Michael's on Naples & Chianina: How to Throw A Block Party

Two loving grandmothers often vie for our attention. A promoter can make a cruel million by tossing Bubbes in a boxing ring to battle it out. In this corner, sponsored by Jean Nate, weighing in at 101 pounds.... 

I'm using Chef David Coleman to allegorically stir the pot of that duel. He nurtures two families, or eateries, steps away from each other in Long Beach, California.  First, there' s Italian Michael's on Naples. This is your exotic grandmother -- the one that smoked and took a lover that summer in Paris. A block away lives steakhouse Chianina, your pioneer granny that drove a wagon out West and struck oil. Maybe killed a lover along the way. 

Chef Coleman whisks between both joints with the agility of a new-hipped octogenarian. 

black awning, large M on restaurant

First, I pay a visit to Michael's. Imagine a lavish matriarch showering affection on you like a Shalimar thunderstorm. Or this gift of an amuse bouche, Salmon Crudo encrusted with micro lavender.

 chopped, raw salmon with lavender leaf on top

He tames the Wild King salmon by stuffing shards of icy cucumbers amongst the soft pink meat. He gently lays it down on a bed of creme fraiche. It takes a tender victor to place Lilliputian lavender on top, in a tribute. The bright, clean flavors in the well-composed dish light a torch foreshadowing good things.

This same globe-trotting grandmama breezes into a room and wraps you in a mink hug, like Coleman's Grilled Quail, white polenta, confit artichokes and olives. 

roasted tiny bird on polenta with olives

The quail is succulent; the polenta is as supportive as a trust fund. Best quail I've ever eaten, and I believe I'm up to over 1,000,000. (Hard to keep track; they're tiny.) Like the majority of Coleman's ingredients, they're sourced locally. I don't mean some jumpy sous chef yelled Pull! as he balanced a shotgun over the charming canals of Naples, California (who knew?!).  

boat docked to house along waterway next to bridge

Suddenly, I hear the pop of a pistol. My hand instinctively flies up to check my chest, This cannot be happening; this jacket's new. A bottle-wielding hand appears, the fight's getting rough. Wait -- I spy the orange label of Veuve Clicquot. Relief bubbles into my flute. The only good pain, is champagne. 

The source of the sparkling river is General Manager and Sommelier, Massimo Aronne. He's got the good looks that make women faint and men pause and rethink chivalry. He was originally bottled in Naples, Italy, but he shook things up. The cork popped and sprayed him all the way to America. Along the journey he flowed among the best hotels and restaurants. 

A golden moment arrives. Ricotta stuffed squash blossom in honey basil pestoI lift the delicate flower to my lips. One smack releases creamy ricotta. The ooze is playful; I dredge the blossom through the herbaceous sauce. My fingers get sticky.

fried appetizer plate

I smell the honey and I'm seven years old, sitting in a high-backed chair at Pancho's Mexican Buffet in Fort Worth, Texas. I eat the tamales and the cheese enchiladas, but I'm here for one item: Sopapilla. I hold the puffy "little pillow" in my hands, afraid to crush it. I tear off a tiny corner and pour honey in. I secretly lick my sticky fingers all the way home, safe in the dark, back seat of our station wagon.

Now here I am in California, grown up, savoring a grown up dish. Chef David skillfully transforms a young, tender blossom into a full bodied adult. It's a magical accomplishment.

Ever walk in on a Christmas tree that's unable to hide an impossible number of gifts? An abundance of presents emerge from Michael's kitchen. They parade by on strong-armed waiters, like a stream of groomsmen in an Italian wedding; known here as the Chef's Tasting Menu. An Italian wedding feast lasts all night, in the hope that the groom will. 

bearded waiter carrying plates balanced on his arms

Our waiter Roberto brings Nettle pasta with smoked Liberty Farm duck neck and Teleggio cheese. As Roberto tells me of his village in Italy, the timbre of his voice dims, the romance rises. I marvel over the gentle flavor the nettle adds. I smile and get busy kissing smoky, tender bits of meat from their hiding spots in the tucks of the neck. The pungent cheese sends up reminders that this is a well built course. 

Instead of dripping in diamonds, Chef David's arms are bedazzled with jewel-hued tattoos. That art slides onto his plates. He humbly delivers his Casarecce con Anatra: beef tongue ragu with hand-rolled cavatelli. 

ragu in white bowl

This is his masterpiece. So flavorful and tender that surely the chef abandoned it for days. It's one step beyond perfectly seasoned. Perhaps he left another dish in the kitchen -- a beautiful cook, maybe named Amanda, whose tears fell into the stew, providing sweet saltiness. Her revenge comes; she proudly sends that plate out like a bastard prince claiming the throne.

Fittingly, Massimo pours a perfect blend of complex romance, a 2008 Brunello di Montaclcino Sirio Piacenti, Toscana. The striking, vibrant aroma of the wine's red ripe fruit rises up from the goblet to help the braised tongue tell its rich story.

A fish appears on a platter. As Roberto scoots the skin off the roasted sea bass, I imagine Sophia Loren whispering Branzino to me as she whips the sheets back after a lovemaking session. Like this fish, my legs are exposed. I was hoping she wouldn't have to see all that white; she dives in and devours the tender flesh. I'm hungrier than I thought; I gorge, always glad to see ramps: the alternative green. Chef David nails their sauté. I drag them through the pillow of pureed white asparagus. The Meyer lemon sauce isn't the only tart waking me up today. 

