A trip to his homeland convinced Gianluca Legrottaglie to introduce pinsas to North America. His mission has been an unqualified success, and he recently opened Montesacro Pinseria Romana in Portland.
Gianluca Legrottaglie was only three days away from flying back to San Francisco. He’d been in Italy, feverishly learning everything he possibly could about opening a Roman-style pizzeria. The concept made perfect sense, as his other celebrated San Francisco restaurant, 54 Mint, doesn’t serve pizza. And Legrottaglie already held a deep, abiding affection for the food and culture of Rome, the city in which he was born and raised. At that moment, his plans for a new eatery were already set in stone.
But then his dad invited him to dinner. And everything changed.
An amiable guy, Legrottaglie delights in introducing the uninitiated to Rome’s culinary and social traditions. After chatting with him for a bit, it’s hard to imagine that he could live anyplace happily outside of Italy. But 20 years ago, while on vacation, he fell head-over-heels in love with—and promptly moved to—New York City.
“As a Roman guy, I wanted to offer the best of what I knew of Roman food.”
“I got a job at Il Buco on Bond Street,” he recalls. “I knew nothing about this industry and barely a word of English.” But during this initial deep dive into the world of restaurant hospitality, he earned a sterling education in wine, food, and service. He quickly ascended from bus boy to floor manager to wine steward, before being offered a general manager position at Aurora, across the river in Brooklyn’s red-hot Williamsburg neighborhood. Eventually, a former owner of Il Buco reached out and asked him to come oversee the newly opened 54 Mint in San Francisco. Legrottaglie has been running it ever since.
When the opportunity arose for him to open his own restaurant, without partners, Legrottaglie came up with the idea for a pizza place. “I didn’t want to compete with my own restaurant just down the street, so I picked a completely different concept. As a Roman guy, I wanted to offer the best of what I knew of Roman food.”
Because he’d never been a pizzaiolo, however, Legrottaglie researched and studied “like a crazy person,” he says, in an effort “to learn everything I could about Roman pizza.”
This led him to embark on the trip to Italy a few years ago, with his wife and daughter (they now have two)—and to the fateful dinner invitation from his father.
“We’re taking you out tonight for pizza,” he recalls his father saying. Legrottaglie expected little of consequence from the evening ahead. He’d already settled on a precise concept for his new pizzeria, and he didn’t exactly trust his dad’s track record in choosing noteworthy restaurants. “We ate at home 99 percent of the time while growing up—so I was a little suspicious. But he took us to this simple place that serves pinsas.” Pinsas, not pizzas. They’re related, but they’re definitely not the same. More on that distinction later.
“We ordered a simple margherita pinsa,” Legrottaglie continues. “And minutes later, this oval thing fell under my nose. It smelled amazing. I looked at my wife, and I said, ‘Wow, what is this?’ We finished eating it, and then another, and finally a third pie. We were absolutely blown away.”
He immediately started asking questions. First he spoke to the owner, who put Legrottaglie in touch with the guy who makes the pinsa bases. “And then I find the guy who makes the actual flour,” Legrottaglie says, brimming with excitement as he recalls this socio-culinary chain of events, like an evangelist describing the day he found religion. “And it turns out, this guy’s dad is the one who invented pinsa! I was … illuminated.”
By the time he boarded his return flight to California, Legrottaglie had purchased the specific model of Italian electric oven that’s required to bake pinsas. “It allows you to control the exact temperature of the top, bottom, and sides of the oven, and so you totally control the result.”
“And then,” he says, taking a deep breath, “I found out that nobody was doing pinsa in the United States.”
Upon his return home, in 2015, he opened Montesacro Pinseria Romana in San Francisco, the nation’s first such establishment, just a block away from 54 Mint.
“And then I found out that nobody was doing pinsa in the United States.”
So, what is a pinsa, exactly? It’s a contemporary version of the simple flatbreads that peasants living in the Roman countryside prepared two millennia ago. It’s lighter than conventional pizza, and, adds Legrottaglie, “it’s extremely easy to digest, with more water and fewer oils, and therefore less fat.”
