Sassella opened in July in a lovely territorial brick house adjacent to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Previously home to the O’Keeffe Café, Georgia, and Maize, the newest restaurant in residence — owned by Lawrence Becerra, his wife, Suzanna Becerra, and chef Fernando Olea, who also own Sazón — is named for a small village in northern Italy. Sassella promises a classic high-end Italian dining experience under the culinary direction of chef Cristian Pontiggia, an alumnus of the Four Seasons hotel in London and Osteria d’Assisi in downtown Santa Fe and El Nido in Tesuque.
The multicourse menu does indeed take a diner from aperitif to digestif, with stops at all the traditional courses — antipasti (starters); primi piatti (usually pasta, gnocchi, or risotto); secondi piatti (a main meat or fish course); and dolce (dessert). In Italy, antipasti and primi are usually meant to be shared, and Sassella makes it easy to uphold that tradition, splitting orders without question.
Italians know a hundred ways to preserve a pig, and the affettati misti ($18), a chef’s charcuterie board on both the lunch and dinner menus, puts six or seven of those cured meats (including prosciutto crudo, speck, coppa, and salume) and three cheeses (parmesan, provolone, and a very fresh goat cheese) on handsome display. It’s complemented by a spoonful of a lovely fig jam, some candied pistachios, and a scattering of microgreens. All in all, a perfect way to start a leisurely meal while sipping a cocktail or bubbly glass of prosecco.
A late September menu change traded the excellent burrata caprese — a classic combination of the perfect house-made creamy cheese with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and an aged balsamic drizzle — for a version paired with marinated artichokes at lunch ($15). A baby octopus and burrata salad ($19) at dinner was an unappealing violation of the historic Italian dictum to not mix seafood and cheese, which dates back to a time when the two were sourced from completely different regions of the country.
The Caesar salad ($18) — called Chef’s Caesar on the lunch menu and Caesar a Modo Mio at dinner — is an equally unusual but more successful take on an old standard. A dramatic presentation of a small head of romaine lettuce, trimmed top and bottom so it can stand upright, the parmesan-crusted wedge stands in a generous pool of creamy tonnato sauce (puréed tuna, anchovies, and mayo) usually served with cold sliced veal. Crowned with a thin, crisp halo of toasted bread, it turns the salad into a more substantial meal that tastes much better than it sounds.
Summer’s large serving of uniformly sturdy potato gnocchi alla Sorrentina has been replaced by a smaller dish of free-form pumpkin gnocchi ($28). Fragrant with sautéed sage leaves and swimming in a pool of nutty brown butter, the dumplings had a lovely, sweet flavor complemented by a sprinkling of amaretto cookie crumbs around the edge of the dish. Both gnocchi variations tasted good enough, but neither had the smooth light texture or hand-finished edges that convey the essence of Italy’s iconic dumplings — something a sure-handed nonna in the kitchen could remedy in a heartbeat.
The cacio e pepe con anatra ($22), a rustic tangle of house-made tagliatelle coated with a creamy pecorino romano sauce seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper and finely diced smoked duck breast, had a bit too much of the thick sauce. Another primi, penne al barbera ($23), featured perfectly cooked penne marinated in the eponymous red wine and dressed with small pieces of Italian sausage, mushrooms, arugula, and shaved parmesan. The generous bowl delivered good flavor without an overload of butter, oil, or cheese.
There are no vegetarian options among the main courses. There are one or two fish dishes on that section of the menu, and several hearty dishes featuring beef and pork. (Italian restaurants rarely serve chicken, which is considered more the territory of a home cook. Summer’s saltimbocca ($36) has left the building and won’t be missed. On one visit someone on the line fell asleep at the stove; the pale, bland plate was missing the fresh sage that defines the dish, and the sauce had no discernible wine or lemon enrichment. The cacciucco alla livornese ($38), a classic Tuscan seafood stew, isn’t included on the fall menu and will be missed. Individual components — pieces of sea bass, shrimp, calamari, and mussels in a light tomato-based broth — were each perfectly cooked. Not an easy accomplishment. It deserves an encore.
Three slabs of fork-tender Kurobuta ribs ($33) shared a plate with a mound of exemplary French fries. Painted with an eye-catching, zebra-stripped Dijon-black truffle sauce, the serving was large enough for two, if not three. We didn’t pick up any of the musky flavor of the truffles, which might have been overwhelmed by the sharpness of the mustard. Long-braised in wine and a mélange of aromatic vegetables, the lamb shank Milano ($38) was a complete success, a perfect match to the fine-grained, cheesy polenta on which it sat. Again, the serving was quite large, but sharing would have required more dexterity at the table than we had.
Desserts range from $12 to $16 and include house-made gelato and sorbetto and an over-the-top affogato ($15) — a scoop of vanilla gelato, chocolate sauce, and an amaretto cookie all “drowned” in espresso. Perfectly creamy house-made dark chocolate gelato ($12), served in a silver chalice, was brightened with slices of fresh strawberries and blackberries and an ampersand-shaped cookie.
We fell for the Nocciole e Cacao ($14), a rich, dense chocolate cake layered with dark Amarena cherries. The cake was more about the chocolate than the hazelnuts. The only off note was the inclusion of a cluster of raw green grapes with the ripe berries and vanilla gelato that completed the presentation.
Classically bitter espresso ($3.50) with a good crema — blessedly free of the strip of lemon peel that may have been an American invention to mask a lower-quality coffee — is the perfect ending to a leisurely meal.
Sassella has a massive wine list, with choices to appeal to both connoisseurs and those just beginning to explore the cult of the grape. Bottles ranged from $62 to $280 at the time of our visit; a small selection of wines by the glass are priced between $16 and $25. Perhaps more unusual in Santa Fe is the restaurant’s deep cocktail program. A collection of more than 60 varieties of high-quality and craft gins offer an opportunity to explore this latest cocktail trend. While overall alcohol consumption has been declining worldwide, gin sales have been growing faster than any other category.
There are five negronis — the classic Italian aperitivo that helped introduce more subtle gin cocktails to Americans — on the menu. There’s also a goodly selection of vermouths, amaros, and other liqueurs and wines that form the building blocks of pre-dinner cocktails. A tasting flight of three one-ounce negronis ($18) makes it easy, and fun, to explore the bittersweet possibilities in different gins and vermouths.
The cooking at Sassella is uneven at this time — sometimes excellent, sometimes betraying lack of attention in the kitchen, sometimes an odd expression of the search for boundary-pushing novelty in the midst of tradition. There is great promise here, though, and many interesting things to drink while you wait for it to fulfill itself. ◀