I had not a single shred of doubt that the third and newest Cucina Alessa was going to be as good as the others. Even before it opened, I likened Alessandro Pirozzi to the James Cameron of OC Italian food—the rare auteur who can top his first blockbuster with an even-better sequel. The Cucina Alessa in Huntington Beach is Pirozzi's Terminator 2: higher-budget, bigger, grander than his first in Newport Beach, all the while never forgetting what made the original rendition so great. But unlike Cameron, who has yet to make a full trilogy, Pirozzi has repeated the formula flawlessly again, this time in Laguna Beach. In it, the restaurateur is now closer to covering all the major Orange County beachfronts with a coastal daisy chain of great Italian eateries.
Located within view of the lifeguard station, on the city's busiest one-way street, Alessa takes no reservations and routinely spawns Avatar-like lines on weekends. It's noisy, cozy and cramped, less a restaurant than a bar with tables and chairs squeezed into every possible corner to maximize the prime real estate. You'll no doubt be seated almost shoulder-to-shoulder to the next guy, so close you'll mutually drool at what each other's having. Around and sometimes above you, waiters deliver dishes, swoop up empty plates, and coordinate the controlled chaos with a mishmash of Spanish, Italian and coordinated hand signals. No one writes anything down, but no one botches an order, even as the lights are dimmed so low you can barely make out the faces on the framed pictures of Pirozzi's large clan hung in clusters on one wall.
Like Cameron and other artists not content to rest on their laurels, Pirozzi has one-upped himself by adding a few extra dimensions here. Laguna Beach's Alessa features a prosciutto-and-mozzarella bar the others don't. There's also a playful salad called fragole that bursts in Technicolor with red strawberries and yellow beets. And only here in this Alessa do tart apples and micro fennel garnish a very compelling crudo of yellowtail wrapped into bundles and dribbled with limoncello gelée.
Alessa , www.cucinaalessa.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $25-$60. Full bar.
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But as I mentioned, you can get just about everything offered at the other two Alessas, like the zucca, a butternut squash-stuffed ravioli drenched in brown butter and topped with deep-fried sage leaves. Though the dish is merely an appetizer, like the most memorable scene in a great movie, it's the one you'll talk about on the ride home. Similar to its predecessors, these pasta purses gush when bitten, bleeding a blubbery sweetness immediately tempered by the saltiness of the butter and the fried fleck of the herb. You'd lick off every bit of that sauce if only the heated plate wasn't likely to cauterize your tongue.
Let this be the natural bridge to homemade pasta entrées that earn Alessa rightful acclaim. Or the pizzas, all as perfect as any baked in the back alleys of Naples. Each crisp disc arrives with the lightness of helium, the density of foam and the thinness of a crepe. In particular, the faithfully done margherita seems unreal; with the cheese fused completely into the crust and the sauce fully absorbed, the pizza is so flat and aerodynamic in profile it looks as though it were ironed.
If the pizza's lighter touch seems by design, it's because the kitchen knows you'll need the stomach space for the rest of the entrées. Alessa thinks the way an Italian grandmother does: The job's not done if anyone leaves hungry. The asparagus-and-shrimp risotto can easily feed two. Since you can't take home the risotto without sacrificing its tenuous qualities, you may find yourself cooperating with whoever ordered it to finish every last grain. And with the rice full of lobster essence, the starch surrendering into silkiness, the asparagus still as tender-crisp as the curls of shrimp are wiggly, this is a dish you're not about to waste. The chicken marsala is just as formidable, but like the risotto, it's a dish you can't and won't stop eating—even if you're stuffed. The roasted rosemary-seasoned potatoes, you think to yourself, are simply too crisp and crunchy to shove into a doggie bag. For that matter, the moist-and-tender chicken breast is as comforting as mother's milk, its mushroom-flecked sauce too perfectly balanced, the spinach too wonderfully potent with garlic. It'd be a shame not to enjoy it right here, right now at Alessandro Pirozzi's Cucina Alessa, Part Three. No Godfather with a hysterical Sofia Coppola here, folks.
This review appeared in print as "Not Alessa Version of the Original: Alessandro Pirozzi’s third restaurant makes for a flawless trilogy of Italian food."