On a cloudless weekday, folks ambling around the heart of Laguna Beach savor the scene, tweeting pics of the sparkling seaside to their unlucky pals in colder climes. The bubbly hostess at Alessá, Forest Avenue’s hot new trattoria, offers our choice of a table on the sidewalk patio or indoors on the narrow space’s banquette. As she leads us inside, I scan the scene and notice everyone is beaming, laughing, or in some similarly buoyant state.
It’s not yet dark and no one is rowdy, so I assume these happy souls aren’t sloshed. Perhaps it’s the glorious weather? Wrong. It’s the food—it’s flat-out delectable. Within 20 minutes, I too am boarding the bandwagon to blissville.
The menu does look familiar. After all, this is restaurant No. 3 for Alessandro Pirozzi, the ebullient chef-owner of Cucina Alessá, who started in Newport Beach, and expanded to Huntington Beach. All the soulful dishes with a faithful following are here, too: penne Norma, scampi Capri, grilled rib-eye with porcini mushroom sauce, and more. Plus, lovely pizzas that ranked No. 4 in our top 20 report last February.
But the shining stars in the Alessá cast are the fresh pasta specialties, as well as offerings from the prosciutto and mozzarella bar, which are specific to this sibling restaurant. Building an order from the latter is excruciating in an exquisite way. Each cured meat and every cheese selection says “Pick me!,” so starting with the affettati e formaggi—a mixed platter of salumi and mozzarella—is an easy solution. Still, it requires some decisions, so when our breezy waiter offers to assemble “the very best we have today,” I uncharacteristically cede control. Risky? Yes, but his confidence and Italian accent are a persuasive combo.
We’re still looking over the menu when he returns to rearrange our small table top to make room for a wood salver overflowing with savory delights: poufy stacks of thinly sliced meats on one end, a careful composition of dewy cheeses crowding the other. A bed of pine-green arugula, shiny with rosemary-scented olive oil, supports floppy ovals of burricotta—fresh ricotta wrapped in a thin skin of tender burrata—accented with a pinch of black lava salt. Nodini nuggets of mozzarella dusted in aromatic bread crumbs and gracefully fried until warm are served with a tiny pot of tomato-basil sauce. Scamorze, lightly smoked mozzarella, is folded into peppery speck (Italian ham), quickly baked and served atop bruschetta that’s lumpy with fresh tomatoes.
Piles of just-carved salumi include imported tartufotto, a pale, fine-grained ham infused with truffles, spunky sopressata from Calabria, Italy’s red pepper region, and gossamer sheets of San Daniele prosciutto that almost melt on the tongue. We nosh picnic-style, back and forth between young cheeses and expertly aged meats. Bites of tart caper berries, buttery castelvetrano olives, and warm planks of focaccetta (cracker bread) add invigorating contrast. I could nibble this way for days. A luscious side of roasted Brussels sprouts rounds things out, and they taste even better than those I recall at Pirozzi’s other restaurants; earthy, sweet halves with crisp edges and lots of caramelized bits of red onion and pancetta. The leftover sprouts make a yummy partner to my next morning’s eggs.
Crudo of the day is a sleeper dish that sashimi fans should consider. Beautiful slabs of pristine fish are center stage. When offered, octopus carpaccio is a superb rendition, sweet and not at all chewy, drizzled in lemon-infused olive oil. Another special to seek out, ragu of braised rabbit over polenta gnocchi, deserves to be a signature item, though I fear many diners may be uneasy about rabbit.
Celebrated top dishes from the sibling kitchens also show well here. Oven-dried strawberries are the magical ingredient in a salad of golden beets and arugula. Mama Mia, billed as Pirozzi’s favorite meal, is a sublime tribute to nostalgic kitchen-table eating. Three lemon-sized, all-beef meatballs swamped in meaty sauce look like glossy cue balls under their cloak of freshly melted burrata. Pirozzi says he simmers them for hours, but you’d never guess by their fluffy texture. These do taste like they’re made with love.
Don’t skip the new crew of fresh pastas. I learned to share them with fellow diners after too much mozzarella feasting. They’re some of the menu’s priciest items, rich and filling and made with great care. Half-moons filled with tender artichokes and burrata are counterbalanced by a loose sauce of chopped tomatoes. Sweet scallops and prawns get reverent treatment, married with thin, flat tagliarini noodles, made with eggs and lemon, and graced with garlicky white wine sauce. Creamy walnut sauce sets off brawny dumplings stuffed with savory, juicy short-rib meat. Lobster and aromatic fennel in a sherry reduction fills ravioli, napped with pale coral vodka sauce. I get a little giddy recalling wide ribbons of pappardelle topped with chunky, fork-tender lamb, slow-cooked in wine. Shavings of chalky, salty ricotta salata cheese add a balancing bite to the meat’s sweet and mellow flavor.
Like the other two Alessás, this spot is always busy. But the upbeat staff really hustles, making the wait easier to bear. Reservations are accepted only for parties of six or more. Grabbing a table is easier if you time your visit to midafternoon and midweek, though I imagine even this won’t work by the time tourist season is in full swing.
So you’ll probably wait, but this is downtown Laguna, with windows to shop and plenty of characters to watch. I rarely make this kind of prediction, but if you make the trip and stick out the delay, you’ll be happy you did. You’ll also see why Alessá made our list of top 10 best new restaurants last month. It’s impossible to dine here and not leave smiling.
Prosciutto-mozzarella selections, crudo, beet-and-arugula salad, Brussels sprouts side dish, meatball plate, pizzas, fresh specialty pastas, octopus carpaccio (special), rabbit ragu with polenta gnocchi (special), cannoli.
Indoor banquette, patio tables for daytime.
$5 to $27.
A chef’s table for two is available some nights for those willing to sit on a busy aisle in the back of the house near the kitchen. Call ahead for details.
234 Forest Ave.
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.