Following the success of his Cucina Alessa trio, Chef Alessandro Pirozzi brings more glamour beachside, while maintaining his flawless formula of authentic Italian with a contemporary flair, at his newest restaurant Mare Culinary Lounge in Laguna Beach. The space is intimate and sophisticated without being urbane or intimidating. Sparkling dramatic lighting and sleek banquettes are softened by glimpses of greenery and organic shapes. Adjoining the dining room is a sexy “Social Lounge” with sleek high tables, the bar glows in irridescent blue and evocative images of natural beauty and svelte figures of men and women entwined in a dance of passion flash on the wall. I found it quite captivating (contrary to a certain review that lambasted the decor) and the perfect place for a special occasion or romantic dinner followed by a night cap.
We settled into the evening with flutes of bubbly Prosecco, chatting amiably as fellow media guests arrived; glancing at the menu, mouth watering at the descriptions of dishes we would taste from the new Spring menu and delighted that a few Alessa favorites were included as well. Chef Alessandro, charming as always, ebulliently greeted each of us personally and shared a few jokes with friends he hadn’t seen in awhile. As each dish was served, he passionately described the preparation and origin of each delicious component.
Please note that this was a tasting dinner, so prices quoted are for regular dinner portions.
We began by nibbling on an antipasto of Olive Fritte ($8) – Fontina stuffed Castelvetranon olives which are flash-fried and topped with sea salt and Italian parsley, and Stuffed Sweet Peppers ($9) – orange Peppadews stuffed with mild goat cheese, walnuts and basil highlighted the peppers nicely. I’m not fond of olives, but these were the finest Sicilian olives and make a great salty accompaniment to your first cocktail or glass of wine, the Peppadews, on the other hand, were tender little morsels that served to whet my appetite for more.
Polipo Mediterranean ($14) is a perfect example of the delicate and sublime homage to the sea that you’ll experience from the Pirozzi kitchen. Carpaccio-thin slices of braised octopus carpaccio bear a hint of grilled smoky flavor from black Sicilian lava salt and sweet slivers of red bell pepper balance the salty tart caper berries.
In the mood to showcase their fresh seafood creations, Chef Pirozzi presented us with a similar starter (not on the menu) of carpaccio-thin slices of raw Branzino prepared “al piatto” (on the plate) – the hot plate lightly cooks the branzino – and gently seasoned with Sorrento Lemon infused olive oil, shaved fennel, radicchio and wild arugula sprinkled with imported black lava salt flakes resulting in a delightful, perfectly balanced salad. I appreciated the light-hand and bright flavors of both these dishes immensely.
Up next were three traditional Italian dishes that have defined Chef Alessandro’s popularity and acclaim. Beloved by Cucina Alessa’s many loyal fans: the Ravioli di Zucca is a Pirozzi signature pasta dish of sweet housemade butternut squash raviolis bathed in brown butter sauce and topped with deef fried sage leaves – evidently its immense popularity at Alessa has secured its place on the Mare menu as well.
Pirozzi’s famous meatballs Mamma Mia ($12) which sends me into indecision every time I visit Alessa because I want to try other dishes on the menu, but don’t want to miss out on these amazingly light and flavorful meatballs so we inevitably end up asking for a side of meatballs. Draped in a ragu of such depth that speaks to a time-honored nonna’s, his Nonna Ida’s, recipe, the luscious meatballs are finished with a dollop of creamy burrata. Heavenly…
Pirozzi does a fine job of balancing the menu of sublime seafood creations in keeping with the Mare name with the Italian favorites that his fans have enjoyed for years. Although children may make a meal of this, the pizza is light by design to leave room for the entrees ahead. Pirozzi has refined the crust and images of ducking into tiny storefronts in Little Italy flashed behind my eyes with each bite of crisp, cheesy crust and spicy, salty soppresata. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in the Crispy Soppresata ($11) a thin-crust topped with farmer’s goat cheese, Calabrian hot chili peppers and a light spicy house-made salame.
A pasta trio included a taste of the Limoncello Radiatori ($24), Mare signature pasta with live Maine lobster tail, shallots, pinot grigio and a local lemon sauce. Ravioli d’Aragosta is filled with lobster, fennel in a sherry reduction and vodka cream sauce, and the Veal Osso Buco Agnolotti with wild mushrooms and brown butter sage sauce. In Italy, pasta is a first course, or primo, served as an appetizer, not as the main event. I say, do as the Italians and order one of these lovely pastas as a shared starter and select an entree from one of the mouthwatering Mains.
Chef Pirozzi selected the Filet Mignon as the entree of the evening and it was impressive – perfectly executed to a juicy medium rare and unbelievably tender, it virtually melts in your mouth. Filet Mignon ($26), an 8oz center cut filet with black lava salt served on a rustic wooden board adorned with a molten puddle of sunflower honey, balsamic infused Italian cipollini and imported sauteed artichokes.
After such a magnificent meal, dessert should be a light and refreshing to the palate and the Delizia al Limone a lemon cream custard with bright citrus zest was the perfect ending to the rich symphony of flavors we had just experienced. The only other thing I suggest is lingering a bit over a digestif of limoncello or grappa before seeing what the rest of the evening might have in store.
Mare faces Coast Highway on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn, Laguna – but don’t let that deter you from experiencing Chef Pirozzi’s memorable seafood and Italian creations. Revel in the beauty of the Pacific coastline and picturesque Laguna Beach, stopping along the way to stroll along the beach or browse the many galleries and boutiques that attract visitors from all over the world. Don’t worry about parking either, dinner guests of Mare are permitted to park at Neighborhood Congregational Church, 340 St. Ann’s Drive, located one block north of Coast Highway off Glenneyre.
696 S Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651