I don’t know about you, but when I visit a restaurant for the first time, I always hope they are having a stellar day, both up front in service and also back in the kitchen. Though this day brought a little rain, attendees, owners, and employees alike were in high spirits for the celebratory opening of the third Michael’s Pizzeria location, in Downtown Long Beach.
Initially, everybody was welcomed onto their covered patio area (yes, they have heaters in the canopies!) for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Soon after, the savory smells of spices and all those unnamed ingredients that make your mouth water, came flooding out the doors, caught everyone by the nose and pulled us inside sniffing in anticipation.
Little kids excitedly waited at the 1950’s counter-style seating that surrounded the open kitchen hoping for a show that proves adults do play with their food. They watched as the chefs prepared the freshly risen dough, first by pounding, then by tossing and stretching it, all while using some fairly fantastic moves. Over the head, around the back, end-over-end and some extra high tosses for all the photographers had the crowd engaged and very entertained – so much so, that everyone clapped and cheered when the first dish went sailing into the piping hot oven.
A special bruschetta appetizer, created especially for the opening, was both simple and scrumptious. Only moments before it came over the white marble countertop, I’d seen the chef wash, prepare, and chop fresh carrots, squash, zucchini, and a few other veggies, then sauté them in a zesty and mildly peppery combination of spices with olive oil. I really hope they add this little treasure to the menu – it was great too!
A fresh coat of flour on their white marble cooking surface, and the chef started the entire flamboyant process over again. Though it was their opening day at this location, what looked like a well rehearsed dance ensued, as the staff began rushing hot fresh appetizers over the kitchen counter and out to the waiting tables.
Succulent, juicy, and mildly spicy meatballs, covered in a light marinara sauce and fresh ribbons of parmesan was the first dish to make it to my table. Though they were very hearty, and had several distinct flavors of spices, the appetizer was a reasonable sized portion for one person, or to share with a few friends and have room for a few other things. The juice nearly ran down my hand as I bit into the meatball, and though the taste was very flavorful, I did not feel heavy or overly full, like can happen with other foods. I thought of making my way to the front of the dining area as this platter was delivered, because I saw several plates of the same item get snapped up by passing guests on their way back to me. For the guests right by the kitchen, I suppose the combination of wonderful smells, exciting views, and friendly easy-going staff was just too much to handle - they simply could not wait to complete their dining experience by tasting some of the first morsels to come from this beautiful new kitchen, and so there they stood completely ignoring the tables, right by the flow of hot delectable foods steaming from the jovial kitchen.
Knowing this was probably going to be the case for everything that came out on opening day, I was sure to catch a passing waiter when a small tray, of what looked like perfectly round meatballs covered in tiny crumbs passed me, headed to the outside patio area. When I cut into the plump Arancini Oxtail & Saffron ball, I was stunned at the variety of aromas and colors contained in this seemingly unimposing little appetizer. It was a wonderful mix of earthy flavors, created from the combination of juices from the meat, cheese, saffron, and grains of rice, all lightly rolled in breadcrumbs.
As I savored the first two appetizers, and explored the diverse pairing of flavors for each dish, I had a moment to better absorb my surroundings, and take a peek at the full menu. Some of the staff already confirmed they only use locally grown vegetables, so the menu changes based on what’s seasonally available. Also, if you need a gluten-free dining experience, many of the dished on the left third of the menu can be modified, or are already gluten-free such as the salads, and meat and cheese plates. Little stars dot the menu showing all the items that are completely made in house like their cheeses, dough, and desserts. You’ll also find little pictures of numbered dice on the placemat menus that outline their recommended wine parings for each dish (and, don’t miss the kids’ table activities printed on the reverse side).
While the kitchen transitioned from appetizers to pizzas, I spent a few moments enjoying the design that inspired a very laid-back dining experience. A modern, European design to the seating area combined rich, chocolate-colored wood as accents on a mainly white, marble and tile visual palate. The minimalist open-style seating, and ambiance were complimented and made more dimensional by the wait staff aprons and several other accents of bright orange, like the table-side chili oil. Above me, an open staggered ceiling design, with woven porous panels helped absorb sound from the otherwise entirely sleek and flat surfaced setting. Though they are very helpful, you hardly notice them while devouring your delicious meal, but without them it would have been a noisy place during peak dining hours.
The beautiful open-face, wood burning oven fire was restocked frequently as the pizzas were loaded in by sliding them flat along the stone oven floor. From where I sat, the structure and type of heating completed the cooking process much more quickly than other restaurants, or even cooking at home. In under five minutes I watched them stretch and toss the dough, clean and cut the fresh raw ingredients, slide the pizza in their oven, then rush it to my table. It was really amazing to me how rapidly my margarita and basil Napoli pizza was ready, but after the first taste, it was my new preferred method. Unfortunately, I do not think there is room to install a huge wood burning oven in my little bungalow, so thankfully I’ll be able to visit Michael’s or phone in a quick pick-up order since they are open until 10pm every night and 11pm on Friday and Saturday.
They were in the finishing stages of attaining their beer and wine license on opening day, but other than that, Michael’s had a fully functioning and beautiful restaurant, including some enticing specials, like ‘Margarita Mondays’, (Order a margarita pizza and get a margarita,) for everyone to enjoy! In summary, this location of Michael’s Pizzeria perfectly weds the feel of a fine dining experience with the modern and easy-going California beach culture, and will make a perfect paring for whatever activity or event (they cater too!) you have in the Long Beach area.