I'm pretty sure I've not had a meatball as scrumptious or as soft as the ones Alessandro Pirozzi is serving at Pirozzi, his new restaurant in Corona del Mar. And I don't know why it took me this long to try them. After all, I've been to all of his restaurants: Mare Culinary Lounge at the Laguna Beach Holiday Inn, Alessá in downtown Laguna, even Cucina Alessá in Huntington Beach, with which he's no longer affiliated. Perhaps I was too distracted by the cool-blue nightclub atmospherics at Mare or the overwhelmingly encyclopedic menu at Alessá to notice he's probably always made meatballs this good.
These are delicate orbs whose structural integrity is retained only until touched. Nudge one with your fork, and it surrenders under just the slightest pressure, as though it's made of freshly packed snow. It's even better when you put it in your mouth, as it disintegrates into a hot, meaty pudding capable of invading every pore. As an appetizer, you get three of them draped in burrata cheese, oozing as though they're melted camp marshmallows, with an ambrosial ragù and sprinkles of basil. They're by far the most popular dish at Pirozzi. You see every table with an order. I had them as part of the spaghetti Mamma Mia entrée; for two bucks more than the appetizer price, the meatballs are served atop about six forkfuls of pasta.
As good and as properly cooked as it is, the spaghetti is a supporting co-star to these beefy beauts. Each piece that collapsed from the whole delivered warmness directly to my soul. If you want a heartier meal, Pirozzi also adds one meatball to his baked ziti—firm but tender pasta tubes oven-fused with a richly meaty Bolognese and the heady stink of three cheeses. But once you've had the spaghetti, the solitary meatball in the baked ziti dish will no longer be enough.
Pirozzi, 2929 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 675-2932; pirozzicdm.com. Open daily, 5-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$80, food only. Full bar.
Perhaps it's better that I tried them here. Pirozzi is the chef's most personal restaurant—a casual trattoria, as opposed to his more formal ristorantes. The menu is full of his greatest hits, simmered down to the basics. Where there are multiple risottos at Mare and Alessá, there's just one here. The dining area is also smaller, with seemingly half the square footage of the other two restaurants. But it's also the most accessible and visible of them all, open on one side to PCH traffic and boasting patio seats that locals seem to covet more than the ones inside.
This restaurant also happens to be where Pirozzi is spending all of his time these days. When he's not expediting orders in front of the white-tile dome of his 900-degree wood-burning oven, he's weaving his way between the tables, greeting every customer, his genuine grin winning them over before they take a bite of his food.
Your waiter will most likely recommend dishes that were made in that oven. First and foremost, he'll talk up the pizza Margherita D.O.P., noting that everything about it—the tomatoes, the cheese, the flour—is imported from Italy.
"The one thing we do different here is we cut the pizza," he'll say. "In Napoli, they give it to you whole."
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And, of course, you'll order it because it's a wonderful pizza, the edge crust freckled with dots of char formed in the 90 seconds it spent in front of a smoldering fire. It should be noted the dough here doesn't particularly puff up as it does at Mozza up the road in Newport Beach; Pirozzi's pizzas are perfectly round, not amoeba-like, and much softer to the chew.
Broiled in the same oven is the New Zealand elk chop, a bone-in hunk served with amarena cherries, just like the venison Pirozzi once served at Mare. But this dish is more rustic, with a handful of charred cauliflower and a few marinated cipolline onions—all presented on a wooden cutting board.
There are some constants you've come to expect from an Alessandro Pirozzi restaurant. His signature butternut squash ravioli is here, as sweet as ever, slicked with browned butter and decorated with fried sage. His litany of salumi and cheeses is still head-spinning, and his panna cotta still jiggles. Also, everything you order—the eggplant parmigiana served in two perfect stacks; the simple chicken-based tomato soup he presumably named after his grandmother; even the seafood salad of shrimp, squid and obscenely soft octopus tossed in lemon and Calabrian chile oil—comes out as hot and steaming as those soft, soft meatballs.