The opening of a restaurant must be such a daunting business. There’s a location to secure, permits, a team to assemble—all in the hope that the customers will come and hopefully approve and return. Some people fly into this endeavor unprepared, unaware of the huge risks and failure rate of new restaurants. While the much-cited 90 percent failure rate is actually a myth (empirical research points to 50 percent going under within three years), there’s still a good chance that someone will lose his/her shirt. Being a wonderful host at home doesn’t necessarily translate into running a tough business with small margins and actually turning a profit. The smart people are the ones who’ve studied the business from the inside for many years, and learned from good teachers. Perry Vidalakis, owner of the new Trattoria Neapolis on South Lake, earned an MBA from Harvard and Le Grand Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before spending 10 years in the business in various locations in the U.S. and Italy—including Naples, where he manned pizza ovens while honing his concept for Neapolis. And honed it is.
The menu is rustic Italian with market-fresh ingredients. Not a huge stretch, but it takes skill and attention to detail to stand out among the huge number of restaurants that share this common mantra. In the kitchen, Chef Bryant Wigger mans a 7,000-pound wood-burning oven that Vidalakis imported from Naples. He also presides over a wood-burning grill and a smoker.
A penchant for detail is certainly evident in the drinks program as well. Both the cocktail menu and beer list have been created by experts at the very top of their game. Vincenzo Marianella, of Santa Monica’s Copa D’Oro bar, crafted the drinks list. He studied cocktail-making in London and was nominated for American Bartender of the Year 2012, bestowed by Tales of The Cocktail in New Orleans (described as a Sundance for bartenders). The list is broken down into sections: "refreshing," "sparkling," "aromatic," "classic," "bespoke" and "mixologist’s corner." This is designed to make a large menu easier to negotiate, and it works, allowing you to pore over the choice of 33 drinks without getting lost. I headed straight for the classic drinks and ordered a Negroni. It’s a good go-to. If a bar messes up a Negroni, you might as well switch to wine. This one was spot on—
Plymouth Gin, Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth and Campari, with a big fat ice cube.
Sipping on it as I waited for my food, I watched Vidalakis stopping at tables for a chat. He’s really passionate about restaurants. He loves them. When I wasn’t watching him, I was admiring the design details. Neapolis is beautiful. The garden room, located at the front of the restaurant, is decked out in beautiful tile and, with its skylight overhead, feels like a covered patio in some old European city. Wall-mounted sconces cast a warm, flattering glow. Banquettes line the walls on two sides, meaning you share a long couch with people at adjacent tables. Maybe it’s this intimacy that makes your neighbors want to chat with you. I ended up talking to and shaking hands with diners on either side of me. It turned my solo dinner into a social experience and was most welcome.
Welcome, too, was my food. It had taken me two hours to get there from Hollywood, due to some gnarly traffic snarl-ups. But I wasn’t disappointed. Arancini, literally "little oranges" in Italian, are interpreted here as crispy lobster risotto balls—basically a ball of lobster risotto, encased in crispy breadcrumbs, with a Eureka lemon aioli. In Italy, arancini often have pancetta and peas in them. I like the fact that Chef Wigger expands the trattoria concept somewhat and gives it a bit of California zip. The execution was spot on, breadcrumbs crisp, center melting and rich.
It was tempting to go for pizza, after hearing how the oven blisters the crust at close to 1,000º, but on the advice of my server, Robert, who was a real pro, I had the wood-roasted pork chop with porcini crust and a side of oven-roasted fennel with fresh orange vinaigrette. I’ve dried out many a piece of pork in my time, but his was just full of juices and flavor. The roasted fennel was a great complement too, caramelized and wonderful.
At the behest of Vidalakis, I had an untraditional tiramisu of roast peach, caramel and mascarpone with a taste of Smog City Brewing’s Groundwork Coffee Porter. Good if unconventional call. The Beer Chicks’Christina Perozzi assembled the eclectic and mostly local brew list. There are also some Italian craft brews, which is not something you see in a lot of places. I didn’t try a wine, but with a wine program designed and organized in a cohesive, easy-to-understand fashion by Diego Meraviglia, vice president of the North American Sommelier Association, it’s a good bet that you’ll easily find something to love.
Pasadena needs something like Trattoria Neapolis. It’s grown-up, but not fussy. It almost feels like a little corner of San Francisco. The two-hour journey I made was well worth it to experience the 10-year journey that it took to create it.