San Clemente’s Brick fires up some outstanding artisan pizzas, but do not call this beach burg restaurant a “pizzeria.” Its original name, Brick Pizzeria, made sense when chef-owner David Pratt opened in May 2012, but as time passed and the kitchen found its groove and audience, the term seemed too narrow, and Brick simply made more sense.
Pratt’s menu of rustic, seasonal Italian cooking boasts plenty of nonpizza items, including house-hewn pastas, fresh salads, and hearty entrees. Guests who initially come for the pizza soon return for the orecchiette, meatballs, or porchetta. His nonstop updates are thoughtful, genuine enhancements, and reveal his industry chops and stints in heavyweight kitchens such as Picasso in Las Vegas, Masa’s in San Francisco, and Olives in D.C. Most recently, he put in four years as general manager of Studio at the Montage Laguna Beach.
Brick’s current path includes doubling down on pigs and produce. Dishes ooze seasonality as Pratt nurtures his ties to local growers—South Coast Farms, VR Green Farms, Smith Farms— snagging primo crops at their peak. The menu also reveals his soft spot for pork. These days, he butchers two 100-pound pigs weekly, as compared to one suckling pig in the restaurant’s early days. Fans are especially fond of his pork chops and cave-man-sized ribs, which sell out every weekend. After all, there are only so many ribs per pig.
Swine fiends needn’t fret. The menu is plump with options that don’t run out so quickly. Look for the house-made pork on three thin-crust wood-fired pizzas. Salsiccia pie stars Pratt’s excellent sausage, caramelized fennel, aged ricotta, and fennel pollen. Porchetta pizza dares to skip the red sauce to complement the herby, pate-rich pork with salsa verde, garlic, and tapenade. The Carne pizza says it all and has it all: house sausage, pancetta, Calabrese salame, and bresaola. A smear of hand-squeezed San Marzano tomatoes and a few rounds of mild provolone allow the pizza’s meats to finesse your taste buds.
A handful of modern salads pair nicely with pizzas or pastas. Also nice: They come in two sizes. The anchovy-blessed Caesar is surprisingly worthy. How can anyone not fall for oven-blistered cherry tomatoes and Grana Padano-coated croutons? A changing farmers market salad is what you would make if you shopped that day and happen to be a chef. One or two other seasonal salads showcase the current harvest as well.
Pastas, made downstairs in the hidden 2,000-square-foot prep kitchen, are super, and result in happy memories for days after. Delicate strands of square-edged chitarra are green with fresh basil and taste of the farm when coiled in vine-fresh tomato sauce studded with milky fresh ricotta. Cupped discs of chewy orecchiette have enough brawn to take on juicy florets of broccoli, dusky mushrooms, and a liberal portion of the gutsy sausage. After forgetting the leftovers in the car overnight, I almost cry over my much-anticipated-but-now-ruined lunch. Another night, a stint in the fridge has a magical effect on tagliatelle carbonara loaded with pork-belly confit, nuggets of pancetta, black pepper, and grated hard cheese. What was fine for Thursday’s dinner tastes like a dream when reheated on Friday, after the egg, pork, and cheese flavors marry. Even weirder, I disliked this dish when I tried it in June—an overload of thyme was the culprit. If only all unimpressive restaurant moments could transform so dramatically.
The pork chop was sold out a second time when I visited, but the pappardelle with a succulent wine-rich veal ragu was a fitting replacement. The soft textures complement one another without collapsing into a mass, and the ragu’s flavors are subtle from slow roasting. Huge, oven-burnished meatballs with a faint note of Calabrian chile are sublimely comforting in the bubbling, dense marinara. It’s topped with tangy pecorino, with some grill-marked house focaccia for dipping. The larger order is five meatballs, or 25 ounces of a house grind of veal, beef, and lots of pork—enough for a sandwich tomorrow. Pratt says Brick sells more meatballs with each passing week. No wonder.
The cooking may be authentic, season-driven Italian, but the unfussy setting is pure coastal California. Reclaimed woods, handmade fixtures, and a popular communal table in front give the space a distinct Pacific coast beach-town vibe. The hard-working Valoriani oven in the open kitchen, visible from the main dining room or during your walk out the rear mezzanine, is the most traditional nod to Italy. The elevated 50-seat patio in back offers a peekaboo ocean view and attracts children and flies in the summer. High banquettes and low tables take up the cozy, darkish main room, and bar action and a flat screen are up front near the entrance. It’s hard to tell this was a Swiss Chalet restaurant (circa 1974). A modest wine program offers California wines by the glass and carafe. Up for a bottle? They average $40 and represent Italy’s entire boot. A tight list of craft beers and choice craft cocktails complete the liquor agenda.
Brick, in partnership with Family Assistance Ministries, will be closed on Thanksgiving to welcome the less fortunate for a traditional turkey dinner. With the help of volunteers and Brick regulars, Pratt hopes to feed at least double the 200 served last year. It’s further proof he’s growing deep roots in San Clemente, anticipating a long haul. Already there’s a new enclosure shielding the patio. He’s also looking to add Cryovac equipment to facilitate frozen pizzas for home baking, and a pasta extruder is on his wish list. Changes are always welcome when they’re insightful and soulful. This is how new restaurants evolve into treasured places.
Crispy squash blossoms, sauteed wild shrimp on polenta, Caesar salad, farmers market salad, seasonal salad, pizzas, chitarra pasta, tagliatelle carbonara, pappardelle with veal ragu, meatballs, pork chop, specialty cocktails.
Starters, $9 to $19; pastas, $15 to $26; pizzas, $12 to $18; entrees, $14 to $26.
Pratt was chef and co-owner of the still-mourned French bistro Mirabeau in Dana Point, from 2002 to ’05.
216 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-429-1199, brickpizzeria.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.