Matteo Cattaneo (left), Mario Cassineri (right)
Buona Forchetta founder Matteo Cattaneo and BiCE partner and executive chef Mario Cassineri have joined forces for the new Officine Buona Forchetta, a Liberty Station spin-off of the wildly popular South Park pizzeria. To celebrate its debut this month, we talk with the native Italians (Matteo from Bergamo, Mario from Milan) about old-school recipes, family-friendly dining, and the virtues of good bread.
On meeting in San Diego…
Matteo: I came to San Diego to study at California Western School of Law. I was also working so much at my friend’s restaurant because I loved it. So I was like, “Maybe I should do this by myself.” I was living in South Park one block from where Buona Forchetta is now, and the space was awesome. We were thinking of it being a neighborhood place. I think a lot of the success is also because of Troy [Johnson, San Diego Magazine’s food critic]. He pushed it so much! Since the day we opened in January 2013, thank god, we haven’t had one night when we weren’t full.
Mario: I came to the U.S. almost 12 years ago. I was a corporate chef for a big company that opened Italian restaurants around the world. My point was to keep it very Italian. They sent me to San Diego to stay for a few months, but then I partnered with the company, and now I’m still here. I met Matteo because I was his customer.
Matteo: He came to me. I couldn’t afford to go to his restaurant! I was broke! I would just go to In-N-Out.
Mario: I’d go twice a week because they do real pizza at Buona Forchetta. We built our friendship, and two years ago he said, “I have a proposal on the table, but I’m only going to do it if we do it together.” I said, “Why not? Let’s see how it goes.”
On the Officine Buona Forchetta concept…
Mario: I want to show people you can do good food like they do in Italy without spending so much money. BiCE is different; it has a lot of wines and rent to pay and this “fine dining” name. But I believe more in “fun dining”—good food in a fun environment and affordable for families. This is what San Diego needs—more family restaurants.
Matteo: We have families; we know how it is. When you go out, you want to bring your kids, but at the same time, you want to sit down, enjoy your wine. Officine has a family-oriented back patio where parents can sit while their kids play. In the front, we’ll try to keep customers who maybe don’t want to have dinner while a kid is screaming.
On working together…
Mario: We’re on the same page on everything because in Italy we grow up with the cult of eating. It’s not to fill our bellies, but to enjoy.
Matteo: We don’t like to put the name BiCE out too much because we don’t want to scare people that it’s fine dining. Buona Forchetta is becoming a brand, so we had to keep that name, but we wanted to play with the warehouse-style space we have. Officine means “workshop.” We have new appliances you didn’t have a long time ago. We really wanted to do something new, but also old. For recipes, we don’t want to be too crazy, like everybody went crazy over kale! Or seaweed!
Mario: We want to do it the way our mothers do it. Keep it simple, nice, and tasty.
On must-try menu items…
Matteo: A lot comes from the South Park menu, and we’ll add more. We have this focaccia from Recco, a little town in Liguria. If you talk about focaccia in Italy, you talk about Liguria. It’s thinner. We also have high hopes for fritti, a new line of fried snacks, a classic in Naples. One is made with pizza and cheese, all fried.
Mario: They’re small bites. We’re also going to make fresh pasta, some very typical dishes also from BiCE.
Matteo: And we’re trying to keep the prices reasonable for lunch. We’ll have a new line of sandwiches: panuozzo, a typical Italian sandwich with a kind of pizza dough made with more water, so it’s very light, then filled with simple ingredients like vegetables.
Mario: And bresaola! Prosciutto! We’re thinking, for lunch: Decide what you want, pay at the counter, we bring you the food, sit down, eat, forget it.
On those iconic pizza ovens…
Matteo: We’re going to use three ovens, with one dedicated to gluten-free pizzas. Our main chef, Marcello Avitabile, grew up in Naples. He knows a lot of artisans, so this sixth-generation oven maker said, “I like your project. Let’s try to make it happen.” We had to wait a long time because usually the oven is a dome; this is a sphere. No one had done this before.
Mario: They had to make the top part, then flip it and make the other half.
Matteo: It shipped in two containers. When they took it out, I lost eight years of my life. I was like, “Be careful! Do you have any idea what it took to make those? Slowly!” They’re named Augusta and Sergio, after my mother and my father. The one in South Park is named for my daughter, Sofia. The one in Encinitas [slated to open later this year] is named after my other daughter, Isabella. The two catering ones are named after my dogs.
On choosing between bread, cheese, or wine for the rest of their lives…
Mario: Cheese and wine. I like a glass here and there with good company. Where we grew up, cheese is always the last bite when you finish lunch or dinner.
Matteo: Bread. I love bread. I love it! In Italy every family eats bread with everything, even with pasta. When people see me, they’re like, “Are you crazy? How can you eat bread with this?” I can, though. Really! If I go home and I don’t find bread, I’m like, “How can I eat without bread?” I’m the only Italian who doesn’t drink wine.
Mario: But he promised we’re going to get drunk as soon as we open.
Matteo: But to get drunk for me takes only a little shot of wine. I don’t drink coffee, either.
Mario: I drink nine or 10 espressos a day.
Matteo: For me, it’s bread!