Mosaico di Vita | Consorzio Vini di Romagna
November 2021 | Wine

Ristorante San Domenico. A stellar experience with the flavors of Romagna.

Without moving away from the heart of Imola, San Domenico has reached world-class culinary heights. And now, the artistry of Massimiliano Mascia brightly shines beneath its two Michelin stars.

Massimiliano Mascia, or Max – as family, friends and regular clients of San Domenico call him – was truly “born into art”. Max has taken over the culinary legacy of his uncle Valentino Marcattilii, the legendary chef who – between the 80s and 90s – has brought the most famous restaurant of Imola to new culinary heights, garnering Michelin stars on both sides of the Atlantic. Maurizio Magni, journalist, sommelier and editor-in-chief of the guide “Emilia Romagna da Bere”, met Max Mascia at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari during the final leg of “Vini ad Arte”, a yearly event organized by the Consorzio Vini di Romagna to celebrate local food and wine excellences.

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Mascia, you are now in-charge of the kitchens at San Domenico in Imola, reviving a ‘70s myth that puts together the stories of illustrious individuals like Gianluigi Morini, the ‘visionary creator, Luigi Veronelli, the great advisor, or Nino Bergese, the chef of kings: men who have all taken part in this adventure. Does this remarkable legacy weigh on or facilitate your job at San Domenico?

It was an equal match in the beginning. During my formative years, people looked at me differently. There was a sort of awe towards San Domenico. As for me, I have always tried to set the record straight. I was there to learn. When you know nothing, it doesn't matter whose son or grandson you are. Of course, some things seemed familiar to me because I saw them in restaurants all the time. But I knew I had to know more. I firmly believe that nobody is born knowing everything and that the hospitality training school is crucial for those who do our job. Years later, when I started to look for jobs at restaurants in Italy and abroad, I’ve certainly had some help. At least when establishing initial contact.

But then, I had to work up a sweat. I could have stayed in Imola, where I was certainly at home, given that my path has already been traced . But my curiosity and my desire to learn more urged me to face the bigger world. And this brought me to Ristorante Vissani, to Osteria Fiamma in New York and to France, first at Bastide Saint Antoine and finally to Paris, at the multi-awarded Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athenée.

San Domenico has long been a renowned training school in Italy and in the world: how do you live up to that myth?

Since the ‘80s, San Domenico has been one of the first restaurants to expand abroad, offering experiences and consultancy in the United States, particularly in New York. Many foreigners, especially Americans, still remember those times up to this day. And the ‘pilgrimage’ to the restaurant, especially from the US, proves that they have not forgotten. As for us, we have certainly not lounged around. San Domenico has always been a “construction site” for new ideas that Uncle Valentino, in the kitchen, and Uncle Natale, at the dining hall, have carried on while I was learning at their school.

How much of the legacy by Uncle Valentino and Nino Bergese, the “chef of kings” and the first to lead San Domenico in the ‘70s, can be seen in your cuisine? Do you have a more traditional or innovative take?

Tradition is undoubtedly present in my dishes because I believe that our restaurant does not offer “my” cuisine, but San Domenico’s. It’s like a jersey: we recognize an outstanding team from its uniform, not its current coach. There is a vision to be handed down. Respecting a great restaurant means respecting its tradition.

I’m not some kind of star, nor will be the chef who comes after me: the restaurant’s philosophy is the most important thing. There was a time when we were following trends, but we have always been true to ourselves. Some dishes have become symbolic dishes: Uovo in Raviolo San Domenico con burro di malga (Egg in Raviolo San Domenico with mountain butter), parmigiano dolce e tartufo (sweet parmesan and truffle) or Mattonella di fegato d'oca con purea di mele e gelatina al Porto e pan brioche (Goose liver with apple purée and Port jelly and brioche bread) or Torta Fiorentina fatta con i biscotti di frolla al cacao e la crema senza uova (Fiorentina cake made with cocoa-flavored shortbread biscuits and egg-free cream) which we continuously prepare for our clients. We also have new dishes that we gradually include in our menu and in our tradition, slowly and patiently.

