Italian chef moves from Rome to Utah and starts a popular restaurant

Jonathan Cagnacci uses family recipes at his Màstra Italian Bakery Bistro in American Fork.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chef and owner Jonathan Cagnacci of Mastra Italian Bakery Bistro in American Fork is photographed with his authentic focaccia on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

For Màstra Italian Bakery Bistro, it all started with the humble focaccia.

Years before owner Jonathan Cagnacci opened his popular restaurant in Utah County, he was baking focaccia as a side business and selling it at the Provo Farmers Market. Just as people would line up to buy focaccia at the market, so do they now line up out the door of Màstra to order the rich bread, along with pasta, sandwiches and tiramisu, all made from scratch.

And for good reason. Cagnacci said Màstra is the only place in Utah that offers focaccia Genovese, which at Màstra comes with olives, onions or cherry tomatoes baked into the top, or unadorned. While the various ingredients make each focaccia a slightly different experience, they’re all a bit crunchy on the outside, and chewy and creamy on the inside.

Made with a base of just unbleached flour, water, extra virgin olive oil, salt, yeast and spices, all of Cagnacci’s focaccia makes you want to reach for another piece.

Each is a little taste of Italy, from a time and place that couldn’t be farther from American Fork, where Màstra is located.

“Our menu is literally from our family recipes,” Cagnacci said, “what we’ve been eating since we were kids.”

Building then baking

Cagnacci is from Genoa in northwestern Italy, where he grew up cooking with his mother.

“Food is really in the center of Italian culture,” Cagnacci said. “It’s very common in Italy to cook every day, in the house with the family, and then have dinner together as a family, just around the kitchen. That’s the place where you share how your day has been.”

(Provided photo) Jonathan Cagnacci is photographed in 2004 while working at Panificio Mario in Genoa, Italy, when he was 21.

Starting when he was 18 and until he was 22, Cagnacci worked in a popular historic bakery in downtown Genoa called Panificio Mario.

While working there, he felt a “connection” to his ancestors, he said, as he used the same traditional baking techniques they had used hundreds of years ago. Returning to his roots influenced his career more than anything else, he said.

Cagnacci married his wife, Stefania, who’s from Rome, in 2011. Those early years of marriage, after he and Stefania had their first child, were hard, he said. “The economy was super, super slow at that time,” he said. “And so I was looking for opportunities for me and for my family, and for my baby.”

He was working three jobs to provide for his young family, he said, but he was missing his creative outlets.

“I’ve been a very energetic person since I was a kid, really, with a really big drive to do things, to get things done, to create things,” Cagnacci said. “And at that time, we were living in Rome, [there was] not an opportunity for me to express my drive, and my desire to create, to achieve things.”

So when a call came from Utah with a job opportunity as well as a chance for change, “we decided to make the big jump,” Cagnacci said, and he and his family moved from Italy to the Beehive State in 2014.

Cagnacci started working in Utah not as a baker, but as a cabinet maker, building kitchen cabinets, he said. He jokes that he was making kitchens instead of working in them.

But eventually people started to find out that Cagnacci was a chef, and would ask him to cook for them. In 2016, he started his side business baking and selling focaccia.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chef Jonathan Cagnacci pulls out a perfectly baked authentic focaccia bread from the oven on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, at his restaurant Mastra Italian Bakery Bistro in American Fork.

His new venture grew rapidly. Cagnacci rented space in a Springville incubator kitchen called Lemon & Sage, and he’d bake bread for the farmers market and different events, as well as for the commissary space to sell.

Cagnacci was able to quit the cabinet business and open his own restaurant in 2020. He named it Màstra, the Genovese word for the wooden boxes that master bakers used back in the day to mix and shape their dough. Today, the word màstra refers to a wooden-top table where a chef shapes bread. A màstra is used every day in his restaurant, Cagnacci said.

Food from home

Màstra’s menu reflects the parts of Italy where Cagnacci and his wife are from: Genoa and Rome, respectively. Genovese cuisine centers a lot around ingredients that can be found in a forest, like mushrooms and walnuts, Cagnacci said, while Roman cuisine features a lot of pecorino cheese and pork.

Cagnacci said his philosophy surrounding his food is that it be made from scratch using simple ingredients, and processed with the latest technologies while respecting tradition.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zaxon Butcher prepares amatriciana and pomodoro fresco sauces at Mastra Italian Bakery Bistro in American Fork on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

He said he has spent a lot of time selecting the best ingredients for his food, collaborating with locals like Snuck Farm to get fresh basil and vegetables.

Cagnacci said he also does his best to keep all of his food affordable. A hefty helping of pasta at Màstra (enough to have leftovers for later) ranges from about $15 to $19.55, and a serving of focaccia is about $5.

Pasta should be a “food for the people,” he said. “It came from the poor people.”

Several sandwiches and a few salads and sides round out the menu, but Cagnacci said his “true love” and “true passion” is making foods with just flour, water, yeast and salt.

“The ability to create something amazing from simple ingredients, it’s like a magic,” he said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Prep cook Justyn Buckner delicately gathers ribbons of fettuccini pasta at Mastra Italian Bakery Bistro in American Fork on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

Màstra has gotten so popular that on a recent Saturday evening, the small space filled with people within only a few minutes of opening.

But now, almost a decade after Cagnacci moved his family from Rome to Utah, Màstra is ready to grow. Cagnacci said they’re currently searching for a new, larger space, but Utah County residents can rest assured they won’t be losing a source of authentic Italian food.

Cagnacci said he doesn’t want to move away from the people that have been “very welcoming and generous” to him as he’s grown his business.

“Utah County is my home,” he said.

Màstra Italian Bakery Bistro is located at 476 N. 900 West, Suite D, in American Fork. Its hours are 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Màstra is closed Sundays. Starting in January, Màstra will be open for lunch. For more information, visit MastraOrders.com or follow Màstra on Instagram (@mastrabakerybistro).