Before this year, I didn’t know the name Piero Selvaggio, but I knew of Valentino. Selvaggio’s Santa Monica institution is credited by many for introducing Angelenos to ingredients such as prosciutto and balsamic vinegar. In the process, it distinguished itself from an ocean of old-school red-sauce joints and ushered in the kind of Italian fine dining we know today. Evidence of its influence extends to its alumni: Both Rossoblu’s Steve Samson and Factory Kitchen’s Angelo Auriana cut their teeth at Valentino. So when that restaurant closed last year after 47 years, it made all the papers.
But along with the tributes, there was news that just as Valentino was winding down, Selvaggio—who has been living in Orange County for the past three years—was preparing to open a new place with partner Ron Salisbury of El Cholo.
I’d never been to Valentino, but reading up on its storied history and, in turn, learning more about Selvaggio, I realized his bringing Louie’s By the Bay to Newport Beach was nothing short of seismic. After all, according to Italy Magazine, he was “the man who changed Italian cuisine in the U.S.”
So I secured my reservations weeks ahead of time and anticipated an expensive evening. After all, this was Mariner’s Mile and it was taking over what was formerly the Ritz Prime Seafood, which wasn’t cheap either. Plus, Louie’s is a steakhouse.
The dry-aged hunks of beef start at $46 for a 12-ounce New York strip and skyrocket to $104 for a 34-ounce Porterhouse for two. And the French fries and the creamed spinach you’d want with it? As at most steakhouses, sides are sold la carte, here for $7 each.
Bucking conventional steakhouse wisdom, I opted for the pork chop. The Sicilian herbs and fennel pollen that encrusted this bone-in hog steak wafted a fragrance that turned out to also account for most of its flavor. And this was a good thing because the meat seemed underbrined. As a result, after some initial juiciness, it got dryer and dryer the longer it sat.
For a side, I ignored my server’s recommendation of the creamed corn, which is named after Hans Prager, the late owner of the Ritz and yet another giant in the industry. Instead I chose the Yukon Gold Potato Flan, a dollop of mashed potato covered in crispy breadcrumbs and bacon bits served in a ramekin too large for the less-than-generous serving. By then, I’d invested $55 into the meal.
I could have spent less if I stayed within the pasta menu, which hovers between $23 to $28 per dish. If it means anything to you, some of the pasta is imported from Pastificio Cuomo, a historic factory in Gragnano, Italy, that has been making the product since 1840. But if you think you won’t be able to appreciate the difference between the brand and Barilla, you should opt for the house-made fresh pasta, as I did. Among the offerings are gnocchi and lasagna, the dish I ultimately chose.
Described on the menu as crispy, the item turned out to be just a normal lasagna that spent a few extra minutes under the broiler to singe the top sheet. While the other pasta layers were silken, the bland cheese and the mild bolognese barely registered a blip. It was so lacking the beefy richness, tomatoey tanginess and ooey-gooey, cheesy decadence I associate with the red-checkered tablecloth classic that it made me question whether my standards of measurement on this dish were all wrong. After all, if this is the lasagna that “the man who changed Italian cuisine in the U.S.” has deemed worthy of serving, could it be possible that the other lasagnas to which I’m accustomed were inauthentic?
That question dogged me the entire night, a night that actually started with a wonderful grilled octopus that, for once, didn’t taste just like a turkey breast cold cut. The Louie’s version—served atop jet-black pellets of squid-ink couscous—had a pleasant fishiness and just enough of its rubbery texture intact. And there was a comforting soup of puréed green vegetables enriched by cream and butter. I slurped and ate it in concert with a basket of bread that included arrow-straight breadsticks that are exactly like Pocky, but without the chocolate.
It was at that point that I took stock of what I liked about the place: that octopus, the soup, the ambiance of the room covered in wood slats that look as if they were reclaimed from a boardwalk. And then I saw him, Selvaggio himself, the only gentleman wearing a suit and tie. He thanked me as I was leaving. I thanked him, too, because even if I didn’t love everything I had, I was grateful to see his remarkable story continue here.
Louie’s By the Bay, 2801 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 720-1800; louiesnewport.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Entrées, $23-$104. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.