Soulful, Well-Executed Italian Dishes at CdM’s Pirozzi

Naples-born chef has nothing to sell but soulful Italian fare
Deservedly popular Mama Mia meatballs

It’s hard to snag a ready table on Saturday night at this new Italian in Corona del Mar. Friday is no easier, and Thursday is pretty tricky, too. It’s been like that since the restaurant’s opening last May. Clearly, chef-owner Alessandro Pirozzi is a star with a ready cult of followers. Pirozzi hasn’t taken the modern path to culinary celebrity. He has no TV show to pimp, no cookbook to sell, no blog to update. The only places he’s trending are at Pirozzi, his newest, and his two other thriving Italian restaurants: Alessá Laguna, and Mare Culinary Lounge in Laguna Beach. His innate charm is beguiling and unshakable. When he swoops by your table, you can’t ignore his movie-star smile and elegant Italian accent.

“Bella!” he says as he greets four blondes, air kissing each one as their golf shirt-wearing mates wait for a handshake. Then he’s off to speed-greet every table in the packed-tight venue, before returning to the open kitchen of the recently retooled space. Locals know it’s a former KFC, though bare tables, a long banquette, and framed family photos mounted near  a brick wall erase all traces of the Colonel. Notable additions include a 40-seat patio facing Coast Highway and, in the kitchen, a great fire-breathing, olive wood-burning Acunto oven, imported from Naples.

IMG_2192Pirozzi acolytes will find all their favorites on the menu. The 70-plus item carte includes his greatest hits, amped with a fistful of new dishes, some inspired by the handmade oven. Yes, you can start your meal with those flavors you just can’t quit, such as the flash-fried Castelvetrano olives stuffed with fontina, so perfect with a cold, dry martini. Or, the ever-alluring fat, soft Mamma Mia meatballs dripping with long-simmered tomato ragu and crowned with milky burrata. Like so many others, I’m a slave to the dreamy Butternut Squash Ravioli glistening in nutty browned butter and topped with sage sauce. The nearly sweet puree sealed in delicate house-made pasta is an enticing contrast to the earthy sage and butter solids made gutsy by high heat.

Since it’s easier than ever to enjoy Pirozzi’s well-loved creations, I say sample the items here you can’t order at the other two restaurants. Start with a feather-light salad of shaved heirloom carrots: raw ribbons of yellow, coral, and deep-red carrots over peppery arugula shiny with young olive oil, dotted with aged Gouda and caramelized pecans. Scottadito is new, too: three bantam Aussie lamb chops, marinated with garlic and mint. They’re oven-hot, but finger-licking juicy on a bouncy bed of arugula and fresh fennel. These two dishes alone could be dinner, though they’re listed as appetizers.

Roasted quail, typically requiring some effort to separate the tiny niblets of meat from the itty-bitty bones, is well worth the trouble here. The bird oozes flavor, thanks to a stuffing of wild boar sausage. It’s wrapped in lightly smoked Italian ham, and served on a bed of wild Southern mushrooms that adds another layer of flavor to an already busy party. Anchovy fans, prepare to celebrate Pirozzi’s Alici, a house-marinated white filet, with fennel and celery heart for intensity-busting crunch and notes of freshness.

Expect to find familiar plates of pasta—ravioli filled with roasted fennel and Maine lobster, limoncello-infused taglierini under giant prawns in a shallot-pinot grigio sauce, orecchiette with house sausage, pine nuts, goat cheese, and wilted spinach—as good as you remember. If you dare stray from the usual, have the Gemelli Ugo: pasta infused with Calabrian chile, tossed with braised octopus, bone marrow, and baby kale. A rich Barolo reduction ties it all together with infinite gusto. You can go wild again, this time sans pasta, with an expertly seared elk chop, served with cipollini onions, Amarena cherry port reduction, and rainbow cauliflower.

That tasty, if garishly purple, cauliflower also appears on Cavoli, a new pizza with Iberico ham, truffle cheese, and fresh mozzarella. Let’s also sing the praises of Pirozzi’s premium salumi and cheese, always wonderful on a mixed platter of cured riches. I would gladly reorder a build-my-own platter before I repeat the chicken cacciatore. I assumed this midcentury throwback would deliver a delicious new twist on an old classic, but it was boring. All white breast meat is not a flavor upgrade in my book.

The pizzas are extra-delightful, thanks to that 900-degree oven. An ethereal 00 Caputo flour dough cooks up in less than 90 seconds. Pirozzi says pizzas don’t go in until a table’s other foods are being plated. That makes for very hot, very fresh Neapolitan-style pizza.

Better to fill up on pizza than dessert. My ho-hum Oreo cookie gelato tasted like regret; I wish I’d ordered the salted caramel gelato instead. The affogato? More like awfulgato, thanks to the poorly pulled Lavazza espresso. When a dessert has but two ingredients, there’s no room for less-than.

To be fair, this isn’t a place that needs to soar on the dessert score. Pirozzi offers more soulful, well-executed Italian dishes than any craving requires. Odds are excellent you won’t leave here feeling unloved or unspoiled by the coast’s favored Italian son. Just make sure to have reservations.

 


 

BEST DISHES
Olive Fritte, Rainbow Carrots Salad, Butternut Squash Ravioli, Mamma Mia meatballs, Alici (anchovy filet), Quaglia (quail), Gemelli Ugo, Cavoli pizza, elk chop, salumi and formaggi selections.

PRICE RANGE
Appetizers, $7 to $19; pizzas, $14 to $25; pastas, $14 to $25; main dishes, $23 to $30; prosciutto and mozzarella selection, $9 to $27

FYI
Open daily at 4 p.m.; 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

 

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