Alessandro Pirozzi’s restaurant empire (it’s official now, with the opening of his fourth restaurant, Mare Culinary Lounge in Laguna Beach) began with his first Cucina Alessa restaurant, located on a stretch of PCH reserved for trafficking beach-goers between Newport and Huntington beaches. Then came the Huntington Beach location, and shortly after, his Cucina Alessa in Laguna Beach. And now there’s Mare, a swanky “culinary experience” that offers upscale Italian cuisine, a trendy atmosphere and the option of late-night dining, all rolled into one. It was just what Laguna was missing. But we knew it would be; Pirozzi has a talent for finding and filling a void before anyone even notices it’s there and subsequently can’t imagine living without.
The thing is this: One gets the feeling that the only restaurateur Pirozzi is trying to outdo is himself.
We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just his nature. Pirozzi is a natural at the restaurant business. You’d think he grew up in one – and for all intents and purposes he did, in the kitchen and under the thumb of his Italian grandmother. But it’s more than his unquestionable culinary acumen; it’s also that there’s no one more hard-working, charismatic and focused than Pirozzi when it comes to running a restaurant. He doesn’t simply do his job; he lives it, embodies it. He is the restaurant. It probably also helps that he’s from Naples, land of the best food on Earth.
For all the surface similarities, Mare is different than Pirozzi’s three Cucina Alessa restaurants. Mare is located in a Holiday Inn; the décor – the construction of which Pirozzi presided over personally for weeks while he slept (and not much) in a room at said Holiday Inn – centers around sleek lighting and modern furniture, with a blue-lit bar and projection screen of scantily clad women underwater; and there’s a delightful outdoor patio where those seeking refuge from the Laguna crowds and the enjoyment of a warm summer night can convene.
But let’s be clear: It isn’t for the pleasant end-of-summer weather that patrons are here; it’s for Pirozzi’s signature Italian cuisine. It’s traditional in the sense that the basics are there – pastas, pizzas and ingredients such as calamari, burrata and prosciutto – but with tweaks that make it Pirozzi’s own creation. An example of this refined approach to veering off the classical path is the polpo Mediterraneo, a house-made octopus carpaccio topped with bell peppers, black Sicilian lava salt and large caper berries. An offshoot of the traditional carpaccio of beef typically found on restaurant menus, this octopus version was paper-thin and full of delicate ocean flavors complemented by southern Italian brininess. The method of preparation – which Pirozzi explained to us with heavy gesticulation, was a matter of experimentation and total innovation, consisting of techniques including braising, freezing, stuffing, slicing, and paring. The olive fritte also falls into this category of mad scientist-like invention, a kind of bar food meets molecular gastronomy that, under Pirozzi’s watch, happens to work perfectly. Castelvetrano olives (the large green kind) are stuffed with fontina cheese, lightly fried and topped with sea salt and Italian parsley to make an antipasto that could easily ruin the rest of the meal for its addictive salty-creamy quality.
Mare’s pizzas, known for their thin, crispy crust and liberal use of well-planned toppings, are one of the few direct offshoots from Pirozzi’s Cucina Alessa, the thought being, we presume, to not bother messing with a good thing. We tried the crispy soppressata pizza, which was piled with fresh goat cheese, Calabrian hot chile peppers and spicy house-made salame. Nothing was missing here – not the desire for any form of mozzarella or additional topping, nor any crust complaints, which can run the gamut from cracker-thin to burnt or too doughy. There was spice, there was soothing cheese, there was meat. It was great.
Pasta dishes at Mare take things to a new level, even by Pirozzi’s standards. They’re all made using fresh pastas prepared daily with organic and local products and cooked to order. First, there was the Caramelle, pasta stuffed with goat cheese and herbs, with cipolline and roasted bell peppers for balance and color. Though simple, this was one of our favorites due to impeccable preparation. The next dish (incidentally, one I likely wouldn’t have tried had it not been for the promise of lobster tail) was one I would put in the life-changing category: the limoncello-infused mafaldine. At the outset, the addition of limoncello into pasta didn’t strike me as the best idea – sweet and tart flavors combined with chewy textures – but I was wrong. We should have known. This is what we have learned about Pirozzi’s food over the years: Try it; you’ll like it. The fresine lunghe was much the same, a kind of art display that also happens to taste really good, with sautéed eggplant wrapped around eggplant-infused pasta, creamy mozzarella and micro basil.
As of now, Pirozzi is in a league of his own.