There’s a tequila sunset in progress over Laguna Beach, but only a few steps into Mare Culinary Lounge on busy Coast Highway, it’s dark and moody. Sleek with black and gray glass tiles, the walls shimmer where they catch glints of cobalt blue that glows from beneath the bar. Silent, sepia film footage of elephants, foreign seashores, and a shirtless, barefoot boy flicker on one wall, projected from an unseen source. The enigmatic aura is a stark departure from the funky, beachy scene outside.
Before our irises can adjust to the shadowy surroundings, a gracious waiter suggests we sit anywhere. It’s on the far edge of early, and seating still abounds. Across the room, a rollicking pack of party girls is clearly indulging in some cocktail therapy. How this happens is no mystery—the handsome libations are dangerously delicious. One Pirozzirita, chef-owner Alessandro Pirozzi’s signature margarita, leads to another, or perhaps to a luscious, vibrant passion fruit margarita.
We sink into a cushy banquette and review the menu as the waiter pulls the cork from the white wine we brought along, for which corkage is a reasonable $15. Knowing that pizza is a strength at Pirozzi’s trio of beach-town shops, we quickly order one to share while we design a dinner strategy. Mare is the newest and swankiest addition to his clutch of popular Italian restaurants, the only one that doesn’t bear his nickname, Alessá. Sure enough, the sizzling pizza strewn with sheer slices of goat cheese and spicy housemade sopressata disappears amid hungry moans.
Lightly pickled bright orange sweet peppers, glossy and round, pop with flavor and ooze their tangy filling of creamed goat cheese and crushed walnuts. These vanish quickly, too. The megabowl of steamy house soup is a winter sleeper, easy to overlook in favor of the more overtly alluring choices. The ingredients—chicken stock, squash, roma tomatoes, braised lamb (optional), and aged Parmesan—give no clue to the soulful, harmonious essence they create.
Pirozzi and company concoct some amazing pastas: rolled (lasagna), cut (pappardelle), filled (agnolotti), and extruded (radiatori). Here, some of the best include dough infused with other ingredients. Limoncello is the magic in the ribbons of mafaldine topped with morsels of lobster sauteed with shallots and pinot grigio, a signature dish that sells like mad. Cuori di zucca, plump pasta hearts stuffed with butternut squash, sauced brown butter, and sage, is another all-star, and though the dish is terrific times two, Mare’s fresine lunghe is less known and just as thrilling. Extra-long ribbons of pasta infused with eggplant have surprising heft, and mixed with tender, almost sweetish chunks of the young fruit (yes, eggplant is technically a berry) and creamy mozzarella make a tasty reward that could sway eggplant-avoiders.
The grilled rib-eye steak gets the full Italian herbal treatment—fresh garlic, rosemary, and thyme—but lacks beefy flavor even though the cut is laced with fat. So it’s easy to fall for crunchy, juicy, double chicken breast Milanese with lemon caper sauce and that vivid yellow limoncello pasta, a simple dish, executed with care.
My pick for red-meat champion is the luscious wine-braised lamb shoulder ragu, which sneaks into the finlike crevices of chubby radiatori (pasta resembling a radiator grill). Every bite of the chunky mix reveals another note to savor, be it earth, meat, tomato, fennel, rosemary, or dark fruity wine. It’s difficult not to order this on every visit. Good thing it isn’t on the breakfast menu.
Thanks to Mare’s location within Laguna’s vintage Holiday Inn, the kitchen is cranking from early morning till late night. The U-shaped three-story inn cradles a sizeable private patio. Quiet and protected, the alfresco tables make for lovely dining on breakfast paninis or hearty fritattas that actually are voluptuous omelets. Use those triangles of fresh focaccia toast to scoop up runaway burrata cheese in the meatball frittata, or dip into yolk-oozing poached eggs over wilted spinach bathed in Parmesan cream sauce. It’s hard to have a bad day when it starts like this.
Mobbed from Day One, Mare is a snazzy treat for Pirozzi followers and any diner with a soft spot for savory, insightful Italian fare in a stylish setting. Yes, this new venue is more glitzy than homespun, but the welcome is warm and the food is delightful, and now we can eat from his kitchen from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. We’re already checking the Holiday Inn’s extended-stay rates.
Specialty cocktails, crispy sopressata pizza, orange sweet peppers, Mare soup, cuori di zucca, limoncello mafaldine, fresine lunghe, chicken Milanese, radiatori, burrata meatball frittata, Tuscany eggs.
Breakfast and brunch, $12 to $19; lunch, $12 to $17; dinner, $7 to $24.
Blue Laguna and Bamboo Bar once occupied this venue.
696 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-715-9581, mareculinarylounge.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue.