Food // Restaurants
When word got out last spring that Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan had sold their cherished Noe Valley restaurant, everyone wanted to know one thing. Was the restaurant, La Ciccia, going to change?
It’s a question that comes up whenever businesses sell, but one that seemed especially urgent for La Ciccia, a restaurant that had basically never changed. For 16 years, Degan was a steadfast presence at the door, greeting customers as they entered from 30th Street. Conti’s most beloved Sardinian dishes — the bottarga spaghetti, the spicy octopus stew — had been constants on the menu. To the regulars who loved it, La Ciccia’s sameness never felt stale or rehearsed. It felt soothing.
Yet the prospect of La Ciccia staying the same did not look promising when the sale was announced. Conti and Degan would not disclose the name of the new owner, identifying it merely as a “South Bay restaurant group.” It was hard to hold out hope that this anonymous, possibly corporate, new entity would keep the soul of La Ciccia alive.
The South Bay group never ended up taking over La Ciccia. In a twist that nobody could have expected, the deal fell through, and in the eleventh hour the real estate broker who had been negotiating the sale ended up buying the restaurant herself. Her name is Cheryl Maloney. She lives two blocks from La Ciccia and has been a regular there for years.
Top: Cheryl Maloney, owner of La Ciccia, gathers plates from customers. Above: Chef Umberto Herrera (left) plates the Pisci de Mari Arrustiu (right), fish topped with tomato, olives, capers and almonds. Justin Katigbak / Special To The Chronicle Top: Cheryl Maloney, owner of La Ciccia, gathers plates from customers. Above: Chef Umberto Herrera (top) plates the Pisci de Mari Arrustiu (bottom), fish topped with tomato, olives, capers and almonds. Justin Katigbak / Special To The Chronicle
Under Maloney’s ownership, very little at La Ciccia has changed.
Only one employee left after the ownership change. The new head chef is Umberto Herrera, who has worked in the kitchen since Conti and Degan first opened La Ciccia; the sous-chef, Edilberto Martinez, is likewise a 17-year veteran.
Some customers, Maloney believes, are determined to perceive changes in this new era, even when they’re imagined. “The other day one woman wanted to send back her bottarga pasta,” insisting that it tasted different from before, Maloney said. “It was cooked by the same guy who’s been cooking the bottarga pasta for 17 years!”
Conti and Degan took the restaurant’s artwork with them. But before they cleared it out, Maloney had it professionally photographed, then she reprinted it on stretch canvas so that the decor would remain the same. She initially thought she’d hire a general manager and started interviewing for the position. Then she scrapped the idea, deciding that she should do the job. “The owner should really be the one who’s there,” she said.
So like Degan before her, Maloney is now at the door every night, welcoming people as they arrive, making the rounds during dinner to see how the customers are doing.
That’s the La Ciccia way. “I’m just trying to keep it going,” Maloney said. “It’s my restaurant, but it’s not my restaurant. I didn’t create any of this.”
What Conti and Degan created was unlike anything else in San Francisco. Among the scores of Italian restaurants in the city, La Ciccia always had a distinctive identity: It was Sardinian. The dishes that won critical acclaim spoke to Conti’s Sardinian roots — where else could you get pasta coated in a rich sauce of sea urchin and tomato-cured tuna heart? The menu items were written in ancient Sardinian dialect. And the wine list boasted what was surely one of the most comprehensive collections of Sardinian wine in the country.
La Ciccia has maintained the same popular dishes, including Gamberoisi Arrustiusu (left), roasted prawns with basil oil, and Pasta Cruzza cun Arrizonis (right), fusilli with uni and cured tuna heart. Justin Katigbak / Special To The Chronicle La Ciccia has maintained the same popular dishes, including Gamberoisi Arrustiusu (top), roasted prawns with basil oil, and Pasta Cruzza cun Arrizonis (bottom), fusilli with uni and cured tuna heart. Justin Katigbak / Special To The Chronicle
But the owners were getting burned out. Degan had been putting off foot surgery for years, the couple told The Chronicle last year, since she didn’t feel she could afford to be gone from the restaurant for the recovery period. In 2020, they asked one of their customers, Maloney, if she would help them arrange a sale.
