Sazón owners to open Italian restaurant in downtown Santa Fe

The outside of Maize restaurant where the new restaurant Sassella will open in June. Gabriela Campos/ The New Mexican

The owners of downtown Santa Fe’s Sazón and its Mexican “New World” offerings promise the same fine dining finesse for Italian cuisine at a new restaurant next door to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Lawrence Becerra said Tuesday that he, his interior designer wife Suzanna Becerra and Sazón partner and chef Fernando Olea plan to open Sassella in the current location of Maize.

The Maize dining room will close Friday, with the bar to follow May 15. The Sassella team takes possession of the 225 Johnson Street property May 16. Becerra expects to open Sassella in mid-June.

Sassella will be helmed by executive chef Cristian Pontiggia, who comes from Sassella in the Lombardy region of northwestern Italy. He headed kitchens in Bellagio, Italy, and the Four Seasons Hotel in London, and Tuesday wrapped two years at El Nido in Tesuque. Pontiggia did prior local stints at Osteria D’Assisi and Steak Out in Taos.

“I love every region of Italy, and I’ve included on Sassella’s menu several dishes only found in small towns throughout the country,” Pontiggia said.

One dish will be zigoiner from near the Swiss border that involves slices of Chianina beef wrapped around a stick.

Pontiggia will be a partner at Sassella along with the Becerras and Olea. Lawrence Becerra insisted on having chefs as co-owners rather than employees as a ploy to keep chefs from leaving and opening their own restaurants.

The Becerras have known Pontiggia for three years and told him they would invest in an Italian restaurant for him “if the right thing comes up.” They learned of the pending vacancy at Maize six week ago.

A hint at what fine dining means to Becerra: You can get $500 shots of tequila at Sazón.

Lawrence Becerra said he defines the “holy trinity” of fine dining as great food, great ambience and great service. “You can’t have two without the third,” he noted.

Sazón is one of three Four Diamond AAA restaurants in New Mexico, all in Santa Fe, with Geronimo and Rancho Encantado the other two. Sazón opened in September 2015 and has received Four Diamonds for three years.

Becerra said he intends to hit the same level at Sassella. Instead of a bar with exotic tequila and mezcal at Sazón, the Sassella bar will feature top-quality gin, amaro and vermouth. Martinis will be a specialty.

“Gin is the hottest spirit now,” he said.

Sassella will follow the seasons, with meat-oriented northern Italian cuisine in winter and fish-centered menus with southern Italian flavors from Naples, Sardinia and Sicily in summer, Becerra said.

Sassella will be open for lunch and dinner (Sazón is dinner only). It will have three dining areas, about 40 to 50 seats in the main dining area, 40 seats at the bar and 40 seats outdoors.

“What we’re trying to do is create a destination,” Becerra said.

Jennifer Day, an owner at Maize, did not immediately return a call from The New Mexican.

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