Massimo pours a crisp, white 2012 Satrico Casale del Giglio. Delicate, with a lengthy finish, like Sophia. We all calm down with this elegant, liquid post coital cigarette. 

Next up is Coniglio al Fonro. It takes me a moment to figure out this duo of Devil's Gulch rabbit. It's tightly bound with speck. As I cut into the first portion, I release the succulent rabbit. I understand the playfulness of the dish -- kind of like when you see boobs fall out of a bra. The boozy Turkish apricot stuffing heightens the excitement.

peas, meat in a bowl

This course is a stunning beauty. Massimo's choice of the 2011 Primitivo Tormaresca, Puglia reveals his passion as skillThis well rounded Cabernet blend opens up at the end to reveal chocolate like unwrapping a candy Easter bunny. 

One of my grandmothers had an entire room built just to serve pie. At least that's how my memory has cached her sumptuous spread on the kitchen table. Chef David offers desserts as if he's a dowager lining up jewelry from which I am to choose. I'd like to eat the Madagascar vanilla pot de creme on Michael's charming, rooftop terrace so the entire city can enjoy the spray of fireworks in this finale.  

little pot of berries and pudding

House made, salted caramel gelato sidles up to the warm crust of his Valrhona chocolate tart, and is welcomed to the family. Two dessert wines are offered like handy forks for different courses -- a really sweet 2012 Moscato D'Asti Sarocco, and a warmer Vin Santo Villa Claudio from 2005

Dining at Michael's is an honor -- to me, to food and to family. I loosen my pants and adjust my attitude for the next grandmother of a meal. 

One day later, I visit Chianina. I stand outside, admiring this other side of their family, represented by a practical, chic facade. Beef, it's what's for my dinner.

wooden covered menus on a table

The elegant room embodies strength. In a symbiotic journey taken by the cattle, the hostess leads me down one path, then turns me into another, and then finally directs me to my deep, comfortable, leather booth. 

a dark room with booths

The menu is strong and independent, like a pioneer woman. Everything is a la carte, and organized like my grandmother's kitchen. 

I start with the Spring Vegetable Salad.

As gorgeous as it is, it's overdressed. The peas still have their snap, but the greens are wet and heavy. I need a salad to be scantily dressed -- think Marky Mark on the Calvin Klein billboard. Would tighty whitey sales skyrocket were the rapper wrapped in a sweater?

My palate and hope is refreshed by one bite into the Diver scallop. I'm rolling in the surf on the Mexican Riviera, then lovingly tossed on the turf by spicy chorizo. Whoever the hell is back in that kitchen making the saffron sabayon is my new travel agent.

arugula on scallop on thin potatoes, portion of pork belly

My plan of living forever is working out so far. I cut into the crispy Pork belly on caramel apple puree. I'm sent to heaven without the me dying part. At my age, sex and death share the same borderline. Each time I finish a dish like this, or an acrobatic sex act, I pause and check my heart. Did I live? The healthful lentils save me in both instances.

Chianina is a rare breed of Italian cattle. The restaurant is raising some on a ranch in Utah, but none are ready yet. They take time to reach their full potential.

sculpture of a cow

I imagine the rancher ambling out to the pasture, checking the cow's progress each day. When they left Italy, the cow hoped the ship was headed to India, where the people really "get" the long life thing. I see the cow sucking in her cheeks, trying to look skinny and very-much-not-ready for prime time. 

In the meantime, delectable Piedmontese beef is standing in. If this 28 ounce bone-in rib eye is any indication of what is to come, hold on to your hats, cowboy.

The steak is served sliced. The meat is so tender that they have no steak knives. As a kid, if I didn't have pajamas for a sleepover at my grandmother's house, she cut holes in a pillowcase. I poked my arms through, looking like a a pop tart come to life. I was sent to bed with a thousand kisses, much like the cook might have done with the salt shaker before my steak left the kitchen. Affection and seasoning need to be delicately balanced. 

I'm happy to see fiddlehead ferns mixed with mushrooms; we all share the love of butter.

I listened to everything my grandmother told me. She'd deftly glide red lipstick across her mouth without a mirror, instead looking at me,Your blue eyes are all I need. 

She entertained me with practical advice. As the Banana Pudding with macadamia nut crumble slides in front of me, her voice wafts warmly up, The best man to marry has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. (Don't worry, she didn't do anyone in.)

spoon of banana pudding and bruleed bananas

The dessert is among the five best I've had in years. Is my grandmother in the back, reincarnated as the pastry chef? She did have years of practice flicking a Bic to light her Tarytons; perhaps she's here wielding a blow torch, brilliantly brûléeing bananas. 

Michaels' on Naples is a strong, well-established, culinary deer bounding confidently through the forest. Chianina is a newborn doe. Given time, it too will have the proud legs her sister developed. Proceed with caution; venison ends up on menus. 

I love both of my grandmothers; they heaped love on me laced with pie and ribbon-tied Neiman Marcus boxes. They never asked me to choose one over the other. In this tale, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Michael's. Good thing I don't have to.

Michael's on Naples, 5620 E. 2nd Street, Long Beach, CA 90803 (562) 439-7080

Chianina, 5716 E. 2nd Street, Long Beach, CA 90803 (562) 434-2333

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