THE restaurant’s name -- Michael’s on Naples Ristorante --sounds dubious, like the kind of place you might see showing up on British chef Gordon Ramsay’s hit television series “Kitchen Nightmares.” In fact, Ramsay did take in hand an Italian restaurant called Peter’s on Long Island in one episode I saw (and he spent much of the show trying to get the principles of running a restaurant -- no eating in front of the clients, no spending thousands on an Armani suit when the kitchen badly needs a stove -- through Peter’s thick head).
Michael’s on Naples may have a similarly stubborn name, but the story is very different. Open since December, this casual, sophisticated Italian is owned by first-time restaurateur Michael Dene -- who lives in Naples, the marina-rich neighborhood in Long Beach. And his namesake restaurant looks more to Italy for inspiration than Italian-American enclaves such as North Beach or Little Italy. The chef, Marco Cavuoto, is from Milan. Manager and sommelier Massimo Aronne is from Liguria. And the menu is classic Italian with bright Southern California notes.
The sleek, contemporary design is quiet and understated compared with the honky-tonk look of the rest of the 2nd Street restaurant row. Inside, would-be diners are crowded at the small granite-topped bar, sipping aperitifs as they wait for a table to open up. Why drive to West Hollywood, I hear one say, when I can walk to Michael’s? Why, indeed. The walls are lined with roomy upholstered booths, the better to pile in with family and friends, and wavy glass lighting fixtures from the Italian company Artemide bathe the room in soft light.
That narrow staircase to the left just inside the front door leads to the rooftop terrace outfitted with charcoal-gray sofas pulled up to an outdoor fireplace and, at the front of the space, a rooftop dining area. Here, you catch some of that balmy sea breeze. I swear, at times, when I had dinner up there, I felt I was somewhere on Capri or the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, Italy.
You’d probably be eating very similar fare at either place. To start, there’s a beautiful white and mauve octopus carpaccio that covers the entire plate, with a lovely little salad of fingerling potatoes with olives and radishes in the middle. Beef carpaccio is elegantly presented, too, garnished with pretty green arugula leaves, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and a svelte horseradish dressing.
On an unseasonably hot night, bufala mozzarella with fresh and oven-roasted tomatoes sounds appealing. The mozzarella really does taste like bufala, but the tomatoes just aren’t flavorful enough to show up on their own, at least this early in the season. If you can’t get great tomatoes, don’t make the dish.
Cavuoto has a wonderfully light hand with pastas, though, particularly the lasagna capricciosa listed as an antipasto. Baked and served in a white porcelain ramekin, it’s simply supple fresh pasta layered with burrata, olive-oil cured tomatoes (a French chef would call it tomato confit) and perfumed with Sicilian oregano. It couldn’t be lighter. He plays a similar trick with another war horse, eggplant parmigiana, layering thinly sliced zucchini into the mix, which lightens it up considerably, giving it a bit of a ratatouille lilt.
Vitello tonnato hardly ever makes an appearance on L.A.-area Italian menus so I was happy to hear it mentioned one night as an appetizer. The chef makes an excellent, straightforward version of this summer classic -- chilled thinly sliced roast veal napped with a piquant tuna and mayonnaise sauce. Fried calamari, too, is better than you’d expect, light and crunchy and instead of the usual boring marinara sauce, it’s served with a bagnèt sauce of parsley, garlic, olive oil and anchovies dosed with vinegar.
Manager’s wine wisdom
IF YOU order wine, try to get manager Massimo Aronne’s attention, because he’s the one who knows the wine list and can offer thoughtful advice. Servers haven’t absorbed all the wine information in the four months the restaurant has been open and you can sometimes end up with the wrong bottle or producer.
Service in general is friendly but disorganized. You can wait too long to get a menu or even a waiter. The staff is young and still unsure about the intricacies of serious restaurant service. But I suspect -- at least I hope -- that will come with time. It’s also not a bad thing that the proud owner is almost always in-house, making the rounds of the tables and introducing himself.
