Michael's Pizzeria Bar Exam

When given the option at these everything old-is-new-again pizzerias, always sit at the bar. It's equivalent to sitting in the front row at a concert. It's where I would've sat when Mozza opened in Newport Beach if I'd had the chance, but with Batali's place, you take whatever's available. At the new Michael's Pizzeria, we showed up without a reservation, and we were offered the choice of any seat we liked, including the bar. So we took it.

Perhaps it's easier to do so right now because this is actually the second Michael's Pizzeria in Long Beach, the one not everyone knows about yet. This location opened a month ago, built as part of a downtown-revitalization project that includes the second Beachwood BBQ and chic-looking loft apartments surrounding an open courtyard. And from these prime seats, I was now close enough to feel the oven's radiant heat, witness an argument between a waiter and a cook about a botched order, and, most important, observe the man who was at the center of it all—the maker of our pizzas, he of few words and burly arms dusty with flour.

It's his job to shove the pies into the wood-fueled oven with a long metal paddle, his job to extricate bubbling discs from the glowing furnace and slide them onto waiting plates. Nothing, however, is more mesmerizing to watch than him working on the raw dough. He flattens pliant white balls with the heels of his wrist, coaxing each one wider and wider as he presses down in a circular motion with the edge of his cupped palms. Then, he drapes the stretched disc over his fists and twirls it skyward, letting gravity and centripetal force do its work. The finished products are membrane-thin, almost sheer. He does this in batches, several at a time, throwing showers of flour between each.

His comrade then takes one, swirls tomato sauce on top, then arranges a few slices of mozzarella and some basil leaves. Within minutes, the margherita pizza had the cheese melting into lakes and the crust blistered in spots. It should've been the first pizza I tried. But instead, I ordered the pie with the shrimp, zucchini, radicchio and pesto, which I didn't like nearly as much.

It wasn't that the gigantic shrimp, split down their spines, weren't well-cooked and practically lobster-like; it's that they seemed divorced from the pie, wholly unincorporated with the pizza, just as the piles of barely wilted radicchio weren't really part of it either. The loose, bitter leaves ended up blotting out all other flavor. But the crust was crisp, if not as buoyant, puffy and light on the edges as the last great pizza I had of this style. It was also a bit tougher, doughier and chewier than I anticipated, especially when the pie is eaten the way Neapolitans traditionally do (and the way Michael's suggests): with a knife and fork. Michael's, as with Mozza, does not cut pies before service, explaining in bold letters on the menu that “slicing a pie immediately after it comes out of the oven causes moisture to form beneath it.”

From my seat, I saw more pizzas I wish I had ordered, such as a prosciutto and arugula, in which wisps of thinly sliced salumi are laid down gently on a just-baked pie. Also from where I sat, I saw the garde manger assemble my antipasto of artichoke and burrata. She sliced into quarters an artichoke heart left marinating in a bowl of olive oil, serving it with the blubbery cheese she squeezed out of its sheath and a piece of bread so hard it was inedible. I had no idea what she assembled next was actually our insalata invernale, which was supposed to be a salad of root vegetables, pancetta, roasted pumpkin seeds and herb buttermilk dressing. What she made didn't have any pumpkin seeds or anything resembling buttermilk. In fact, I tasted vinaigrette in a mound of what I think was predominantly raw, shredded Brussels sprouts with pickled carrots, onions and ragged scraps of the pancetta, all of it forming a salad as unattractive as it was a chore to eat.

The best dish turned out to be tender hunks of roasted octopus sautéed in a fuming cast-iron pan with tiny sliced potatoes, garlic, capers and lemon, prepared by a cook whose station was unfortunately relegated to a spot farthest away from where we sat. But it reminded me how much I liked Michael's on Naples island, the fine-dining eatery that begat this chain of pizzerias, where I had an excellent octopus dish once, at a restaurant with no bar like this, except the kind for alcohol.


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