After almost 40 years of serving French cuisine in Manhattan Beach, in 2014, father-and-daughter restauranteurs Guy and Sylvie Gabriele of Café Pierre were looking for change. They found inspiration in Michael Fiorelli – who previously worked alongside the late “Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef” Kerry Simon – and his philosophy that food only needs two ingredients: love and salt. Together, the three set out to reimagine a new restaurant, fusing Italian and California cuisines.
With a new chef as well as a new name, the pair renovated the Café Pierre space with Ana Henton from Mass Architecture and Design. The walls are now a soothing slate gray, and the blue hue of the decor echoes the nearby ocean. To add a bright focal point, the restaurant hired tattoo artist Johnny Vampotna to paint large ruby-colored flower near the front door. In the back is a granite bar with high stools, and two chef counters for diners to peer into the open kitchen and watch the chefs in action.
After a bike ride along the beach, my husband and I brushed off the sand, and went into Love & Salt for an early dinner when the restaurant opened at 5:30 p.m. Escorted to a coveted corner window table, we had the perfect spot to watch people on their way to the Manhattan Beach pier.
The front side of the Love & Salt’s menu features Fiorelli’s Italian-inspired cuisine, offering an array of interesting, locally sourced dishes. The back of the menu lists classic cocktails crafted by consulting bartender Vincenzo Marianella, of Copa d’Oro. He makes a good pisco sour and mai tai. The wine list also offers a nice selection of domestic and international wines that can be ordered by the glass or 9-ounce quartino.
Who starts a dinner with English muffins? I did, and it was one of my most memorable 2017 culinary experiences. Fiorelli makes incredible homemade muffins – two large, warm and doughy spheres arrived with a large slab of cultured butter sprinkled with sea salt crystals and rosemary. Cutting horizontally into one of the raised, yeast-leavened muffins, I spread the butter and watched it melt immediately into the sponge-like crevices. It was simply delectable.
To start, we ordered the black kale salad chopped into thin strips with pieces of salami, sliced olives, pickled peppers, breadcrumbs and a sprinkling of ricotta. A sweeter salad was the Mission figs with sliced black grapes, Frog Hollow Farm pears and dollops of creamy burrata. These salads paired well with thick-cut ciabatta toast.
Next to arrive was the lamb Reuben, a take on the classic Reuben with lamb tongue, tomato aioli, fontina cheese and pickled peppers served on rye bread. Fiorelli’s Italian arancini rice balls, bathed in a traditional rustic Bolognese sauce, and wood-oven-cooked meatballs were especially delicious.
The executive chef also makes wood-fired blistered pizzas that are visually beautiful. His duck-egg pizza is topped with pancetta, potato, rosemary, mozzarella, Parmesan and a soft egg that bathes the pizza in a savory yolk. The roasted mushroom pizza offers pleasing earthy flavors with creamy Taleggio, fontina and touch of thyme.
Another forte of Fiorelli’s is homemade pasta. He makes a heavenly bucatini with bite-sized fennel sausage, black kale, Parmesan and bread crumbs. His trottole pasta, shaped like spinning tops, dazzles with rich roasted garlic, bone marrow, parsley, Parmesan and cracked black pepper.
Even though Fiorelli believes salt is the essence to perfecting the flavors in each dish, none of the dishes we experienced tasted salty – chef Fiorelli adds a just pinch.
Entrées take about 20 minutes to prepare, and include the roasted Mediterranean branzino; 10-ounce, grilled skirt steak with crispy fingerling potatoes; and 12-ounce pork chop Milanese with heirloom tomatoes, wild arugula and shaved Parmesan.
Chef de cuisine and pastry chef Rebecca Merhej’s desserts include warm Italian donuts served with lemon curd and Nutella, and a warm fig cake with pistachio. My favorite was her brown sugar pudding that tasted a bit like a butterscotch budino.
Merhej’s pastries are showcased during Love & Salt’s weekend brunch. Some of the signature brunch fare includes ricotta pancakes with blueberries and lemon curd, and wood-fired eggs with stewed tomatoes, Taggiasca olives, fingerlings potatoes, Parmesan, torn herbs and grilled bread. The Downlow burger is a favorite topped with fontina cheese, caramelized onions, house pickles and house-made tomato aioli.
After a morning jog, bike ride or walk along The Strand, treat yourself to a Love & Salt breakfast on Saturdays. Starting at 10 a.m., the first 15 guests each Saturday will receive a free chicken sausage breakfast sandwich. They are also pouring Tequila Sunrise beverages to the first 15 diners for just $5.
$$ Open for dinner at 5:30 p.m. and weekend brunch at 10 a.m. 317 Manhattan Beach Blvd., (310)545-5252.