If it hasn't been said before, it should be now: When it comes to Italian food in OC, Alessandro Pirozzi has found the secret for success. If you want a bowl of pasta anywhere near the beach cities, you're going to inevitably encounter the Naples-born chef's name in some form or another, whether on a restaurant he once owned or one from his current stable of eateries, some of which sport a "By Pirozzi" tagline.
Salerno's Ristorante in Laguna Beach is his latest. Though he kept the same name of the place that came before—a red-sauce joint that had been a fixture on Beach Street since 1975—that's all that's left of the old restaurant. Out went the gaudy Italian-flag-motif ceiling and the red-checkered tablecloths; in came the wrought iron and linens. Most important of all, Pirozzi brought in his now well-oiled kitchen team to execute the proven Pirozzi formula that has made all his restaurants so compelling thus far.
Although I've been to all of them—Mare and Alessa in Laguna Beach, Pirozzi in Corona Del Mar, and now Salerno's—I don't think I can put my finger on what makes an Alessandro Pirozzi restaurant great. All I can say is I always know what to expect. I know that though no one writes anything down, no one botches an order. I also know that the room will be cramped, with tables packed in so tightly together you have to shimmy between the chairs. And while I know that some dependable Pirozzi constants will be there, such as the meatballs—always soft as pudding and draped in an ambrosial ragù and burrata cheese that ooze like melted camp marshmallows—I also know that each of his restaurants will be a completely different experience.
Salerno's is no exception. Though you can't get pizza (there's simply no room in the microscopic kitchen for a proper oven), you can—for the first time in a Pirozzi restaurant—customize your meat entrée from a variety that includes elk and ostrich, choosing your own sauce and two sides from a list of eight. One evening, I opted for a wonderful Tasmanian sea salmon steak, cooked as a skin-on slab with a pan-sear so crunchy it was audible. For sauce, I chose a tangy tomato-based lobster reduction, and for the two sides, asparagus and crisp, oven-roasted potatoes aromatic of rosemary. I was reminded how much I liked those potatoes when I ate them with an elk steak at Mare a few years ago.
As good as the meat entrées were, pasta seems to be the main draw at Salerno's. With two dozen choices, the menu here has more pastas than any of the other restaurants. At Salerno's, the Pirozzi standard of squid-ink-tinted noodles with clams and white wine came in a squiggly and pleasantly chewy spaghetti form; but there's also a ravioli stuffed with rabbit and an olive-studded puttanesca with shrimp, both of which I've not seen anywhere else in Pirozzi's growing empire.
Also new to his repertoire is the stracciatella, which is essentially an egg drop soup with floating ribbons of the whites swimming alongside streams of silky spinach in a simple chicken broth. And though I've seen carpaccio in some form at all of Pirozzi's restaurants, I've only noticed the ostrich, branzino or langoustine at Salerno's. And if you get the langoustine carpaccio here, you actually get two kinds of meat on the same plate—slices of salmon are pounded thin to fuse with the sweetness of the shellfish, both acting as foils to the peppery arugula and shaved fennel.
It's a great dish, but where Salerno's shines most is in the comforts of starch. The gnocchi is pliant and soft; the risotto, creamy and toothsome. Both can be customized in at least four different ways. I've not tried all the possible variants, but I can confirm that choosing the vodka pink sauce for the gnocchi and the wild mushroom for the risotto are as sound a decision as coming here in the first place.
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Heck, old-school staples of caesar salad, the eggplant parmigiana and even spumoni seem to become the best versions of themselves under Pirozzi's purview. Do, however, get the caesar with the optional add-on of white anchovies for extra oomph, and eat the eggplant while it's still hot and crisp. Then, sit there, take it all in and wonder: Is it more amazing that Alessandro Pirozzi has figured out the secret algorithm of how to create the perfect Italian restaurant, or is it that he makes it all look so effortless?
Salerno's Ristorante, 220 Beach St., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2600; salernolb.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 4-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$75, food only. Beer and wine.