Michael Dene knows a thing or two about vertical integration. The Long Beach restaurateur made a lifetime of work out of selling cheap lamps (like the kind you buy for your dorm room), building atop his father’s business by taking control of the entire supply chain. Instead of just buying cheap parts from China for his lamps, he became his own source for parts, living half the year in China and taking on manufacturing for all the individual pieces necessary to build his final product.
Not only did he have control over the cost of each part, he could make things better quality too. “When I was building lamps, it wasn’t ‘worse for less,’ it was ‘better for a little bit more,'” he told me a few years ago.
So it only makes sense that when he retired to Long Beach and launched a second-career to fix the fact that there were no good fine dining restaurants like the kinds from his jet-set life (really, the workaholic got bored), the Italian-American Dene couldn’t help but build it into a vertically integrated business similar to his lamp empire.
Michael’s on Naples, his recently refreshed white tablecloth Italian restaurant built near Dene’s house in tony Naples Island (hi chef Eric!), came first. Then came Michael’s Pizzeria, a more casual sliver of an eatery featuring perfectly bubbly Neopolitan pizzas and gooey calzone-like rotolinos made in an imported stone oven, that hit right as the build-your-own Napoli-style pie became trendy.
At both, Dene and his chefs insisted on crafting as much as they could from scratch, making their mozzarella in-house and buying produce from local farms. But it wasn’t until Dene decided to open a first-of-its-kind Italian steakhouse, Chianina, in 2013, that he made his first major investment in food supply-chain management: the purchase of an entire herd of rare Chianina cows, which he now oversees the breeding, raising, shipping and slaughter of. A whole animal butchery soon followed and in 2015, Working Class Kitchen became prep HQ for not just meat but all the made-in-house products needed at Dene’s restaurants.
Which brings me back to the pizza, which was good even before its Zagat recognition as one of the top-rated pizzerias in the country left pizza snobs severely confused (mostly because they’d never heard of the place). Now that Michael’s Pizzeria is fully integrated into Dene’s controlled supply of fresh Italian products, it’s the most approachable place (a second Long Beach location opened downtown in 2013) to experience its possibilities in action.
Take, for instance, the salsiccia e funghi pizza, always a symphony of simplicity topped with nothing more than meat, cheese, mushrooms and sauce. These days, though, the base layer, a tangy herb-flecked red sauce, is made from hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes purchased directly from an Italian grower. The cheese is still the company’s own daily-made creamy, melty blend. The mushrooms might not come from a local farm, but you better believe Dene has met the person who grows them. And the crumbles of fennel sausage come directly from Working Class Kitchen (so does the porchetta on the Porchetta Pizze).
Fresh pasta is another sweet benefit to having sister restaurants like Michael’s on Naples, and the downtown pizzeria’s once-minimal noodle menu has expanded to include more options than salads and rotolinos combined (Naples Island still only has two pasta dishes). While the classics like Bolognese and carbonara are safe bets to be sure, on a recent visit, a new pesto pasta was as refreshing as a shot of green juice, with a generous heap of fingerling potatoes, pine nuts and green beans. Daily specials at both locations – plus the year-old weekend brunch program at the downtown location – provide even more ways to try the ingredients coming straight out of Working Class Kitchen.
Thanks to a menu that’s only expanded and gotten better with age, Michael’s Pizzeria is proof that streamlining your supply chain doesn’t mean cutting corners on quality or dumbing down products to save a few pennies. By internally managing the way food goes from raw ingredient to a customer’s plate across his multiple distinct restaurants (in much the same way he did with lamps for all those years), Dene is setting an example that more restaurateurs should follow. After all, why settle for worse for less when you can get better for a little bit more?
Michael’s Pizzeria, 210 E. 3rd St., (562) 491-2100; also at 5616 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, (562) 987-4000; michaelspizzeria.com
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.