What was and is San Domenico for Romagna food and wine? Do you think that San Domenico has contributed to undoing some stereotypes about Romagna?

Absolutely, especially in the 80s and 90s: we have helped create the image of Romagna food and wine in the world. Let’s take the US, where questionable “Italian-style” dishes such as penne alla vodka or spaghetti with meatballs were popular. At our San Domenico branch in New York, which opened in 1988, we prepared dishes like garganelli or passatelli paired with our very own Sangiovese, showcasing authentic Romagna food and wine.

Speaking of wine, how do you rate Romagna wine? Is it difficult to recommend local wine in a multi-awarded restaurant like yours?

People who dine in Michelin-starred restaurants are looking for adventure, for sensations. We have wines from 21 Italian regions as well as a great selection from France and the ‘new world’. Considering this, the hardest part is recommending Romagna wine to the locals, who regularly come to the restaurant. It is much easier to offer Romagna wine to a foreign client or someone from another Italian region. Our sommelier Francesco Cioria is an expert in enhancing local vines such as Sangiovese and Albana; he also shares with us the importance of offering a comprehensive narration of the territory. He talks about wine by pairing it with local excellences such as cheeses, cured meats, oil and meat.

San Domenico has had memorable times, it has hosted great individuals and has imparted lessons to the world. Can you share some of the unforgettable stories and people of these past 50 years?

Over the years, San Domenico has hosted famous and important people: heads of state, ministers and celebrities. And we should not forget to mention the mythical bunch of Formula 1, which has always given added value to Imola. Some of the most exciting memories are dinners with the pilots, from Ayrton Senna to Alan Prost and Michael Schumacher. I’ve only seen these events through pictures and heard of the stories from my uncles. More recently – and this is something that I will vividly remember – we hosted Flavio Briatore's 50th birthday dinner, when Briatore was the sporting director for Formula 1. It was a surprise party organized by none other than Naomi Campbell.

I clearly remember her, she was stunning while she wandered around the restaurant, looking at the mise en place and the cake. Uncle Valentino and Uncle Natale were the hosts while I was just a teenage boy from the workshop… But I also remember simpler and touching occasions, like a lunch organized a few Sundays ago for the 70th birthday of an old customer. She didn’t have a clue about the surprise birthday party, and she kept on thanking us while wiping her tears. These are simple yet valuable moments that tug at our heartstrings and fill us with pride. San Domenico is truly a restaurant of this territory.

One last question: how can we increase the number of Romagna wines included in wine lists offered here and elsewhere? What does a restaurateur need from winemakers in order to consolidate a sincere and effective partnership?

First and foremost, consistent quality of the wines and the raw materials. A producer who makes an exceptional product once won’t be any good. The product must be consistent over time. The quality of winemaking in Romagna has undoubtedly grown, that’s for sure.

Another element to consider is communication. Wine needs communication. It needs to be recommended in Italy and abroad. Unfortunately, Romagna is represented very little abroad. But it’s not because of its quality. Quality is rarely the prime factor considered when making wine lists in restaurants all over the world. What usually counts is how famous a wine is or if it is a well-recommended product. A restaurateur from Hong Kong who doesn't understand much about wine certainly won't come looking for you unless you put yourself out there first. Everybody knows the great French Châteaux, as well as the famous wines from the noblest regions in Italy; but the wineries of Romagna remain unknown to most despite their outstanding quality.

Therefore, it’s important for producers to make themselves known; but a brand that represents the region is also needed to boost visibility of the territory. I would like to emphasize this: numerous Sangiovese and Albana wines deserve to be included in the wine lists of restaurants all over the world. But there are essential factors to keep in mind: quality and consistency combined with a sommelier who guides you to find the right territory and the perfect pairing.

Thanks to and author Maurizio Magni for allowing us to share the article.