Seasoned with Love

South Bay chef Michael Fiorelli partners up and scores a winning combination with Love & Salt.

 

It was Top Chef that signaled the era of the celebrity chef—the ambitious cook who was just as eager to be on-camera as behind the stoves. As Bravo films the 13th season of this seminal show, its industry impact—and that of Food Network and other channels—is difficult to overstate.

One might point out the soaring enrollment and associated costs at pricey culinary schools that churn out aspirational line cooks who may well end up dating the aspirational servers from NYU, Julliard and related acting schools. Certainly, restaurants have gotten prettier if not grittier. One might also suggest that tempting TV opportunities might cut short the essential years of apprenticeship, training and, well, seasoned suffering that distinguish a good cook from a great chef.

Michael Fiorelli is a seasoned chef and, no, he’s not a TV star (yet). It’s not that he isn’t handsome or funny—he is both, if you must know. It’s rather that he’s been too busy cooking. I’ve always liked this about him, and it’s never been more apparent than now.

Recently I caught him somewhat sheepishly working the line at 5:30 p.m. on a Sunday night at Manhattan Beach’s new Love & Salt. No night off yet for this guy, and that’s not surprising.

This eagerly awaited partnership with owners Guy and Sylvie Gabriele has diners lining up outside the old Café Pierre space on Manhattan Beach Boulevard and for good reason: It’s fun to catch someone talented doing what they do for the pure joy of it. That’s how Fiorelli cooks—with love and ample amounts of salt.

That salt arrived first atop house-made butter with toasted rosemary leaves, served alongside gigantic English muffins in a breadbasket revamp that feels playful. After years of industrial olive oil being poured tableside in just about every Italian restaurant I’ve reviewed, that butter tasted wonderfully modern.

Fiorelli’s food is deceptively rustic. Sure, there’s loads of farmhouse animal bits, coarse salt galore and plenty of paisano pizza and pasta, but his style of Italian is precise, not messy. The rabbit porchetta is rolled with perfect symmetry, and the black rice on which it’s served is exactly the right texture.

The much ballyhooed roasted and glazed pig head is country eating, that’s for sure, but don’t miss the deliberateness with which the noble decapitation is presented. There’s a reason it’s been endlessly circulated on Instagram. It’s because it’s a culinary portrait that also happens to be delicious.

I really enjoyed Fiorelli’s cooking at Terranea’s mar’sel restaurant and at Sofitel LA with Kerry Simon, another perfectionist masquerading as a rock ’n’ roller. (Fiorelli also worked at some outstanding East Coast restaurants like Patrick O’Connell’s iconic The Inn at Little Washington.)

 

 

 

Apprentices absorb and process and amalgamate, but eventually they become the sorcerer. My feeling is that Love & Salt is quite fortuitously the place where Fiorelli is finally mastering his own magic.

It’s not without hiccups. The way the menu is organized can be confusing to diners. The “Kitchen Love” charcuterie and cheese platter reads like an appetizer, so the $55 price tag seems high. It isn’t, based on what you actually get.

Similarly, the 32-ounce ribeye with ricotta pudding at $75 is plenty for a party of four, unless you’re expecting Ruth’s Chris’ or, worse yet, an Outback Steakhouse ratio of ounces-to-tenderness.

A small-plate portion of very good swordfish with classic Mediterranean accompaniments of lemon, caper and romesco is, in fact, a small plate at $19, so don’t go comparing it to the whole branzino in the next column at $65. A fish is not a fish, but I am not sure some diners are quite so savvy.

No matter. We can leave it to the Yelpers to whine about portion size or sticker shock. What does matter is that Love & Salt has something for everyone on its début menu.
If the “Odds & Ends” category is too daring for you, for God’s sake do yourself a favor and at least get the duck egg pizza. Yes, it is in fact topped with gloriously silky, yolky yumminess that plays nicely with the pancetta and cheeses.

The inevitable comparison will be to Mozza and Nancy Silverton’s crust. I am going to go out on a limb here and vote Fiorelli. The crust is that good.

Love & Salt has plenty of seating options packed into the reconfigured dining room. I liked the common table where we sat, where we could watch the exceptionally talented Rebecca Merhej, chef de cuisine and pastry chef, do her thing at Love & Salt. She’s the Bonnie to Fiorelli’s Clyde, a partnership that’s worked beautifully since 2006.

That’s another thing I’ve always liked about Fiorelli. In an industry that is still largely dominated by testosterone, Fiorelli values talent and collaboration over gender and ego. Try Merhej’s flawless lemon tart, dusted with a pretty, powdered sugar L&S logo.

Love & Salt is busy, busy, busy, so make a reservation or be prepared to sit at the bar. Drink some of the Love & Salt eponymous red while you wait, by the way—a super tasty bottling of dolcetto and refosco grapes grown in the Santa Ynez appellation and blended by winemakers Steve & Chrystal Clifton. Like so many things at this great restaurant, it too is made with love by folks who care passionately about what they do.

Good juice, great food, exceptional people? Pass the salt, please, as we’ll be back again and soon.

 

 

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