selections of apertivi, amari, grappi (made from mashed grape remains), port, cognac and single malt scotch, Sassella also will be a house of gin, Becerra said.
“We are going to introduce people to gins from around the world.”
This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Sassella owners plan to open Monday through Friday. Sassella owners plan to open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. The error was made in the editing process.