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On the Menu: La Jolla’s Semola restaurant takes Italian gastronomy in a global direction

Chef Daniela Martinez's Wagyu carpaccio at Semola in La Jolla.
(Bhadri Kubendran)

Chef Daniela Martinez shows her versatility at Ambrogio15’s artful new twist on international cuisine.

Over the past five years, San Diego’s Milano Five Group has made a name for itself with authentic Milanese food at its popular Ambrogio15 pizzerias in Pacific Beach, Little Italy and, now, Del Mar.

But Semola, the latest restaurant from two Milano Five co-founders, Andrea Burrone and Giacomo Pizzigoni, is Milanese by way of South America, the United States, France, South Korea and Japan. Semola, subtitled “an Ambrogio15 Gastronomy Project,” opened in May in the former PrepKitchen restaurant in La Jolla.

Burrone, a native of Milan, Italy, who oversees all of Ambrogio15’s restaurant operations, has brought together a trio of chefs from three countries to develop the menu that seems Italian on its surface, with its mix of carpaccio, pastas and risottos. But Italy is only the starting point for its contemporary, globally inspired menu.

Semola head chef Daniela Martinez readies a dish of fugazzeta risotto served under a glass dome filled with wood smoke.
(Bhadri Kubendran)

The two chefs behind the Michelin-starred Ristorante Acquerello near Milan, Silvio Salmoiraghi of Italy and Choi Cheolhyeok of South Korea, along with Italian gastronome Paolo Tucci, consulted on the menu. But its heart and soul is head chef Daniela Martinez, who was born in Argentina and raised in New York in a mostly Puerto Rican-Dominican community.

Martinez has cooked all over San Diego, as pastry chef at Ironside Fish and Oyster, Sugar and Scribe, Bracero and Il Dandy. In 2019, her dessert skills made her a grand champion on Food Network’s “Chopped Sweets Showdown.” But at Semola — the Italian word for pasta flour — Martinez is stretching her wings for the first time as a lead chef.

This is one of two outdoor patios at Semola on Fay Avenue in La Jolla.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Semola seats 50 at all-outdoor tables, but a large indoor dining room will open this fall. Diners can order a la carte or a five-course, $99 prix-fixe menu. Dishes range from $13 to $39, with most in the $19 to $25 range.
In October, a new six-seat chef’s table adjacent to the kitchen will offer nightly specialty dinners.

Pizzigoni has curated the list of mostly Italian boutique white, red, rosé, orange and sparkling wines — many made from organically grown grapes — starting at $12 a glass.

Burrone says the menu’s $29 Wagyu starter course best represents Semola’s culinary pedigree and future direction. It has the thin-sliced beef and Parmesan of an Italian carpaccio but is served with the egg yolk, mustard seeds, pepper and herbs of a French beef tartare. Martinez’s version features tender Washugyu beef — a hybrid of Japanese premium cattle with American black Angus — arranged artfully in an “S” (for Semola) and topped with 24-month aged Parmesan, tart radish blossoms and tangy pickled mustard, with the crunch of coarsely ground black pepper and the bright pop of tiny spheres of zesty lemon pepper “caviar.”

Semola's fugazzeta risotto is inspired by the Argentine onion-topped stuffed pizza known as fugazza.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Another Semola specialty is its generously portioned risottos, made with a specialty carnaroli rice that Burrone sources from Milan. The $23 fugazzeta risotto is named after Argentina’s onion-topped stuffed pizza known as fugazza. The rich, creamy and smoky al dente dish is made with melted onions, mozzarella oregano and crispy bread crumb topping and served under a glass dome filled with wood smoke.

Chief among Semola’s main courses, or “priatto principale,” is Cielo, which means “heaven” in English. It’s a juicy duck breast gently cooked sous-vide, so its flavorful layer of under-skin fat hasn’t melted away. It’s served with a sweet Italian wild cherry demi-glace, slow-cooked tomato on the vine, parsnip puree and a savory black garlic emulsion. It’s priced at $35.

The Cielo duck dish at Semola in La Jolla
The Cielo duck dish at Semola in La Jolla is served with a sweet Italian wild cherry demi-glace, slow-cooked tomato on the vine, parsnip puree and a black garlic emulsion.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The dessert menu offers several creative twists on Italian treats, such as a reimagined parfait-style tiramisu, a deconstructed Bellini cocktail made with thin-sliced white peach and peach sorbet topped tableside with bubbly Prosecco; and piccola pasticceria, a traditional Italian box of miniature pastries, which Martinez serves in a cigar box lined with fragrant espresso beans. All desserts are $13.

Semola restaurant's pesca frizzante, a Bellini cocktail-inspired dessert
Semola’s pesca frizzante is a Bellini cocktail-inspired dessert made with thinly sliced white peach and peach sorbet layered into a flower bud shape and topped tableside with Prosecco sparkling wine.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Semola

Where: 7556 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Phone: (858) 412-3432

Online: semolapasta.com