Not olive garden, at Michael's on Naples
If there's any proof that we've come a long way from Chef Boyardee, it's the squid-ink ravioli at Michael's on Naples in Long Beach. One of the restaurant's most popular entrées, these square pasta purses are blacker than crude oil—as jarring a sight on a white plate as a Goth at Disneyland on a sunny day.
Though if you eat one while your eyes are shut, you wouldn't guess they're colored any hue but white or that a cephalopod's defense mechanism was even involved. All you taste is lobster, which is stuffed inside. And they use lots of it—enough that the crustacean's faint sweetness acts as the primary flavor, even though the squid ink takes top billing.
Michael's has other items that will challenge and amaze, especially if all you've known is Olive Garden and Buca di Beppo. Nothing cooked by the kitchen and eaten on their idyllic rooftop patio will fit snugly into your expectations of spaghetti and meatballs, all-you-can-eat breadsticks and red-checkered tablecloths.
The lasagna, for instance, isn't the typical core section taken from a casserole dish. It's an amorphous tower, seemingly built from the ground up, right there on the serving plate. The bottom layer is a chunky tomato guanciale sauce, flavored from cured pork cheeks. Above it, there are blubbery helpings of mozzarella, Parmesan, and caciotta cheese. At the top of the stack, a crispy sheet of pasta teeters like a circus acrobat, baked as crackly as a potato chip. One wrong move, and the whole thing tumbles, leaving you to corral the ingredients so each forkful contains a little of everything. It will taste familiar, like the last lasagna you had, but the textures will surpass the predictable strata of sodden pasta, cheese and sauce.
What does resemble typical lasagna is the saffron potato pancake accompanying the breaded Kurobota pork chop. This Italian scalloped-potato side dish is carved out and served as a rectangular block, with a cross-section consisting of potato sheets layered as densely as a novel. It's a refined touch on an entrée that's meant to be rustic. There's a bone sticking out of the fried hunk of pork that all but invites you to pick it up and chomp down. In the end, you will—how else to gnaw every last nibble of meat from it?
The gnocchi, on the other hand, is classic. Nothing about it needs mulling over. It's exactly what the menu says it is, made with potato and sautéed with asparagus, brown butter and sage. Each thimble-sized nugget disintegrates upon contact with your tongue, as if in a hurry to get back to its mashed-potato past life.
But even before you get to the main courses, there's Michael's antipasto. With the exception of the boring buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes, every item on this list is also an ocean apart from the Italian standards you're used to. There's the Fritto Misto, a sensibly portioned, fried mound of battered fish, lobster, squid and zucchini, which honors tempura in its grace and lightness, but trumps it on crunch. Served with it are two dipping sauces. One is a cucumber aioli as cool as . . . well, a cucumber. The other is a marinara as thick and pungently spicy as Singaporean chili sambal.
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Vongole al Vapore—clams cooked with chorizo and served over a base of shoestring fries—would have been mistakenly categorized as an appetizer if it weren't perfect for sharing. Since the fries are crushed under the weight of the shellfish and submerged in the clam's murky orange broth, it gets soggy almost immediately. But it's that liquid you'll covet. Ask for extra spoons, some bread, a straw—anything to extract every last drop before they take the bowl away.
Even better is the octopus carpaccio dribbled with olive oil and served with a tuft of dressed greens. Sliced so thinly, the octopus is almost invisible, and when laid out on a white plate, it might as well be in camouflage. On your palate, its presence is equally fleeting, like a snowflake or a ghostly apparition that flits away as soon as you detect it's there.
And if anyone at Chef Boyardee is reading this, please don't get any ideas. Stick to what you know. Leave the octopus carpaccio alone.
Michael's On Naples Ristorante, 5620 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 439-7080; www.michaelsonnaples.com. Open for dinner Sun. & Tues.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $60-$100, food only. Valet, $4. Beer and wine.