Chef Massimo Falsini became the executive chef at Calistoga’s Solbar in 2016, but the fit never jelled. Falsini’s blend of Roman cuisine with a flair for seafood was too great a departure for the previously Southern-influence California-cuisine menu.

In mid-2018, Falsini took a job outside the Napa Valley, recruited to oversee the culinary operations of the not-yet-opened oceanfront Rosewood Miramar Beach resort in Santa Barbara’s Montecito community.

I visited Falsini to enjoy his food and explore the similarities and differences between his Northern California and Southern California experiences. I learned that these two communities share many similarities and that under this new partnership Falsini is free to explore his extensive culinary experience and creative vision to great effect.

Rosewood Miramar Beach: a Napa Valley link

Santa Barbara and the Napa Valley are each affluent tourist destinations where wine is grown and made. Each has also been subject to recent natural disasters (fires, earthquakes, mudslides) that have impacted visitation rates but also brought the community together. Additionally, both have new resorts — built or being built — at least one of which is being managed by the same company. The new Miramar Beach property is operated by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, as is the northern Napa Valley Calistoga Hills project, now under construction and scheduled to open in 2022.

The parent company of Rosewood, CTF Development International, the private investment arm of the Cheng family that controls one of Hong Kong’s largest conglomerates and have an estimated net worth of over $12 billion, are developing the Calistoga Hills project.

Sonia Cheng, CEO of the Rosewood Hotel Group and the overseer of the group’s project management division, will add Calistoga Hills to the Rosewood’s already managed 27 hotel/15 country collection. It will have 110 hotel rooms, 36 cottages, 20 residence units, 13 custom residences, a public restaurant and bar, event facilities, spa and swimming pool.

Rick Caruso

Rosewood might oversee the operations of Montecito’s Miramar Beach hotel, but unlike Calistoga Hills its parent company is not the owner — Rick Caruso is. Caruso is a stylish Battaglia-suit-wearing, French-cufflink-sporting SoCal billionaire known for creating fancy shopping malls that are modeled after chic retail districts such as the Champs-Élysées in Paris or the Via Montenapoleone in Milan.

The resort reflects Caruso’s other projects in that there is an impressive level of detail and quality that permeates the site. Original art adorns the walls; aromatic fresh flowers sit on nearly every table and there’s even a falconer who comes each morning with hawk in tow to frighten away seagulls and ravens, which can apparently become a nuisance.

According to staff, Caruso has his own private suite at the resort and is often on the property. On the night I ate at the restaurant, he was dining at a nearby table. With him were a dozen or so equally well-dressed companions with a couple of men in dark suits looking Secret-Service-like standing nearby. The mood at Caruso’s table seemed serious and earnest from afar, but when Falsini made his rounds they became animated as the chef talked about how the fish they’d be eating that night had been caught just hours earlier.

Massimo Falsini: Italian roots with a tight Napa Valley link

Given the Rosewood connection and that Falsini’s wife and two children still live in the Napa Valley — the children attend St. Helena’s Montessori School, which is a “local gem” according to Falsini, so he commutes to Santa Barbara weekly — he may eventually have some sort of culinary role again in the Napa Valley.

Falsini grew up in Trastevere, Italy, on a street named Via Dei Salumi, which is appropriate considering he comes from seven generations of charcutiers.

Choosing to depart from his family’s multi-generational tradition of making artisan charcuterie, he first began working as a cook at Felice a Testaccio, a historical Roman trattoria. Eventually he began work at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Harry’s Bar, learning how to transform and modernize Italian favorites such as pillow-soft gnocchi and delicate agnolotti.

After leaving Italy Falsini traveled the world, honing his skills and learning new cuisines: Waldorf Astoria Orlando in Florida; Ferrari World Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; La Plage Resort in Taormina, Italy; the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on Hawaii; and most recently Calistoga’s Solbar. The Miramar Beach property has nine different eateries, each overseen by Falsini, including Caruso’s restaurant and the more casual all-day cafe, Malibu Farm.

Miramar by the Sea

The Montecito property has had a long history of being a resort destination. Miramar by the Sea first opened in the late 1800s, and by the 1920s the resort had evolved into a relatively affordable beach destination for those looking to escape the Los Angeles crowds. Though treasured by the locals for its memorable bright-blue-roofed white cabins and nearly private beach, the property’s allure diminished so that by 1998 it was closed. It changed hands often until 2007, when Caruso purchased it and spent 12 years and an estimated $150 million in renovations.

Caruso’s first hotel, it has 124 guest rooms (which start at around $800 a night during peak season), 37 suites, a spa, fitness studio, two pools and beach services that include complimentary surfboards and kayaks for guests. The commuter Amtrak train occasionally whizzes past, causing guests to wait briefly as they travel between the main resort property and the beach, their rooms or to the restaurant.

