By Justin Swanson, Special to the Independent
Walk into the newly opened NEApolitan, a self-described pizzeria and birreria where once local favorite Café Vienna stood, and find a restaurant after an Italian heart. Complete with standing room tables, a glass wall revealing a massive wood-burning pizza oven, and an accessible bar featuring a stock of 30 different wines hailing from Italy, the restaurant serves casually but with a flair for the inquisitive palate.
“This is not a pizza pub,” says Jason Adams, a supervisor standing behind the bar at 31542 S. Coast Highway, noting the selection from California craft breweries. “We’re not serving pitchers of Bud or Tecate here.”
The restaurant opened last Saturday with dinner only hours (5-11 p.m.) in anticipation of its lunchtime opening Sunday, Nov. 11 (11 a.m.- 3 p.m.).
NEApolitan is owned by Oven Laguna LLC. Newport Coast resident David Mainiero, Jr. helped obtain Oven Laguna’s lease. Last year, Mainiero envisioned opening an all-natural burger restaurant elsewhere in Laguna Beach, a spot long home to a KFC franchise. It is unclear why his plans changed, but he severed the lease, according to Michael Kinsman, a spokesman for the landowner. Maniero’s father, David Mainiero, Sr., who helped register NEApolitan as a limited liability corporation, says Oven Laguna’s owner is Joseph Michael. Employees at NEApolitan declined to discuss the restaurant’s ownership.
Nea, as it strives to be known, focuses its philosophy on la cucina provera, meaning the poor kitchen, which is an Italian style originating in Naples. The main tenet is the allowance of ingredients’ flavors to take center stage on the palate. As Nea General Manager Phil McMullen harps, this means the best flavors are: a ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and perfect ratios of dough.
“This is where it starts,” McMullen, a 30-year Laguna resident, explains, “Fresh is better.”
A part of attaining that desired taste is relying on locally sourced produce, a means of importing the freshest flavors. Chef Frank Deloach, who grew up in Dana Point, visits local farms such as Alegría in Laguna canyon, Crows Pass in Temecula, and VR Farms in San Clemente in search of the best ingredients, as he puts it, “to do it the right way.”
Deloach strives to make the most of a farmer’s offerings. “California has beautiful products. It’s close to the Italian climate, chaparral, which means ‘desert by the sea,’” he says.
According to Deloach, the only ingredients that cannot be “replicated” in the California climate, and are thus truly imported, are Mediterranean sea salt, flour from Naples, dried oregano, and kalabrian chilies. McMullen adds that, on account of difficulty transporting tomatoes once off the vine, the San Marzanos used are canned, though in California.
A crucial ingredient is the pizza oven. Shipping from Naples, by way of San Francisco, the wood-burning oven was introduced slowly, tempering its use to build up to full time exertion. The oven is fired with imported olive wood, its main source of fuel.
“It looks like a beating heart when it’s really going,” McMullen describes. “It’s the seemingly literal heart of the kitchen.”
Another consequence of depending on locally harvested crops is a subsequently dynamic menu, which McMullen promises will reflect a “seasonality of food.” He notes that as season’s shift, so too will Nea’s menu. “It’ll be more fun for Frank,” he says.
Deloach’s seven-year career mirrors the heat of Nea’s oven. At a young age, 26, he is on the ground floor of a second new restaurant in as many years, most recently helping to launch Playground in Santa Ana where he was the sous chef.
“I’ve just kept my head down,” is his austere explanation. He sees his role as pushing progression in the restaurant’s cuisine. “I want to make something a little more magical, a little more special.”
“We don’t want to sit on our laurels. We want to maintain our creativity,” McMullen adds.
Though, the la cucina provera motif is probably 1,000 years old, both McMullen and Deloach want to arrest locals with a progressive point of view when it comes to food.
“We want to push what Laguna diners see as food,” says Deloach. Particularly far-reaching ingredients in various dishes include hen of the woods mushrooms, fontina cheese, marinated kale, guanciale Italian bacon, and sweet-and-sour agrodolce sauce. A signature pizza, the “Margherita” goes for $14. Beers are $5/pint. An interesting appetizer, the “CA Buratta” makes use of caramelized persimmons at $12.
Adds McMullen, “We want to do everything we can to get locals behind what we’re doing here.”