Ensenada eatery offers both familiar and epicurean fare
By: W. Scott Koenig
Italian restaurants in Ensenada range from commercial “red sauce” joints – where pedestrian fare such as pizza, spaghetti and lasagna appeal to the diner seeking nothing more than a familiar and filling meal – to trattorias such as Da Toni, a gourmand’s favorite where more esoteric dishes from Italy’s Piedmont region, such as braised beef cheek ravioli in chicken liver mousse, adhere more closely to genuine Italian traditions.
Il Massimo, located on Boulevard Lázaro Cárdenas along the city’s Malecón, lies somewhere in between. “I want to offer a variety of Italian food, without taking most people too far out of their comfort zones,” chef owner Massimo Zaretti said during a recent visit. “When a guest asks for lasagna, I tell them we don’t have it, but that they should try our cannelloni. They’re made with similar ingredients, but the construction is different.”
Zaretti inaugurated Il Massimo just twelve months ago. Its menu includes Southern Italian dishes that take full advantage of Baja California’s bounty of fresh seafood, as well as plates familiar to just about any visitor. “Ensenada’s climate is very similar to Southern Italy and the Mediterranean. Dishes are lighter,” the chef explains. “In the north of Italy, it’s cooler. Dishes tend to be made with heavier tomato and cream sauces.”
Tentacolo di pulpo is a prime example of the eatery’s Mediterranean influence. Thick tentacles of perfectly pan-seared octopus are prepared without fuss. They’re marinated in extra virgin olive oil and parsley, seared with a touch of oregano and chili flakes and served with sautéed leeks. It’s one of the most tender and flavorful octopus dishes I’ve sampled in the region.
Another example of one of the restaurant’s lighter southern-style dishes is the house-made burrata served with fresh and colorful heirloom tomatoes. The burrata combines stracciatella (buffalo milk cheese) mixed with cream and encased in a skintight membrane of smooth mozzarella. The firm, fruity tomatoes are served with basil, given a splash of balsamic reduction and provide texture and taste to the creamy burrata, a staple of the southern Italian region of Puglia. The dish’s construction of quality ingredients results in an entrada that’s exquisite in its simplicity.
“The types of cuisine familiar to most diners outside of Italy are pastas like spaghetti and linguini made with tomato-based sauces. These recipes are from areas like Rome, Naples and Sicily,” Zaretti says. “They appeal to just about every taste.” His delectable cannelloni al forno – a tube shaped pasta commonly known as manicotti in the US – is house-made, stuffed with ricotta and spinach, topped with a chunky sugo, finished in the oven and served in an iron skillet. It’s a velvety, tangy affair and one of the restaurant’s crowd pleasers.
Osso bucco substitutes pork shank for the traditional leg of veal used in the Lombardi region of Italy, as veal isn’t widely available in Mexico. It’s not missed in this delightful interpretation. The ample braised shank is bathed in a hardy, peppery brown gravy with carrots and celery and served with a side of potatoes. The meat falls off the bone and one is tempted to lick the plate clean of every drop of the savory, luxuriant and well-seasoned sauce.
If there’s room for dessert, the menu lists several tempting postres. I’m not typically one for tiramisu – the light, often blandly-flavored cake doesn’t quite satiate – however, I enjoyed Zaretti’s version with banana and Nutella. The lush chocolate and hazelnut flavors of the spread balance nicely with the fruity bananas to provide a satisfyingly sweet end.
Also recommended is ravioli dulce — lightly fried pockets of pasta stuffed with ricotta, powdered sugar, orange zest and chocolate chips, topped with honey and served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. To assist with digestion, Zaretti or his staff might offer one of the restaurant’s house-made cellos – lemon, lime or orange – all extraordinarily good.
There are a number of appealingly affordable Baja California reds and whites on the list, offered at just above vineyard retail. “I want people to try the wines of this region, so I’m very conservative on my markup,” the chef insists. Additionally, Il Massimo prepares refreshing house-made Italian sodas, such as cucumber, mint and basil or strawberry and hibiscus.
The chef’s 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry – as food and beverage director for world-class resorts and hotels in Las Vegas, Italy, Asia and San Diego – inform his sense of customer care. His attention to detail is all the more notable in Baja California’s oft-leisurely service environment. “I want diners to feel comfortable and at home, but I insist on providing clean silverware between courses and making sure a napkin is folded when a guest returns from the bathroom,” Zaretti maintains. The result is attentive service bereft of pretense.
Zaretti’s father, a career restaurateur originally from Rome, inspired him to open his own restaurant. “My Dad has been in the business for forty years, and owned restaurants in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills,” Zaretti recalls. “He emphasized the idea that entrepreneurship is key and helped me understand that a smaller operation is more manageable than a large one. He told me to forget everything I learned in the hotel industry.”
After working around the world, Zaretti founded Il Massimo in Ensenada for several reasons. “My parents always loved Ensenada and used to drive us here from Las Vegas,” the chef recalls. “Italian and Mexican cultures share many similarities — the same values, sense of family and love of good food. Also, the cost of operating a restaurant in Ensenada is within reach. For what I pay here, I would have a food truck at best in San Diego or Las Vegas,” Zaretti continues. “This is rapidly growing city and needs more diverse dining options.”
The chef concludes, “With this restaurant, I’m following my dream. I honestly believe that all of the successful chefs, restaurateurs, bloggers and food television hosts all started from nothing. I really hope that with hard work, experimenting with new dishes, discovering what’s in season and – most importantly – listening to my guests, I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned to future culinary concepts.”
Il Massimo is located on Boulevard Costero, Lázaro Cárdenas 987, Zona Centro, 22800 Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. Hours: Sun 1-9PM, Mon-Wed and Fri 1-10PM, Closed Thur. Phone: +52 (646) 977-7089. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ilmassimoensenada.
DISCLOSURE: The chef graciously comped our food and drink during our visit. This was unexpected, did not inform the author’s opinion and no other compensation was received for this review. I would happily return to Il Massimo for a meal on my own peso.
San Diego-based lifestyle writer W. Scott Koenig is founder of the blog AGringoInMexico.com, author of the book 7 Days in The Valle: Baja California’s Wine Country Cuisine and has written for Discover Baja Travel Club, Destino Los Cabos, DiningOut San Diego and SanDiegoRed. Scott organizes and conducts professional and private culinary tours of Baja California and has assisted with film and video productions in the region. He has worked with the Food Channel, the BBC, KPBS and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).