This may not be the place for a romantic dinner, though. All around us, diners were cutting loose -- eating, drinking, telling stories, and we could hear every word even when we didn’t want to. On the other hand, another diner may be inspired to lean over and suggest a pasta or a main course.
When it comes to pasta, go with either the ravioli or the paccheri alla Bolognese. Ravioli are particularly fine, filled with a mixture of burrata and boiled potatoes in a pinkish roasted red pepper and goat cheese sauce, which sounds heavy but isn’t. The chef doesn’t over-sauce and keeps his filling light. But if you really want to sink your teeth into a rustic pasta dish, order the paccheri, giant rigatoni in a red wine-braised meat ragout topped with freshly grated pecorino from Tuscany.
Fresh fettuccine with eggplant and smoked mozzarella didn’t quite do it for me, though. This kind of sauce needs a dried pasta to work. The egg pasta is too soft and refined. Risotto with fresh lobster and tomatoes tastes too much of tomato and the rice is too hard to be classified as al dente. A real disappointment.
If you have red meat in mind, the wine list has a savvy collection of Italian reds, including Ciacci Rosso di Montalcino and Cavallotto Barbera d’Alba. Drink one with the tagliata made with prime sirloin strip steak, seared and then sliced and served in a rosemary reduction with a heap of broccoli rabe flavored with pancetta. It’s simple and delicious.
Breaded veal chop “alla Milanese” is good, too, though it’s not pounded as flat as they do it some places in Italy. This way it stays a little juicier. And with it you get braised baby artichokes and sautéed potatoes stained a deep gold with saffron. Rack of lamb is flavorful and tender, and if you like gnocchi, order this dish just for the fluffy ricotta gnocchi that comes on the side.
Branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) gets a lift from a Naples-style roast pepper, black olive and caper stew, which takes it out of the ordinary. Roast chicken breast is boring and bland, but wouldn’t you expect it to be?
SO FAR, the kitchen isn’t running many specials. One night it’s a stracotto, braised beef, in this case steak, on puréed white beans, Italian comfort food at the beach.
The soundtrack is all Italian -- Andrea Bocelli and Italian pop running in an endless loop. Just because the place is Italian doesn’t mean it has to play only corny Italian music.
For dessert, I have two recommendations: the bunét or the affogato. Bunét is a Piedmontese chocolate-hazelnut flan that’s halfway between a cake and a custard. This one is excellent -- and not too sweet. The other is your choice of three scoops of gelato affogato -- “drowned” -- in a cup of hot espresso. On a summer night, there’s nothing more refreshing.
And if you want to chill out longer, gather round the outdoor fireplace up on the roof terrace for a glass of sparkling moscato d’Asti from Paolo Saracco or a ’99 vin santo from Felsina. Or a last quick sip of espresso on Long Beach’s best kept secret: Naples island.
Michael’s on Naples Ristorante Rating: **Location: 5620 E. 2nd St., Long Beach; (562) 439-7080; www.michaelsonnaples.com.Ambience: Contemporary Italian in Naples with roomy booths and a stylish open-air rooftop dining area. Far outclasses anything else on the island and attracts an affluent, Italian-food-mad crowd.Service: Well-intentioned and friendly, but green and out of sync.Price: Antipasti, salads and soup, $9 to $15; first courses, $13 to $19; main courses, $23 to $38; side dishes, $5.50; desserts, $9. Sunday evening “family night,” three-course meal $38, children 12 and under free.Best dishes: Octopus carpaccio, vitello tonnato, eggplant and zucchini alla parmigiana, lasagna capricciosa,salumi plate, paccheri alla Bolognese, roasted rack of lamb, baked branzino with peppers and olives, bunét or affogato with gelato.Wine list: Savvy selection of Italian wines and a sommelier who knows them. Corkage fee, $20.Best table: A booth toward the back of the room or a table on the roof.Details: Open for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and for Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Valet parking, $4.To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food.Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.