The vertebrate heart arises from distinct first and second heart fields. The latter also share a common origin with branchiomeric muscles in the pharyngeal mesoderm and transcription regulators, such as Nkx2-5, Tbx1 and Islet1. Despite significant progress, the complexity of vertebrate embryos has hindered the identification of multipotent cardiopharyngeal progenitors. Here, we summarize recent insights in cardiopharyngeal development gained from ascidian models, among the closest relatives to vertebrates. In a simplified cellular context, progressive fate specification of the ascidian cardiopharyngeal precursors presents striking similarities with their vertebrate counterparts. Multipotent cardiopharyngeal progenitors are primed to activate both the early cardiac and pharyngeal muscles programs, which segregate following asymmetric cells divisions as a result of regulatory cross-antagonisms involving Tbx1 and Nkx2-5 homologs. Activation of Ebf in pharyngeal muscle founder cells triggers both Myogenic Regulatory Factor-associated differentiation and Notch-mediated maintenance of an undifferentiated state in distinct precursors. Cross-species comparisons revealed the deep conservation of the cardiopharyngeal developmental sequence in spite of extreme genome sequence divergence, gene network rewiring and specific morphogenetic differences. Finally, analyses are beginning to uncover the influence of surrounding tissues in determining cardiopharyngeal cell identity and behavior. Thus, ascidian embryos offer a unique opportunity to study gene regulation and cell behaviors at the cellular level throughout cardiopharyngeal morphogenesis and evolution.