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Dining Review: Semola

Semola serves modern multicultural cuisine while following a traditional Italian playbook

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In the gourmet realm, the success of a multi-faceted dish often comes down to “the perfect bite,” experiencing every plated component in the right ratio so the chef’s intentions are clearly communicated to one’s taste buds. Such is the case at Semola, a new self-billed “gastronomy project” on Fay Avenue in La Jolla from the team behind the Ambrogio15 family of restaurants.

Managing partner Giacomo Pizzigoni wants the world to know there’s more to Italian cuisine than comfort food and heaping plates of spaghetti slathered in Nonna’s red sauce. Together with Executive Chef Daniela Martinez, his aim with Semola is to explore more worldly flavors, utilizing Italian staples and coursing (raw and fried starters followed by pasta and risotto primi, protein-driven secondi, and dessert) as the framework for presenting modern cuisine in a casual setting. 

Semola’s Fugazetta: mozzarella, melted onion, oregano, herb crumble, wood smoke, presented by Executive Chef Daniela Martinez
Semola’s Fugazetta: mozzarella, melted onion, oregano, herb crumble, wood smoke, presented by Executive Chef Daniela Martinez

In devising a menu to accomplish Semola’s lofty objectives, Martinez conspired with Michelin-starred international chef Silvio Salmoiraghi. His added pops of flair and technique bolster Semola’s dishes, which are well thought out, blending the familiar with the futuristic. They are the types of dishes where the perfect bite is essential to fully understanding — and savoring — the high-concept, imaginative flavor profiles Martinez clearly spent a great deal of time conceiving.

Panzanella: heirloom tomatoes, bocconcini, red onions, curly celery, herb focaccia, barrel-aged tomato vinaigrette, 30 years Modena balsamic reduction, fresh basil & mint
Panzanella: heirloom tomatoes, bocconcini, red onions, curly celery, herb focaccia, barrel-aged tomato vinaigrette, 30 years Modena balsamic reduction, fresh basil & mint

Lemon-pepper caviar provides a burst of acidity to a luxurious carpaccio featuring hybrid Japanese A5 Wagyu and American Black Angus beef, a duo of egg yolk preparations (Caesar-cured and gel), tangy pickled mustard seeds, and salty aged Parmesan. It’s worth the time to get every element onto the fork each time. Ditto the crispy skin duck breast with a velvety parsnip puree, funky black garlic emulsion, and a demi-glace fortified with Nebbiolo and Amarena cherry liqueur.

Cielo: duck, parsnip puree, Nebbiolo & Amarena demi, confit tomatoes on the vine, black garlic emulsion
Cielo: duck, parsnip puree, Nebbiolo & Amarena demi, confit tomatoes on the vine, black garlic emulsion

The perfect bite strategy also comes in handy with more rustic dishes like Semola’s take on Amatriciana, which subs in solid bigoli pasta for the hollow mainstay and includes guanciale, mint, and pecorino, and tempura-fried squash blossoms fragrant with a generous dusting of smoked paprika that syncs with a roasted red pepper sauce. 

As delightful as the next-level gastronomy at play are the inspirations and interesting back stories behind Martinez’s dishes. A stuffed pizza called Fugazzeta from Martinez’s native Argentina is recreated in risotto form. Made with Carnaroli rice that’s been aged for seven years, it lives up to its inspiration, with stretchy strands of mozzarella clinging to every spoonful. Martinez consults her heritage once more with a purple potato gnocchi dressed in a pesto that, despite omitting cheese, is made creamy by a blend of focaccia and pine nuts. Fun fact: it’s completely vegan.

Pesto: purple gnocchi, pesto, sun dried tomatoes, toasted pine nut and herb crumb
Pesto: purple gnocchi, pesto, sun dried tomatoes, toasted pine nut and herb crumb

Taking notice of the pandemic-era soup-making renaissance, Martinez converted a gingered beet soup to a gel to grace a seared tuna starter. Similar inspiration comes her way care of the seasons, which she celebrates with desserts (Martinez was named a Food Network Chopped Grand Champion after competing on the “SweetsShowdown Tournament”) combining the sights, scents, and flavors of each three-month period. Her summer offering is a play on Key lime pie in which the confection is inverted to look like a cracker-sanded islet featuring a strawberry-leather “beach towel” shaded by a cocktail umbrella. Pisco foam evokes memories of lounge chair imbibing while a towelette scented with tropical fruit essence completes the transportive experience.

Semola’s Il Gioiello: seared tuna, escabeche, beet and ginger fluid gel
Semola’s Il Gioiello: seared tuna, escabeche, beet and ginger fluid gel

With its pair of patios — one shaded, the other open-air — dining at Semola is exclusively an al fresco affair, but space is being made indoors for a chef’s table where small groups will be able to enjoy everchanging arrays of off-menu dishes. A similar experience can be had right now with a five-course chef’s menu that offers an optional wine pairing featuring Pizzigoni’s impressively diverse, palate-stretching selection of natural and biodynamic wines, the majority of which are food-friendly in ways that go beyond tannins and jamminess.

With its name and menu structure, Semola could outwardly be mistaken as just another place for standard-issue Americano-style Italian, but one step inside is all it takes to determine it’s anything but. 858.412.3432, semolapasta.com


Golden Forks

Service 4
Timeliness 4
Ambience 3
Culinary Innovation 4
Food Quality 4
Wine List 5
Value 3

Featured Photo Semola’s Il Gioiello: seared tuna, escabeche, beet and ginger fluid gel

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