A tiny hamlet in the mountains of northern Italy’s Lombardy region, Sassella is home to some of Italy’s finest wines. It was also home to Cristian Pontiggia, the brilliant executive chef behind Sassella, the Santa Fe restaurant. Cristian’s been in the U.S. many years now but still takes inspiration from his roots. He mixes tradition with his own sense of imagination, to craft truly stunning Italian dishes. The rest of the restaurant operation—service, wine, and spirits, front and back of the house — excels with similar skill and finesse.
The single best seafood dish I’ve eaten in the United States this year was Chef Cristian’s white sea bass Mediterraneo. An expertly seared skin-on fillet sits atop a relish of preserved lemon and sun-dried tomatoes, offering a hit of acid to balance with the rich fish. The sleeper ingredient that pulled together the entire dish was gnochetti, coated with butter. The hearty little dumplings reminded me of spaetzle, and that’s not entirely coincidental, given Lombardy’s proximity to Germany.
Lombardy, in general, is revered for its risotto. The dish is really something comparable to religion there. You may feel like you’ve had a spiritual conversion after tasting Cristian’s. It changes flavorings from time to time. My last indulgence paired the carnaroli rice with tender lobster chunks and swirls of arugula-pistachio pesto and creamy fontina.
Among the lighter dishes, pear carpaccio offers slices of luscious fruit, with goat-sheep cheese, artichokes, mint, and pistachios. Burrata Caprese-style pairs an ultra-creamy ball of cheese with heirloom tomato slices and just enough chile oil to make you notice. The Florentine poached egg’s a beauty, with the expected spinach, but also includes basil hollandaise, tobiko caviar, and more. The Caesar salad’s so striking that it’s hard to know when to stop photographing it, and simply dive in. Fall evenings were made for the mushroom soup “cappuccino” style, with a dusting of porcinis and a finishing froth of white truffle.
Examples of pasta include mare nero, jet black linguine with mussels and piquant soppressata, tossed with a wine-laced tomato sauce. The chef makes his Bolognese with local bison, a nice twist, and serves it over shell-shaped pasta — conchiglie — which naturally corrals the sauce in their nooks and crannies. Heartier dishes include lamb loin, wild boar scaloppine, and a beef porterhouse.
Don’t miss a final flourish of butterscotch budino or perhaps affogato, espresso poured over vanilla ice cream in a copper goblet.
GO FOR LUNCH
Lunch is a newer addition here. The choices run from that elegantly presented Caesar salad, or meatballs and marinara, to a baguette sandwich piled high with fried shrimp, crispy pancetta, and a pickled vegetable giardiniera. Take advantage of the remaining warm days to enjoy it on the brick terrace in the shadow of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Of course, the dining room’s a lovely light-filled spot to savor a meal by day. The space simply sparkles at night, too, thanks to co-owner Suzanna Becerra’s design eye.
WINE & CHILE FIESTA
A restaurant named for an important wine region — known for Nebbiolo grapes in particular — certainly takes particular pride in its wine list. It doesn’t hurt that Cristian has a doctorate in wine gastronomy and that co-owner Lawrence Becerra is well-schooled in wines, too. During the upcoming 2022 Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, the restaurant will host a six-course dinner with nine Angelo Gaja wines. Just a handful of tickets remain as of September 7. This goes for a whopping $550, all-inclusive, but you’re going to get what you pay for, and then some. It will, no doubt, be one of the most notable of the festival’s wine dinners.
Incidentally, cocktails here get plenty of care. The menu emphasizes gins and amaros and offers tastings in the cozy bar most afternoons.
For a less pricey alternative, check out the newer Deli at Sassella, housed in a bungalow one street over and directly behind the restaurant. It offers an array of sandwiches to eat at shaded picnic tables, take-out charcuterie, cheeses, and lasagna, as well as dried pasta, bread, and more. I’ve been stopping in regularly to get either prosciutto or speck (cured similarly to prosciutto but then lightly smoked), to serve with height-of-season cantaloupe. Perfection. Now that’s a word I associate with virtually everything connected to Sassella.
Where to Find Sassella
225 Johnson St.
Dinner Monday through Saturday
Lunch Thursday through Monday
Reservations strongly recommended
Deli at Sassella
Open Monday through Saturday
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.