The siren call of the kitchen proved impossible for Roel Mesta to resist. The chef, who puts his creative spin on traditional dishes at Masa, D’Amico & Partner’s homage to contemporary Mexican cuisine in Mercato, has a passion for cooking that infuses his bloodline. His grandmother ran Doña Martha’s in East Naples for many years, while his mother, Rosalinda Mesta, has been in the business for four decades, currently working at the Fogg Café in Naples Botanical Garden. Mesta began working in restaurants around Naples when he was 14, eventually settling into a long career with D’Amico restaurants. Since he took over at Masa, he’s kicked up the menu with dishes like marinated grilled steak skewers and anaheim chiles filled with shrimp and masa.
Early influence: When I was 14, I washed dishes at Ristorante Ciao. Chef Gianfranco Loretti saw my interest, and I always wanted to learn. He set down a good foundation for the way I think about cooking, the way I treat food, the respect I give it. Fresh is best, that’s the kind of attitude, to do the best we can with what we have.
His most popular Masa dishes: The revamped tacos have gotten really good feedback. For lunch, believe it or not, people are going crazy over the burger. I made it like what I remember from Mexico. On the side of the street this lady had a huge grill and made great burgers, with ham, cheese, pickled peppers, all kinds of toppings. We make our bread in house for that, really put it another step above.
Most important ingredient: Love—for the food, for our guests. I want to give them a great experience.
Something he refused to cook: I once had a request for medium-rare Chilean sea bass. I can’t see that. At Masa, I like our guests to stick to the menu and see our interpretations of dishes that are traditional to Mexico, but if someone has a request, I’m happy to oblige if it’s within my reach.
For a great meal in Naples: My wife, Maricela, and I both love Café Lurcat. Not just because my friend Mike Mueller is the chef. The food is well prepared and made with care.
Guilty pleasure: I shouldn’t eat it, but I love carnitas. My uncle would make it in Mexico, a big pot of chunks of pork. It’s not the best thing for health.
Favorite way to spend free time: With my family. I have four beautiful children. I love spending quality time and getting them away from cell phones and games and all that. My kids are not allowed to use those on my days off. You’re with me, I’m with you, let’s talk, let’s laugh, go for a bike ride, go have dinner, let’s cook.
Carrying on tradition: My son, Roel, who is 13, will probably follow in my footsteps. He critiques food, and says the right things. I wonder, how does he know that? I think he’s going down that route—he says he wants to be a sous chef at Masa.