Growing up in an Italian family, Matt DiGesu always cooked. If he wasn't learning at his grandmother's knee as she artfully prepared homemade pasta, he was stirring, saucing and sautéeing with his mother.
That love for food -- and hunger for pleasing people -- helped catapult him to the culinary world. But it took getting laid off from a marketing job to take him there.
DiGesu, who was let go when Pepsi bought Naked Juice, wandered into a pizza shop one day for a taste of "home" (he was living in California at the time). 'I needed something to do," he said, "So I offered my services."
The Bronx native soon found living the fast-paced restaurant life was more to his liking than sitting behind a desk.
Which is why now, you'll find him on any given day flipping pizzas or sourcing local ingredients at Pizzeria La Rosa, a New Rochelle eatery he opened in September 2017 with CIA trained Chef Frank Pinello (Roberta’s, Best Pizza, Vicelands Pizza Show). (See earlier Daily Voice story here.)
Though he has no formal culinary training, DiGesu, who grew up in Tuckahoe, said he learned from his jobs -- over an 11-plus-year-period at Hoboken Pizza in Pacific Beach, at Pizzeria Luigi in San Diego and then under the tutelage of Pinello, who he worked with at Best Pizza in Williamsburg.
DiGesu's speciality is making pizzas in a wood-fired oven as well as pickling vegetables, brining meats and cooking with seasonal ingredients. He's a stickler for technique to bring out flavors and to that end, uses red and white oak wood to cook La Rosa's 14-inch pizzas and side dishes.
All ingredients are fresh and prepared in-house, from the dough and sauce to the mozzarella and toppings. The meat comes from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors while most of the vegetables come from area farmers markets.
Inspiration, he said, comes from family, friends and the co-workers he's had over the years. "I honestly don't look up to any famous chefs," said DiGesu. "I'd rather have a reciprocated admiration from the people I know locally."
"To me, there's nothing more fulfilling than seeing people with smiles on their faces from eating the food you created."
He admits he's a "simple guy" who enjoys the essence and purity of uncomplicated ingredients. "Why make it overly complex?" he said. "Give me a great olive oil, salt, pepper, lemons, garlic, —the standard things you have in your kitchen. You can make really beautiful dishes using the basics."
High-quality ingredients are a must. At La Rosa, he said, it's all about making everything fresh every day.
As much as pizza is important -- there are four basic pizzas with 14 topping options -- so, too, is keeping the vegetarian and vegan community in mind. Which is why La Rosa also offers salads and sides like charred broccoli, roasted carrots and homemade mozzarella.
His mission, he said, is to be the best he can -- and create a homey, welcoming environment.
"We want to reach for the stars," said DiGesu.
"My partner, Frank, always talks about making La Rosa so perfect that we can obtain national recognition in our industry and that's what we're all striving to do daily.
"It's all about fine-tuning what we have, creating a staff that wants to grow with us and learning from our missteps."
That means mentoring young talent and helping up-and-coming chefs the way others did for him.
"Doing this," he said with a nod towards his kitchen, "Is why I switched professions. I found my true calling cooking."
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