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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Q&A With La Ciccia's Massimiliano Conti, Part 2: On Sardininan Food, and Working With Your Wife

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 at 10:00 AM

  • Alanna Hale
Born and raised in the southern part of Sardinia, Massimiliano Conti -- chef-owner of La Ciccia in Noe Valley -- was 14 when started he culinary school and 18 when he joined the Princess Cruise Line to travel the world and meet his future wife. After stints in Tuscany, Chianti, and Washington, D.C., Max and Lorella moved to San Francisco in 1996. It then took 10 years to find the right space for what is now a cherished neighborhood restaurant.

In part 1 of SFoodie's interview with the chef, Max talked about his childhood in Sardinia. Tomorrow, he shares the recipe for one of La Ciccia's most popular dishes.

SFoodie: How do you think La Ciccia fits into the dining scene in SF?

Conti: Our ultimate goal is to bring the best that Sardinia has to offer to San Francisco. We want to be able to do that on many different levels. Not just with the food, not just with the wine, but also to open the doors to people to Sardinia so that maybe you decide, Hey, instead of going to Florence this year, let's spend a week in Sardinia and see what it's all about. That is my ultimate goal.

What are some defining characteristics of Sardinian cuisine?

Because we are an island in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, you would think seafood is very important, but actually, seafood didn't become part of the culture until the Spanish colonization. The heart of Sardinian culture and cuisine is based on the land. Lots of grains, vegetables, and animals like goat, lamb, rabbit, and wild game. The coast was a dangerous place. Being an island, everybody wants to conquer you. Many invaders would use Sardinia as a base to spend some time and restore themselves before continuing on to other parts of Europe.

Does their influence show up in the cuisine?

Yes, definitely. Think of bottarga: cured, salted fish comes from the Arab colonization. Saffron from North Africa. The use of raisins, of sweet and sour - even a dish like fregola [a pearl-like pasta] reminds you a lot of couscous. The colonizers brought new things to this very ancient land, which through the years became part of Sardinian culture.

Are you using family recipes? Traditional? Your own?

We are using both traditional Sardinian and family recipes. I strongly believe that to really showcase the food of a particular place you need to showcase the food of the people-the food that people eat every day in their homes. Our recipes come from our families, our neighbors families, the food of Campidano.

Do you feature a lot of Sardinian wines as well?

Our list is about 180 wines right now, all Italian, with about 50 percent of the list Sardinian.
Lorella and I work together to create the list. We're supporting more and more small farmers and producers instead of large, corporate wineries. This pretty much reflects the philosophy of the restaurant. We are not a large corporation. We do things in a very artisanal way, and we think that we need to dedicate most of our wine list to producers who work under the same philosophy.

Working with your spouse, is it hard to separate restaurant life from home life?

It is very difficult. We are both here 6 days a week. We try to not take work to the house but you end up talking about it. But I think it's what keeps the restaurant alive. La Ciccia is designed around people, and those people are me and my wife. Like clothes you design around yourself, these walls are something we wear all the time. If we had a chef in the kitchen and hired a general manager it would be a completely different restaurant. Ultimately it's something that we enjoy doing, and I think it's something that is easier to do between a husband and wife than two partners.

Really? Why?

When you marry someone, you marry for the good and the bad. There is not the level of arrogance that there is between two partners. With two partners, they both want to be right.

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie.

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