Restaurant sales were Maloney’s specialty. As a broker with Vanguard Properties, she’d developed a niche in handling such transitions, which are typically hushed affairs that require interested buyers to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Maloney knew that the sale could take a while — maybe years. “Businesses don’t sell like houses,” she said. One strong contender emerged in late 2020, a Los Angeles restaurant group, but it pulled out at the last minute. La Ciccia’s success as a business struck some prospective buyers as a risk rather than an asset. “People were intimidated to take over La Ciccia,” Maloney said. “Because they knew that so much of that restaurant was Massimo and Lorella.”
By the time Conti and Degan had reached a deal with the South Bay restaurant group (whose identity is still unknown), in April 2022, they were eager to move on. Before the transaction officially closed, they left and gave Maloney the keys, telling her to tie up the loose ends.
But some ends remained loose. The would-be owners got into a conflict with the owners of the building, Maloney said, and the landlord refused to grant the group a lease. Without a lease, the whole deal was a no-go. The South Bay group walked away.
Julio Garcia brings out food (left) to La Ciccia customers, who continue to enjoy the restaurant's Sardinian flatbread (right). Justin Katigbak / Special To The Chronicle Julio Garcia brings out food (top) to La Ciccia customers, who continue to enjoy the restaurant's Sardinian flatbread (bottom). Justin Katigbak / Special To The Chronicle
Maloney was left holding the keys.
“Then the inevitable happened,” she said. “It’s my favorite restaurant. I just figured, why don’t I buy it?”
In June, she did.
The first order of business was hiring a new chef. Maloney asked Conti to weigh in on three candidates, and he approved one of them. But the new hire was disappointing, she said. After he fell asleep during work, she said, she fired him in the middle of a shift in June.
Rather than look for another chef, she promoted Herrera and Martinez. No one knew the menu and the restaurant’s sensibilities better than them.
Then there was the wine list. Conti and Degan had overseen it themselves, infusing the selection with their personal taste. Sardinian wines are relatively obscure, and it was hard to imagine finding a wine director who knew as much about the category as they did.
Paul Chung, who had been a server at La Ciccia for five years, stepped up. As a Level 2 certified sommelier and the former wine director of the Saru Sushi restaurants in San Francisco, he had wine bona fides. More important, he had been tasting wine with Conti and Degan for years and knew La Ciccia’s wine list intimately.
“I wanted to keep the menu’s integrity,” Chung said. As before, the wine list begins with the wines of Sardinia and Sicily, then moves north through the boot of Italy.
Chung has gently shifted the vibe, however. “I’m a little more interested in natural wines than they were,” he said. He now carries more wines from natural Sardinian producers like Cantina Gungui, Tenute Dettori and Meigamma. In a few instances on the wine list, he’s offering two versions of the same grape variety — like Vitoska, a rare white grape from northern Italy — side by side: one funky, natural version alongside a cleaner, more conventional version.
He hasn’t gone full radical, however. Chung estimates the wine list is now about 30% natural.
The presupposition of changes, at this early stage, still pervades La Ciccia. “People keep saying they thought we closed,” Chung said. And admittedly, Maloney does have a few updates in store, like covering the outside patio to add more seating. When people have to wait for a table, she often serves them a glass of prosecco.
Maintaining the same spaghetti recipe is one thing. More ineffable, perhaps, is that the feeling of La Ciccia has not changed. It still delivers the same delight upon entrance: From the outside it’s a nondescript brick building, inconspicuously marked, on the side of a busy street. When you open the door and push through the curtain, you’ve suddenly entered a warm, inviting cave, with a big energy that matches the heartiness of the pastas.
As Paolo Giordano, a server at La Ciccia since 2012, puts it: “It’s reassuring when some places don’t change.”
Reach Esther Mobley: EMobley@sfchronicle.com