According to Falsini, the restaurant is one of only a few California establishments “grandfathered” to serve both food and alcohol on the beach.

Modeled after the owner’s yacht, with polished wood, vibrant blue seashell booths, white hand-sewn linen tablecloths and a spacious hardwood deck, the restaurant hovers at the edge of a white sand beach with the Pacific lapping only a few yards away.

As the sun set behind rain clouds on the night of my visit, the lights from numerous offshore oil platforms sparkled to life, while farther out the mountainous silhouette of Santa Cruz island — the largest of the eight Channel Islands and also the largest island off the coast of California — beckoned sirenlike to be explored on some future visit.

Falsini serves what he calls, “Coastal California cuisine with an Italian accent” that focuses on locally sourced ingredients.

“The finest food comes from the finest ingredients,” he said. “The entire process is important — from how and where it was grown to making sure it’s cooked with creativity and intention because only then can the dishes have soul and be memorable to our guests. It’s also important to have a little fun.”

The menu

The menu offers options that change with the seasons and has four sections — starters, second course pastas and pinsas, main courses and desserts. There is also a dedicated plant-based menu that is a welcome addition.

The hardy hand-pulled burrata starter with peaches comes with a crunchy, spicy picante-dressed salad and a tangy pancetta agrodolce (sweet/sour) sauce ($22), and the succulent and substantial seared tuna tonnato ($28) with a salad of green beans and pickled cherries is a playful twist on the classic — the veal saucing the fish instead of the other way around.

Given the creativity and quality, there is just no excuse not to have one or two courses from Falsini’s pasta/pinsas menu. Take for example the wonderfully smoky, nutty, savory grano arso spaghetti with clams ($26), which is made from “burnt grain” milled onsite and would make any Italian brought up in Puglia likely weep with delight.

And pity those who pass on the crackly, chewy experience of the pinsas, which are a low-gluten Roman version of the classic Neapolitan pizza and range from $20 to $24 with the buffalo mozzarella for the margarita coming from Petaluma’s Double 8 Dairy.

Pulling from his NorCal experience and relationships, he serves delicate yet rich black cod caught off San Francisco Bay with Iberico ham consomme and spring garbanzos ($45) because, as the chef explained, the colder northern waters result in more flavor in this particular species.

Even the preparation of the chicken ($35) is exceptional. Local organic poultry is paired with purple asparagus and includes sautéd pinwheels of tender dark meat alongside the crisp/ tender roasted white meat, and the Casitas Valley Rabbit cacciatora ($39) with farro carbonara has a touch of “Old World meets New World” charm and includes the crunchy and briny springtime Mediterranean succulent agretti plant.

Master pastry chef, Benjamin Kunert, is in charge of the desserts ($15 each) and crafts fun and tasty creations such as the sublime Citrus Bellini that includes a Rome-quality level of blood orange sorbet. Or the “Strawcherry” that looks like an enormous cherry but is instead made of macerated Gaviota strawberries, rhubarb, yogurt cream and an intense “osmosis” strawberry brodo (broth) that makes one understand why restaurateurs like Thomas Keller also purchase Gaviota-grown strawberries.

The wine list includes many from the Napa Valley but also from more local vintners. The cocktails (all $19) include some local classics such as the Miramar with Chopin rye vodka, campari, rosemary agave and citrus and a fun beach-friendly Mojito Italiano with basil. My recommendation, however, is to prime your palate with the bittersweet Negroni that includes an ice cube engraved with a curvy letter C.

Similarities and differences

According to Falsini, the diners in Santa Barbara are similar to those of the Napa Valley in that they eat out often, have high expectations and gravitate toward traditional dishes with more frequency than their culinary reputation might suggest, often preferring comfort-leaning fare compared with more experimental dishes. Plant-based options are a must in both locations, and food-wine parings are also critical. Another consistency is that locally sourced products are a must, so having strong relationships with local producers is important.

In terms of differences, Falsini was relieved to find the “stifling” staffing crunch felt in the Napa Valley is less apparent, attributing the difference to lower-cost housing options in nearby communities. And whereas meat is often the entree choice in the north, fish and vegetables are more often the go-to in the south. He also points to a more casual vibe.

“Both places are amazing, but it’s like the difference between Milano in the north and Naples in the south,” he said. “The north can often feel serious whereas in the south there’s a more laid-back feel, but both have great food!”

Worth the drive

The beachfront experience of this new Rosewood Miramar Beach resort is worth the roughly six-hour drive from the Napa Valley to Montecito. Couple the view with a chef who has found a place that embraces his vision and an owner who is obviously committed to seeing that his successful legacy continues and you have a combination with the potential of becoming a significant culinary destination in its own right.

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