Proud to be an American
Italian Immigrant can finally call Morgan Hill Home

By Matt King
Morgan Hill Times

Maurizio Cutrignelli is a hummingbird fluttering through his restaurant, taking orders, cooking, cleaning tables, charming his customers with a hint of the old country. Cutrignelli never comes across as a come-on, but he won't let you leave without ordering dessert.

"I enjoy the business, but most of all I like seeing people enjoy what I do," Cutrignelli said. "If I see that people are happy, it looks like I'm doing the right thing."

Cutrignelli has had restaurants in Morgan Hill for more than a decade, but it was just last year, when he opened Maurizio's on First Street, that he found a space he was happy with. Maurizio's is intimate, only a dozen or so tables, and feels like a private dining room. The walls, plastered with poster art, personal photographs and newspaper clippings, match Cutrignelli in energy.

"Simple is always better," he says. "There's no way you can make good food when you have 50 to 60 people all at once. You can make it look nice, but the flavor is not. You want to be able to take your time."

And in January, Cutrtignelli made official what he's known since he first came to the U.S. from Italy in 1993, Morgan Hill is home. In January, after months of study and years of winding his way through the bureaucracy, Cutrignelli became an American citizen.

"This country gave me more opportunity to develop my own thing," Cutrignelli, 32, said. "You work hard here and you accomplish many things. I like to work hard so this is the place for me."

He remembers the moment he touched ground in California. It was 7:30pm on a Trans World Airlines flight from his hometown of Bari, Italy through New York City to San Francisco. He came to Morgan Hill and worked for a friend at the old Casa Mia restaurant. After a few months he returned to Italy, but he was hooked on America.

"I fell in love with the country right away," Cutrignelli says. "I went back to Italy and came back a month later."

And he's never left. In 1994, Cutrignelli opened a sandwich shop, Piccolo's, on Second Street, and after a few years bought the building that first became the House of Siam and then the steakhouse that eventually became the new Sinaloa's Café.

Do-it-yourself projects are another of Cutrignelli's great loves. In Maurizio's he build the wine cabinets and furnishings by hand and remodeled the kitchen. When he bought the steakhouse, he gutted it and remodeled the place himself.

"I like construction. I like to build things," he said. "It's been my passion since I was little. It's how I reset my mind."

And Maurizio has also taken to the real estate game. He's moved his restaurants around town, but he holds on to the buildings, and he's a one-man gang when it comes to developing downtown.

"I put in three restaurants downtown," Cutrignelli said, referring to Maurizio's, Sinaloa's and House of Siam (now called Siam Thai). I like real estate. I want to buy more and open more restaurants."

But as he was playing Monopoly on the streets of Morgan Hill, Cutrignelli didn't know if he'd be able to stay in the states. For four years, he lived without any residency papers. He tried to make himself legitimate by setting up a phony social security number and paying all the proper taxes.

"I did everything possible to stay here." he said. "I was pretty desperate. I didn't want to go."

Then Cutrignelli got lucky. In 1997 he applied to the green card lottery and his number came up. With his green card, came the right to apply for citizenship, but Cutrignelli waited because, at the time, the U.S. didn't allow Italian nationals to hold dual citizenship.

And then, Sara Torrez walked into Maurizio's looking for a job. Cutrignelli hired her, and two years later. Married her.

"I want in for a job, and I knew I was going to marry him," Sara recalled. "I just knew."

They wed in 2002 and now have two children, Floriana, 3, and Michele, 2. Sara is expecting in June.

"I put them in the first place," Cutrignelli said in his thick, but charming Italian accent. "That's why I went from a big business to a smaller one, so I can simplify my work. So I can have less stress and spend more time with them. What the kids see is what they learn."

Sara, 31, grew up in Morgan Hill. What she loves about Maurizio, she said, is that he can do anything — except cut hair.

"He can do electrical, he can do plumbing, he can build restaurants." She said, 'so I thought, "I'll let him cut my hair.' He wouldn't stop with the razor. I was missing a lot of my hair. He was laughing so hard he wouldn't stop."

And Cutrignelli won't stop remodeling their home.

"He can't stay still, he's always got to be busy," Sara said. "Our house has been under construction for a couple of years, and finally I said 'stop' and we'll find someone to finish it."

By the time they met. Cutrignelli was already fluent in English. But Sara did help Maurizio study for his citizenship exam.

"I would quiz him. Who's the president? Who's on the supreme court? The easy stuff, otherwise I can't remember some of this stuff. It was a civics lesson for me," she said. "I was very proud of him. It was a big accomplishment."

Cutrignelli missed just two questions on his test, one of which he blamed on a translation problem. He was ready with answers to "Who were the enemies in World War II?" and "Who's the vice-president?"

This June, Cutrignelli will be able to vote for the first time in the U.S. He says it's the most valuable part of his new status, thought he hasn't decided yet on many of the day's big political questions. He does think Americans spend too much time ridiculing their leaders.

"I don't know yet what I am" he said. "Bush, I don't want to say he's a good president, probable he's not, but he's still the president."

From his own experience, he thinks immigration law should be relaxed for those who come to the country intending to work hard and improve themselves. Cutrignelli has hired many immigrants at his restaurants and is helping one former employee, Daniel Garcia, secure his green card.

"He's one of the guys I admire," Cutrignelli said. "I admire him because he just works, works, works. He deserves to be here."

Garcia has been in the U.S. for eight years and known Cutrignelli for about four. Without Cutrignelli, Garcia said, he might have been back in Mexico by now.

"He's a very good person," Garcia said. "He's helped a lot of people find work. He's just a good person and his wife too. I didn't have anything until I started working with him."

Cutrignelli's citizenship also means he can travel to Italy for long stretches without losing his right to return. He misses Italy, but, especially since his mother passed away last summer, he feels less of a desire to visit. His home and his family are now in Morgan Hill.

"I want to stay here for now," he said. "I may change my mind, but I like it. When I go there, I can't wait to come back."

Someday, Cutrignelli wants to open a bed and breakfast on the Adriatic coast, where he grew up. Maurizio dreams of a resort where people can relax, learn how to cook and munch on chips by the sea. In the meantime, he's learned to balance the different culinary desires of Italians and Americans.

Like other places in town, Maurizio's closes at 9pm, when people in the old country are just thinking about eating dinner. And through he prefers to cook with olive oil, he has to feed the American yearning for cream.

"A lot of times it can't be exactly the way it is in Italy because you have to come halfway to the taste of your customers. My specialty right now is to fit to the taste of the customer." Cutrignelli said, adding that in Italy, some restaurants don't even bother with menus. "Here, you can order what you want. But not Chinese food."

From the Morgan Hill Times - March 28, 2006
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