Legrottaglie still buys the flour—a blend that’s mostly wheat but also contains rice and soy—directly from the pinsa inventor he met in Italy. This delicious pizza alternative has rapidly become a hot food trend, and it seems only a matter of time before pinserias have conquered every city in North America.
Not long ago, a friend suggested that Portland “would be a killer city” for him to open a second pinseria. When Legrottaglie learned last summer that a restaurant space (then occupied by Nicoletta + Beppe’s) would soon become available in the Pearl District, he and his wife flew up for a vist and fell completely in love with the city, and the neighborhood. On December 18, Montesacro Pinseria Romana (1230 NW Hoyt St, 503-208-2992, montesacropdx.com) opened quietly, but to rave reviews.
Like the original in San Francisco, Montesacro Pinseria “PDX” is based on the concept of fraschette, humble roadside taverns that have proliferated throughout the Lazio countryside since the days of imperial Rome. “My parents grew up eating in fraschette,” says Legrottaglie. “On weekends, local farmers would serve cured meats and cheeses, and the public could come and bring their own food. My mom would make lasagna, my aunt would make porchetta—people would bring all kinds of foods, and the fraschetta would make a little money by selling wine,” which was typically poured straight from the barrel.
Fraschette, and more broadly, the community spirit and determination of the working-class Romans who joined forces during Italy’s difficult World War II period, further inspired the restaurant’s rustic yet urbane décor. “I’ve always been passionate about antiques, because I love that era of Italy,” he says. “I wanted to pay homage to how people lived then—often in difficult circumstances, sometimes literally under bridges and aqueducts.”
“I think of myself as an ambassador of Roman culture, not a restaurateur”
The restaurant makes everything from scratch and has also created a retail line—they sell the ingredients to make pinsa, along with cheeses, prosciutto, and other goods. On the menu, you’ll find about 15 types of pinsa, each named for a neighborhood outside the center of Rome. The Centocelle (with tomato, artichokes, mushrooms, olives, hard-boiled egg, and prosciutto) is named for the district where Legrottaglie grew up.
Other pinsas of particular note include the Maranella—topped with broccolini, spicy pork sausage, and burrata cheese—and the Infernetto, an aromatic pie with smoked buffalo mozzarella and ’nduja. The latter is sourced, along with several other cured meats—wild boar soppressata, capocollo—from Seattle’s renowned artisanal salumeria, Pino Rogano.
The menu goes well beyond pinsas, however, and everything on it is deftly prepared, from starters of roasted cauliflower and black olives with hot chiles and breadcrumbs to cheese and meat boards to sott’oli—organic eggplant, sundried tomatoes, zucchini, and other vegetables marinated in extra virgin olive oil, parsley, chiles, garlic, and salt. They’re a specialty of his grandmother that are rarely served outside of central Italy.
“My goal is to encourage people to share food, without spending a fortune—and to enjoy each other’s company.”
Legrottaglie has been passionate about wine since his sommelier days, and the restaurant’s reasonably priced list reflects his appreciation for smaller producers and international varietals—sancerre from the Loire Valley, xinomavro from Greece, cannonau (grenache) from Sardinia. Additionally, there’s a full bar, and the restaurant prides itself on serving one of the best negroni cocktails in town.
Desserts, including a luscious budino al cioccolato piccante (spicy chocolate mousse) and creamy vanilla–wild fennel panna cotta with olive oil, are worth saving room for. But take note that Montesacro doesn’t serve cappuccino. “In Rome, it’s only a breakfast drink—nobody drinks it at dinner,” he says. “So in the evening, we serve only espressos, Americanos, and teas.”
Although Legrottaglie will soon launch another pinseria in Brooklyn, in partnership with friends from his Aurora days, he has no interest in building a franchise.
“I think of myself as an ambassador of Roman culture, not a restaurateur,” he says. “My goal is to encourage people to share food, without spending a fortune—and to enjoy each other’s company.”
– Andrew Collins // Photos by Aubrie LeGault