SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Nicola Ambra knew he wanted to be a chef at 4 years old. Last year, on Dec. 21, childhood dreams became a reality for Ambra who opened Gastromaniac with his wife Terri Wong in South Lake Tahoe.
Ambra and his wife recently celebrated their one year anniversary of opening their restaurant, bringing traditional, authentic homemade Italian pizza and pasta to the South Tahoe community.
Gastromaniac also won “Best New Restaurant” in the Tribune’s Best of Tahoe 2020 Awards.
Eighteen years ago, Ambra traveled to California for a rock climbing trip in Yosemite, and like many, decided to move here. He first moved to San Francisco and frequented Lake Tahoe after a friend in Reno showed him around the basin.
“Tahoe blew my mind,” he said.
The surrounding snow-capped mountains and big lake felt like home to Ambra who grew up at Lake Como in Italy. Near the border of Switzerland, Lake Como is a small town in the foothills of the alps.
“I was ready to move back to the mountains,” he said.
Ambra moved to South Lake Tahoe four years ago and started working at restaurants to build his career.
While Ambra has worked at 5-star hotels such as Lake Como’s Grand Hotel Tremezzo and Villa D’este spanning to casual restaurants, he also went to culinary school at Alma Cooking School in Parma and Pizza Italian Academy in Milan during his trip back to Italy.
“I fell in love with the pizza world,” he said.
During his time at the Pizza Italian Academy, his idea of Gastromaniac started to take shape. With a fitting title that roughly translates to “food maniac,” Ambra was ready to begin a new journey.
Ambra manifested his dream of bringing authentic Italian food to Tahoe in 2019 and opened his restaurant.
Ambra imported recipes — along with ingredients like flour, rice, cured meat, extra virgin olive oils, tomatoes to name a few — straight from Italy.
He makes an effort to source ingredients as close to his hometown in Italy as possible. The gorgonzola and Taleggio cheese used in the dishes comes from the same town he is from.
“A few good quality ingredients can make a great dish,” he says.
One pasta dish, the Mafaldine, is named in honor of his grandmother, Mafalda, who was Ambra’s first inspiration and helped him discover his passion for cooking and “where it all started.”
Ambra says he still remembers sitting next to his grandmother as she cooked, he would stick his hands in the flour and while he was just playing around, he thought it was just “so cool.”
Thirty-five years later and Ambra says he still thinks it’s so cool.
Ambra is at the restaurant everyday. One other employee and Ambra create specialty, Italian dishes.
Gastromaniac offers simple, but classic pasta dishes. Customers choose their noodle and sauce from tomato basil, three cheese sauce, pesto sauce (if in season) or a meat bolognese.
They also offer pizza that comes in classic 13-inch one-size with several options for toppings.
The first few months of opening, Gastromaniac was thriving. Then the pandemic struck in March.
Ambra jokes with his wife, “Baby, I keep looking at our business plan but I can’t find the pandemic anywhere.”
Ambra says he tries to keep a positive mindset about his business and the challenges they are facing.
“In February we were having a great response from locals and tourists,” Ambra said.
In March, they had to layoff their employees. He says at first, they were really worried.
“It was just my wife, our 2-year-old baby and I working the restaurant,” he said. “The amazing Tahoe community has supported us the whole time.”
He said that they never expected having to close their dining room three times in their first year of being open.
“The last couple weeks have been really challenging, but we are still here,” he said. “This is still my dream, still coming true.”
Gastromaniac is open for take-out and curbside pickup. For more information visit gastrotahoe.com.