La Jolla’s new Semola takes Italian gastronomy in a global direction
Chef Daniela Martinez shows off her versatility at Ambrogio15’s artful new twist on international cuisine
Over the past five years, San Diego’s Milano Five Group has made a name for itself with hyper-authentic Milanese food at its popular Ambrogio15 pizzerias in Pacific Beach, Little Italy and, now, Del Mar.
But Semola, the latest restaurant from two Milano Five co-founders, Andrea Burrone and Giacomo Pizzigoni, is Milanese, by way of South America, the United States, France, South Korea and Japan. Subtitled “an Ambrogio15 Gastronomy Project,” Semola opened in May in the former PrepKitchen restaurant in La Jolla.
Burrone, a Milan native who oversees all of Ambrogio15’s restaurant operations, has brought together a trio of chefs from three different countries to develop the menu that seems Italian on its surface, with its mix of carpaccio, pastas and risottos. But Italy is only the starting point for its contemporary, globally inspired menu.
The two chefs behind the Michelin-starred Ristorante Acquerello near Milan, Silvio Salmoiraghi of Italy and Choi Cheolhyeok of South Korea, along with Italian gastronome Paolo Tucci, consulted on the menu. But its heart and soul is head chef Daniela Martinez, who was born in Argentina and raised in New York in a mostly Puerto Rican-Dominican community.
Martinez has cooked all over San Diego, as pastry chef at Ironside Fish and Oyster, Sugar and Scribe, Bracero, and Il Dandy. In 2019, her dessert skills made her a grand champion on Food Network’s “Chopped Sweets Showdown.” But at Semola — the Italian word for pasta flour — Martinez is happy to be stretching her wings for the first time as a lead chef. Judging by her creative, flavorful, multilayered and beautifully plated food, the new title suits her well.
Semola seats 50 at all-outdoor tables, but a large indoor dining room will open this fall. Diners can order a la carte or a five-course, $99 prix-fixe menu. Dishes range in price from $13 to $39, with most in the $19 to $25 range. In October, a new six-seat chef’s table adjacent the kitchen will offer nightly specialty dinners. Pizzigoni has curated the list of mostly Italian boutique white, red, rosé, orange and sparkling wines — many made from organically grown grapes — starting at $12 a glass.
Burrone says the menu’s $29 Wagyu starter course best represents Semola’s culinary pedigree and future direction. It’s got the thin-sliced beef and Parmesan of an Italian carpaccio, but it’s served with the egg yolk, mustard seeds, pepper and herbs of a French beef tartare. Martinez’s version features melt-in-your mouth Washugyu beef — a hybrid of Japanese premium cattle with American Black Angus — arranged artfully in an “S” (for Semola) and topped with 24-month aged Parmesan, tart radish blossoms and tangy pickled mustard, with the crunch of coarsely ground black pepper and the bright pop of tiny spheres of zesty lemon pepper “caviar.”
Another Semola specialty is its generously portioned risottos, made with a specialty carnaroli rice that Burrone sources from Milan. The $23 Fugazetta risotto is named after Argentina’s onion-topped stuffed pizza known as fugazza. The rich, creamy and deliciously smoky al dente dish is made with melted onions, mozzarella oregano and crispy bread crumb topping, and served under a glass dome filled with wood smoke.
Chief among Semola’s main courses, or “priatto principale,” is the aptly named Cielo, which means “heaven” in English. It’s a juicy duck breast gently cooked sous-vide, so its flavorful layer of under-skin fat hasn’t melted away. It’s served with a sweet Italian wild cherry demi-glace, slow-cooked tomato on the vine, parsnip puree and a savory black garlic emulsion. It’s $35.
And, of course, Martinez shines on the dessert menu with several creative twists on Italian desserts, like a reimagined parfait-style tiramisu, a deconstructed Bellini cocktail made with thin-sliced white peach and peach sorbet topped tableside with bubbly Prosecco; and the piccola pasticceria, a traditional Italian box of miniature pastries, which Martinez serves in a cigar box lined with fragrant espresso beans. All desserts are $13.
Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays for now, but like its seating and Martinez’s creativity, diners should expect that to expand in future months.
Semola, an Ambrogio15 Gastronomy Project
Where: 7556 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 412-3432
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