Local chefs embrace their heritage with traditional recipes and modern techniques to craft mouthwatering cuisine.
By Tanya A. Yacina
From authentic, long-simmered sauces to delicate, fresh-made pasta and artisan olive oil, each ingredient plays an intricate part in the creation of Italian cuisine, a true art form when done right.
Of course, there’s no need to travel all the way to Europe for a taste of these culinary masterpieces. Newport Beach is home to more than a dozen Italian restaurants, from Mama D’s Italian Kitchen to Rothschild’s, Sapori Ristorante, Il Farro Caffe Trattoria, Canaletto Ristorante Veneto and Il Barone Ristorante to the newer Louie’s by the Bay and Bello by Sandro Nardone, many with menus rooted in old-style preparation and presentation. Here are just some of the places where chefs take pride in traditional preparation of the dishes as well as the development of modern concepts that appeal to the sophisticated and evolving palates of loyal diners in the community.
Traditionalism Meets Modernism
Located in the heart of Corona del Mar, Rothschild’s menu has been based on classic Italian cuisine since its inception, according to Frank Fassero Reiss, the restaurant’s executive chef and owner, who continues the traditions of his father, Helmut Reiss, the original proprietor back in 1977.
“We choose fresh seasonal ingredients in order to add daily specials to the menu,” Fassero Reiss says. “New creations are inspired by a combination of traditional northern Italian, French provincial and Californian influences.”
Fassero Reiss says Rothschild’s prepares its pasta fresh daily and in a traditional way. Consistency is key, and so one person is dedicated to making the restaurant’s pasta, one chef specializes in creating the meatballs, another is focused on the desserts and so on. Fassero Reiss works with each individual so they understand the textures and flavors required for each component.
“What has been a game changer in the cuisine department for us is the smaller menu—[our] ‘Rothschild’s Greatest Hits Album’—which includes the popular, classic dishes as well as some specialties,” Fassero Reiss explains of the switch to a condensed menu in 2018. “We also have patrons who have been coming here for 30 years and order dishes that are off the menu.”
Similarly, the menu at Sapori Ristorante on Bayside Drive—open since 1989—is also based on traditional Italian cuisine. Owner and Executive Chef Sal Maniaci was born in Italy and says his mother was an amazing cook and a big influence in his personal cooking technique. He became a chef because of his love of food and cooking, as well as for the creative aspect of the craft.
“We try to create true Italian recipes with some creativity thrown in, striving for consistency,” Maniaci says. “Using the finest ingredients available reflects on the outcome of the final product. Sticking to traditional Italian dishes has proven to be successful with our clientele. Our Bolognese is very popular … also lobster ravioli, and we often have branzino as a special, which is extremely popular, as well as our veal chop.”
Louie’s by the Bay, which entered the local restaurant scene in 2019 on Mariner’s Mile, is known for both its steaks and its standout Italian dishes from cioppino to cacio e pepe, Mary’s Chicken Parmigiano, Maine lobster ravioli and linguine vongole made with Manila clams. For Executive Chef Carmelo Bascetta, culinary training began as a young boy and, by age 14, he had enrolled in cooking school in Sicily. Bascetta credits his “Nona” (grandmother) with his life’s path. As a child, he recalls visiting her and working with the local produce and ingredients they had available, spending time in the kitchen together to help create family meals.
“I am close to my traditions and, for our fresh, homemade pastas, we only use semolina flour, salt and water. Our take on sauces is that of a traditional recipe, like our Bolognese and marinara,” Bascetta says. “Most of our sauces or sauce bases take, at a minimum, four hours to cook and can even take up to 16 hours of cooking [and] prep time.”
Bascetta explains the concept of the menu at Louie’s by the Bay is based off a modern Italian kitchen. The staff often tries to introduce Italian products that are not easily found in the U.S. and also use new, modern techniques to incorporate these ingredients in the dishes, offering a contemporary take on traditional Italian fare.
When patrons identify a restaurant that tempts their taste buds and realizes their culinary desires, chefs strive to keep them coming back for more of the dishes they love.
Fassero Reiss says, at Rothschild’s, the most popular item is the spaghetti with basil-pistachio pesto, which is a constant on the menu to keep customers happy. While preserving favorite dishes in the lineup, he has made some changes to the restaurant’s interior to keep the establishment’s look and feel fresh since taking over in 2018. This blend of fine cuisine and welcoming atmosphere leads loyal diners to return again and again.
“Our daily clientele is largely local, however, we have patrons who come from near and far to celebrate their most special occasions at Rothschild’s,” Fassero Reiss says. “Our philosophy is that the dining experience in our warm ambiance surrounded by charming oil paintings and stained-glass windows should be totally pleasurable with the presentation of the food and refinement of the table setting complementing the quality of the cuisine.”
Rothschild’s has been a local landmark for 45 years and Sapori for more than 32 years. “We are blessed with a very faithful clientele, some of whom dine with us multiple times a week,” Maniaci says of Sapori. “We also have had some of our staff for decades, which makes it feel as if we’re family.”
Meanwhile, Louie’s by the Bay is a young restaurant that is constantly growing, Bascetta says. He and the rest of the staff work hard to create an experience for patrons to find comfort in their food and intimate space.
“I have fond memories of the aromas that would come from [my grandmother’s] kitchen, therefore I try to re-create those smells and tastes in our kitchen and pass it on to our customers with the dishes we serve,” Bascetta says. “I try to convey my emotions in the dishes I serve in hope that customers can recognize that this is who I am as a chef and as a person, not through words, but with food.”
Rothschild’s Fettuccini Romano
Servings: 4 to 6
24 ounces fresh fettuccine pasta
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 pint heavy cream
1/2 pint half-and-half
1 1/4 cups aged Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and add fettuccine. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until al dente, and drain. In a large saucepan over low heat, melt butter and whisk in flour. Then slowly add cream and half-and-half. Once mixed, stir in cheese over medium heat until it has melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add pasta to the sauce. Make sure to use enough of the pasta so that all of the sauce is used and the pasta is thoroughly coated. Serve immediately.
Recipe courtesy of Rothschild’s