In with the New

At Romeo & Julieta, chef Matias Forte marries traditions new and old

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Photo by Francisco Estrada
By Sandra A. Berry

It is early afternoon, and the restaurant’s quiet. But that’s not to say there isn’t any activity: The waitstaff bustles about, setting tables with white linens, tinkling glassware, and freshly polished flatware. They want the restaurant’s dining rooms to sparkle for the evening crowd. I am at Romeo & Julieta to meet with chef Matias Forte to discuss recent—and ongoing—changes at the restaurant, from new private dining rooms to an ever-evolving menu.

Forte greets me with an engaging smile and a kiss

Chef Matias Forte has implemented many changes at Romeo & Julieta since he arrived in 2010, bringing with him an appreciation for classic Italian cooking and a thirst for something new. Photo by Arlen Rodriguez

on both cheeks, as is tradition in Italy. He is wearing a white chef’s jacket, but he says he has them in several colors. Though it has been nearly 30 years since Romeo & Julieta opened, Forte is the reason for its continued success. He arrived in 2010, bringing with him an appreciation for classic Italian cooking and a thirst for something new.

“Food is a tradition in Italy, dating back to the Roman days,” explains the Italian-born chef. “Keeping the history is very important to the Italian family, and food gives great pleasure. Italians are attached to their food and wine heritage. This may be common in the rest of world but in Italy it has a deeper significance. Sitting around the dining table as a family is a tradition. When the stomach is full, everyone feels happy,” he adds. “I am interested in keeping the traditions alive, while at the same time introducing innovative ideas. The menu is not complicated, and there is something for everyone. My goal is to bring the flavor, experience, memories, and pleasure of my childhood to the tables of Romeo & Julieta while also incorporating the fresh, locally sourced—and, often organic—ingredients available in Baja California Sur. I am constantly endeavoring to raise the quality levels in food, presentation, and taste.”

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The charming alfresco dining space at Romeo & Julieta transports guests to Italy, chef Fortés homeland. It is a favorite of locals and visitors to Los Cabos. Photo by Francisco Estrada

Not only has Forte upped the ante on fresh, healthy ingredients, but he has also reinforced Romeo & Julieta’s reputation as one of the most romantic restaurants in Cabo San Lucas. How can one not feel the romance in such a beautiful space? The decor is lovely, from the tableware to the furniture: natural-hewn wooden tables for family-style dining and comfy chairs with cushions (some upholstered); Forte had a hand in the decision-making on all of these elements in order to convey a more Italian atmosphere. Live plants, candlelight, stone and brick walls, red tile roof overhead, columns, and a little balcony are reminiscent of the restaurant’s namesake and add to the romantic atmosphere.

Forte smiles as he shares stories about the many marriage proposals that have happened here.

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The Gamberoni Capuleto is a favorite dish of plump shrimp with garlic, olive oil, and parsley that’s served with potato salad and a spring mixed salad. Photo by Arlen Rodriguez

He is sometimes asked to place an engagement ring in a glass of prosecco or place a ring atop a tiramisu at the end of the meal for dessert. Saturdays are synonymous with date night, and Forte has created a special Saturday night–only wine list that finds the perfect intersection of quality and affordability. In Italy, wine is like water; it is on the table at almost every meal. “The taste on the palate of the wine and the food brings pleasure,” says Forte lifting his fingers from a kiss on his lips.

While Forte enjoys being a part of these special moments, he also runs a tight ship. We often wonder what the kitchen looks like in a restaurant; whether it is clean, whether they are conducting everything according to some mandatory inspection.

The Tagliata di Manzo features a juicy rump steak that’s served with a spring mixed salad, shaved Parmesan, and cherry tomatoes. Photo by Arlen Rodriguez

Forte works under a European set of controls, which are meant to ensure a high level of food safety with no margin of error. His 28-member team has adapted to this set of guidelines. Touring the Romeo & Julieta kitchen, I get a good idea of what it takes to bring a dinner order to the table. Everything in the stainless steel galley is spotless. There are five stations for various preparations by the kitchen staff of 10 to conduct their specific role, be it steak, fish, poultry, pasta, pizza, or pastry. There is a cold room for making pasta from a special machine and other similar preparations. The coldest room is for garbage (no explanation needed), and it’s kept very clean. A high percentage of products are imported from Italy and stored neatly in a pantry or walk-in cooler.  Forte’s attention to detail ensures consistent culinary excellence.

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The Pollo al Limoncello puts a tangy twist on the traditional chicken breast, here served in an orange-limoncello sauce with sides of rosemary potatoes and grilled vegetables. Photo by Arlen Rodriguez

The menu is seasonal, depending on what is available. Just as in Italy, the food in the mountains is different from what is found by the seashore. Forte owns a cookbook with more than 5,000 Italian recipes from renowned chefs from different regions in Italy; he reviews it periodically and incorporates items into his seasonal menus. “New fads will come and go, but the original traditional Italian food will never change,” he says.

Among the changes Forte and I discuss is a new focus on events at Romeo & Julieta. The restaurant has a new entrance facing Marina Boulevard as well as an extended, open patio and several private rooms, which are perfect for private parties, and which Forte was instrumental in introducing. Romeo & Julieta is a favorite of dignitaries, and they may now use the old entrance for more privacy. The renovated restaurant space is ideal for rehearsal dinners, birthdays, weddings, and posadas during December; different menus allow for food and drink choices, depending on price, which can be simple or elaborate. The various private dining rooms can accommodate from 10 to 80, or if the occasion warrants, the restaurant will close for a large event of 150 or more. In fact, Forte and his bride had their wedding ceremony in one of the private dining rooms.

Romeo & Julieta has been an institution in Cabo San Lucas for many years; it is a true icon of Italian cuisine. It gives people a place to go, to get out of the hotels, to take a date, and because of its welcoming atmosphere and successful merging tradition with innovation, Romeo & Julieta will always be a place to go.

Forte bids me arrivederci again with a buss on each cheek with a reminder to return soon for dinner. Who cannot love those Italian traditions?