From Cruise Ship to La Ciccia: Q&A with Chef Massimilian Conti
Calling Massimiliano Conti a spirited, rambling, wine enthusiast and cook is somewhat of an understatement. Max, as he's called for short, is an tireless ambassador for all things Sardinian. As chef-owner of Noe Valley's La Ciccia, which he runs with his wife, Lorella, Max strives to reveal a lesser-known Italian cuisine and culture from the minute you walk through the restaurant's front door. Part 2 of SFoodie's interview with Conti will appear tomorrow, and the chef will share the recipe for his famous octopus stew in part 3.
SFoodie: Where did you grow up in Sardinia?
Conti: I am from the Campinado area, between the capitol and the western part of Sardinia. Campo means fields, and it is an area with a lot of farmland and grain. My grandfather was a farmer and a shepherd, and my grandmother used to have a bakery. I had the best of both worlds.
I imagine this influenced your interest in cooking?
Oh most definitely. I lost my real father when I was one, so I spent most of my time with my grandparents, my aunt, and my mother. At home, I was always around women and around a lot of cooking. Any free time when I wasn't in school I was at the farm. I learned how to make sausage and prosciutto with my grandfather as well as how to make blood sausage, pancetta, and how to butcher an animal. Food and cooking was something that was part of my life.
What attracted you to Princess Cruises?
It was always my dream to work for a cruise boat because, if you come from a family where there is not a lot of money, it gives you an opportunity to travel. You always have a place to stay; you don't have to pay for lodging or food; you work and make money; you are exposed to a lot of different kinds of people.
How did you get from waiting tables on a cruise ship to opening La Ciccia in San Francisco?
I left Princess in 1991 after about three and a half years and went to Tuscany, then back to Sardinia. In '94, I went to visit a friend in Washington, D.C., and ended up staying for two years, managing a few Italian restaurants that needed help with their wine programs. But the weather was terrible and I was tired of paying $4 for a bunch of parsley. San Francisco always interested me because it's very diverse. You have the ocean, lots of farmland, and you're only an hour away from Napa and Sonoma. I was born on an island and raised on a farm-these things need to be close to me all the time!
We came here in '96 and again I worked as a waiter, watching what they were doing in the kitchen and taking notes. I then worked for a large wine importer as a manager for Northern California for about five years, representing about 85 wineries from Italy. After taking a break to do the olive harvest with my family in Sardinia, we came back and found this place in December of 2005. We had been looking for about 10 years.