Originally published in StuNewsLaguna.com
So, let’s just start this column by answering THE question that everyone wants to know about NeaPolitan Pizza:
Yes, as of February, NeaPolitan Pizza is under completely new ownership. Brien Sullivan, a pizza restaurant entrepreneur, bought the NeaPolitan Pizza Restaurant in South Laguna Beach with two partners.
The original owners and management behind the Nea Pizza concept are no longer involved in Laguna Beach, and Brien is already creating significant expansion and change in the overall menu, lunch, and beer and wine options. Even the hours have expanded from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day, closing just an hour earlier on Sunday.
Further, he’s signed an 18-year lease. Translation: He and his team are here to stay.
“We enjoy great relationships with the hotels and we want our tourists to love us, but we’re primarily catering to our locals. We’re here to be a comfortable, great-food restaurant for a quick lunch or a week night dinner, and that’s where we’re focused.”
Next question? Yes, the expanded menu and the food – newly infused with the creative talents of Chef Abel Gonzalez – are pretty darned awesome.
Grab a Slice, Call for Delivery
Not only is the menu expanded, it’s more flexible. Now, NeaPolitan offers pizza slices at lunch, and couples slices with salad and soda for $9. Brien is also prepping a “take out” corner at the end of the bar, and has added a soda dispenser for fast service to people who want to take their slice on the road or down to the beach.
Also inherent to pizza joints but not a part of the original Nea’s world: delivery. Now, Nea Pizza delivers any item on the menu, and preps every item for catering events, too.
He’s increased the number of beers on draft (“And brought in Peroni …you have to have Peroni,” he says). And, he’s expanding the wine list to include glasses and bottles of great wines that pair beautifully with menu items. Now home to popular wines such as If You See Kay (a divine Paso Robles blend), Justin Cabernet and Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay, Nea Pizza offers ½ off bottle specials every Wednesday night.
A Diva of a Pizza Oven
You’d be hard pressed to find a better-suited owner for NeaPolitan Pizza. Eighteen years ago, Brien joined forces with a good friend to transform an ice cream store into a new pizzeria in Hermosa Beach. They called it Paisano’s.
With restaurant coaches helping him along, Brien devoted his first 18 months to learning every possible facet of the restaurant business. It’s no surprise that Paisano’s quickly rose to royalty status, drawing in residents and tourists like bees to honey.
Now, Brien is positioning Nea’s for the same hum of happy bees. The restaurant’s key attraction – the pizza oven imported from Naples, Italy – is one U.S. rarity. This bodacious beauty, tiled in hand-cut Naples glass, rocks at 900 degrees, almost double the heat most commercial pizza ovens deliver.
She’s a picky one, too. For starters, she only wants almond wood to stoke her flame. Then, she has a flour issue. Try pizza dough made with domestic flour and the pizza will be aflame in a matter of seconds. This Italian oven insists only on flour from Italy – San Felice flour, to be exact. Italian flour is very low in protein and gluten, which allows it to survive the “trial by fire,” and produces a beautifully crisped, thin crust that frames its ingredients with proud style.
Because of the extremely high temperatures, Chef Abel is – well, able to create all sorts of toppings that wouldn’t work in another pizza oven. Take, for example, his Stuffed Chicken Breast Pizza special. On the day I tried it, the organic chicken was stuffed with Portobello mushrooms, garlic, leeks and Oyster mushrooms, then loaded – as an intact chicken breast – right in the middle of the pizza on a bed of freshly picked Arugula. Chef adds judicious dollops of organic, spicy marinara, sprinkles raw pistachios on the crust, and pops the contraption in the waiting inferno.
Not even 10 minutes later (this Italian beauty gets things done!), I have a perfectly roasted chicken breast pizza. I dismantle and distribute the chicken across the bed of arugula and discover that this is some kind of wonderful pizza.
Chef Abel loves his pizza options, and many of the originals are still honored. But this Chef is a 25-year fine food executive chef, too. When Brien gave the Chef creative license, all sorts of wonderful menu items and specials began to appear. When Chef Abel talks about his refreshed menu, he smiles endlessly. It’s as if he’s been set free.
Of course, the organic chicken wings are still the “original menu item,” tossed with shallots, onions, fresh herbs, breadcrumbs and Parmesan, and then roasted to order. They are the most popular appetizer item, but are only offered when organic chicken is available.
“Every one of our ingredients is delivered daily by farmers,” says Brien. “If, on the rare occasion, our vendor says he doesn’t have chicken wings, we go without. I’m not going to take a step down from providing only organic, sustainable food on this menu.”
On the salad menu, Chef’s Kale Salad remains a runaway favorite. Its usual bitterness is worked from the organic kale in the prep process, but Chef also credits the fact that the organic farmer they rely upon picks five different types of kale and delivers it a half hour later to their restaurant door. Even the half portion of the Kale Salad arrives in a giant mound of goodness, tossed in a light dressing mix of anchovies, lemon juice, organic milk, garlic, and herbs and spices he refuses to name.
Aside from original favorites, Chef Abel now busies himself with “secret recipe” lasagna and truly delectable pasta items. Then, he prepares two or three nightly specials that range the veritable range … wild Salmon dishes with fresh spring vegetables; “Cuban pizza” with curry, walnuts and banana; even Osso Buco.
“NOW, we’re starting to have some fun,” says Abel. Once the city approves a slight shift in the kitchen for the addition of stove burners (the buxom oven beauty has wide hips,, you see), Abel says he will further expand the menu and practically rubs his hands with glee.
Chef’s crowning glory, though, is his Tiramisu. Every other morning, Brien sits at the espresso machine, fresh-grinding a half-gallon of espresso for this homemade “pan of love.” Chef claims he’s perfected this recipe over his 25 years, and I would have to congratulate the commitment. This is, most definitely, the best Tiramisu I’ve tasted. (Obviously, I’m not alone in this opinion as Nea Pizza goes through three great pans of this bliss every week.) Chef Abel points to using “everything Italian” in the foundation, with imported Mascarpone cheese and Lady Fingers layered with just the right amount of Italian espresso, then rum and Kahlua.
As I tested a few bites, I found myself humming.
There it is: The humming of bees has begun.
NeaPolitan Pizza is at 31542 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA. 92651, (949) 499-4531