To get Alessandro to sit still for our meeting was next to impossible. Somewhere between emails, planning the daily special (sea bass with a white wine sauce made with grapes in their garden), and coordinating the staff schedule, we went over the questionnaire.
What was the first thing your Nonna Ida taught you to cook?
was the ragu. They wouldn't let me play with my sisters because I fight with them, so my grandma would take me in the kitchen. She would let me use a sharp knife when I was very young to slice the garlic and onions. I remember roasting the garlic with a low flame, removing it, adding the raw onions and braising the meat.
I get chills just thinking about it.
Favorite meal growing up:
Pasta rigatoni with a meat Bolognese sauce. I would always look forward to it. Also, my mom and grandmother would make a pomodoro ragu with ricotta mixed in; a pink sauce with no cream. That, I remember, is a kid's meal in Italy.
Your best recent food find:
The orange peppedew sweet peppers. I bake, saute, and even make a sauce for the chicken and fish with it. It looks very good, and I've never seen it before.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Flour. With flour and water, you can make so much with it, like pasta. Add flour, water, a few eggs, a little spinach puree, butter, and boom. You made a spinach pappardelle in a few minutes.
How do you explain the difference between Mare and your Cucina Alessa locales?
They're completely different– the look, the decor, the feeling. Cucina Alessa is like your typical family restaurant. You just have a meal. Sometimes you have a salad. Sometimes you have a steak. It's a second kitchen for the people.
Mare is different. It's a little bit more sophisticated. It's loungy, it's trendy. You have a cocktail before your dinner. You listen to music. It's executed differently because the menu is smaller. It's still basic, good Italian food, but with a flair so that we can use different ingredients since we are a different brand.
We've been sharing some of the same guests. They are surprised at how different it is here, but they like both.
We love the Polipo Mediterranean (octopus carpaccio)! Where did the inspiration come from, and what's the best way to eat it?
I come from a place where I used to catch octopus all the time. Octopus is a very amazing food, and people are skeptic (sometimes scared) when they see it on a menu. The best way is to mix it with the arugula salad on top so you get the pepper, the sweetness. The caper berry combined with black sea salt breaks up the flavors and makes it unique.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Selection. We have so many restaurants, and so many chefs. I think better than LA. Any kind of food you want, you can have it.
What fast food do you admit to eating?
Absolutely In-N-Out. Why? Because it's In-N-Out. Protein-style double double, with ketchup instead of grilled onions.
Who designed your space?
My wife, Mai, is the designer for everything. She is the mastermind.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
It's a white wine from the south of Italy, Greco di Tufo. They've been making wine since 1874. It says on the menu that it's my favorite wine. You can find a lot in my house. I have a refrigerator full of it. I think it's at Hi-Time.
Name at least one local farmer you source from, and what you purchase.
We use Valdivia Farms for heirloom tomatoes. And Chino Hills Farms for cage-free eggs.
One food you can't live without:
Nutella. I've been eating Nutella since I was one. I have jars everywhere: at the office, at my house, and one in my car. I cannot live without Nutella. The to-go ones were a good invention.
Where was your most recent meal?
At least twice a week, I meet my wife at Anjin in Costa Mesa. They're open until 1am, and I drive across town to eat there. It's my favorite restaurant. I always order the same thing: Kobe beef, sausage, short rib soup and sticky rice. The meat is amazing. She does the cooking, and I pour the wine.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Make pasta. Make a simple sauce. Open your refrigerator. See what you have. Start from the bottom (which is usually the vegetables), and finish on the top (fresh herbs like basil). You can make hundreds of meals out of your refrigerator, even though you think you have nothing.
Use your creativity, and just don't throw everything in the pan at once. Vegetables have different cooking times, so you want to cook the harder ones first and the soft ones last. That way, you get a very good flavor buildup and color combination. For example, you start with the onions first to get the caramelized flavor. Then the carrots, the potato, broccoli, and then the lighter ingredients in the end like zucchini and herbs. Add spinach when you're completely done; you can actually just toss it in at the end.
What's the allure of opening your restaurants in beach cities?
We were looking at a beach city for the first one. I said that if I opened five more restaurants, I would go for five more beach cities. The life is better at the beach. Every city is completely different, with different mentalities, but they are all beach people. I just love the fact that I can take one minute to walk across the street and look at the ocean. I have to be next to the ocean; everywhere I live, if not near the ocean, then a lake. I am a water person. I drive the coast every single day.
What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
I think it's a little weird, but I like it. Sometimes when I see people taking pictures, I'm skeptic and think people want to steal the recipe. I take pictures with my mind. I'm too embarrassed to take pictures.
In Orange County, it's Alan Greeley of The Golden Truffle [Editor's Note: We agree, the man is a culinary badass]. Why? That guy is the most incredible chef. You never know what he's gonna put in your mouth. I go there, and he'll just put something in my mouth, “Oh, don't worry, it's turtle. Oh, it's alligator.” I have a lot of chefs that I respect and like, but I have to say Alan Greeley, hands down, in Orange County. He's crazy and I love him.
My favorite chef is my uncle, Ugo D'Orso. He's a famous chef that taught at my culinary school, and the most incredible chef in my life. He's my mentor, godfather and the reason I am in the business.
What's the secret to homemade pasta?
Mixing the flours. There are so many kinds of flour you can make pasta with, I mix a lot of them. I use semolina, extra fancy, regular, 00, etc. It's a very unusual blend. And the other secret is the liquid. I use different kinds of liquid, like alcohol. Why use water when you can use wine?
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Alligator. I always wanted to try it. Alan braised it and made a bolognese with green chiles for Wild & Crazy Taco Night. I loved it so much, he gave me some to eat at home.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
I don't eat breakfast every day, but I usually eat Nutella. Every two to three days, I have uova arrabiata– two sunny side up eggs baked with spicy arriabata sauce, fontina and Parmesan cheese over garlic focaccia. That is as good as it gets for breakfast.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
Guests ask for all kinds of weird stuff. Especially when they want to mix meat and fish. Like fettuccine with bolognese sauce, and they want to add shrimp and salmon. It doesn't register in my mind. Sometimes I cook it, put it on the side and say, “You mix it.”