Not your grandma’s cucina


What happens when you take four restaurant owners from Rome and mix them together in the San Diego sunshine? Hopefully, in the case of fledgling Maestoso, it’s a recipe for success.

The 60-seat modern Italian restaurant, slated to open in early March in Hillcrest, is the love child of two young couples whose lives intertwined when they were all children at an English-language school in Rome. Last year, their paths crossed again and they hatched a dream for a restaurant like no other in San Diego.

Maestoso, named for its 31-year-old executive chef Marco Maestoso, will serve “anti-traditional” Roman-style cuisine. He says grandma’s Old-World recipes are a good starting point, but they can be vastly improved with new techniques and fine-dining flourishes.

“Marco has something San Diego has never seen. He puts science into his cooking and everything is captivating,” said Christopher Antinucci, 34, who, with his wife, Giulia Colmignoli, co-founded Napizza, a six-year-old Roman-style pizzeria chain in San Diego.

They’ve teamed with chef Marco Maestoso and his partner, Dalila Ercolani, 29, to open the new restaurant in a former Napizza location at The Hub Hillcrest shopping center.

The restaurant’s food will be different, but what’s most unique about Maestoso is how the food is served. Maestoso is going the way of dim sum. The chefs themselves will stroll the aisles, serving pick-your-own plates from rolling carts, a concept chef Marco calls passaggi (which means “to pass through” in Italian).

He said the “chef-to-table” service is something he and Ercolani perfected while running the New York supper club, Casa Maestoso, that put them on the map five years ago.

Chef Marco started out as a scientist, but couldn’t hack the long hours over a microscope, so he went to culinary school, staged for some Michelin-starred chefs, then settled in New York City, where he ran into childhood pal Ercolani, a food marketer and photographer.

In 2013, they opened the pop-up Casa Maestoso, a 16-seat Sunday night, four-course supper club, in their Upper East Side apartment. His elevated Italian cuisine was a smash, and with write-ups in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the seatings sold out a month in advance.

In 2015, they moved back to Rome to open a fine-dining restaurant, but it was a mistake. Casa Maestoso Ristorante earned 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor, but they got bogged down by the corruption, red tape, taxes and unwelcoming attitude of older chefs.

In 2017, they went back to their roots and launched a pop-up tour, cooking in the kitchens of their chef friends around the world. The tour brought them to California last spring and that’s when Antinucci got in touch via Facebook.

His family has known the Ercolanis for decades. Antinucci moved from Rome when he was 19 to study finance at the University of San Diego. On a trip back to Italy in 2004, he ran into Colmignoli — who he hadn’t seen since his mid-teens — and they fell in love. They now live in Solana Beach with their three young children and run Napizza outlets in Encinitas, Little Italy, Rancho Bernardo and UTC.

Although pizza has played a big role in all of their lives, Maestoso’s menu will feature a trendy Roman alternative called pinsa from chef Giorgio Corletti. Made from a rice-flour-infused dough that’s light and bubbly, pinsa is like a high-rise, oven-roasted flatbread layered with gourmet ingredients like octopus and pancetta.

Behind pinsa comes pasta, chef Marco’s signature. The restaurant will make six fresh pastas each day, including his famed amatriciana, a Roman dish with his acclaimed pink-hued gnocchi (colored with tomato water), crispy pig jowl and Pecorino cheese fondue.

Because chef Marco is a perfectionist with ingredients, cooking temperatures, technique and design, he’s staffing the restaurant entirely with chefs: four in the kitchen, four out front. No waiters. This allows the chefs to earn tips and better explain the menu, a concept pop-up diners have loved.

While chef Marco comes with fine-dining chops, the restaurant will offer price points at all levels. A dish of pasta and glass of wine can be had for $20, or diners can go crazy on the passagi cart and spend $100.

“You can have as little or as much as you want. You don’t want a whole steak, just order three slices. You want a little bit of pasta or a lot, you can have it. It will be an indulgence buy and there’s no guarantee it will be available the next it comes around,” chef Marco said.

The desserts are also nontraditional. The highly imaginative pastries have been co-developed by Jason Licker, who earned a James Beard nomination for his 2016 cookbook, Lickerland: Asian Accented Desserts by Jason Licker.

Chef Marco, who lives with Ercolani in Cortez Hill, said it will take a little time for diners to figure out the concept, but he’s confident it will work in his beloved new hometown.

“I feel a balance here in San Diego,” he said. “The people are more serene. It elevates the quality of life.”

1040 University Ave., Ste. B101, Hillcrest,