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Photos by Brian Addison. Above: Ellie’s version of mandilli de saea al pesto with braised lamb neck and pine nuts.
Chef Jason Witzl has achieved something of the impossible: the enclave of residents that occupy Naples are stepping out of their insular existence and traveling—gasp!—toward the edge of Alamitos Beach, just before it becomes Downtown Long Beach.
No longer relegating themselves to Chianina or Michael’s, women draped in jewels and men with stiff collars and personalities look out of place in the cutely cramped space that is Ellie’s. They offer eyebrow-raising, backhanded linguistic jabs paired with hand-on-the-shoulder, puckered-lips lines of prestige: “The food here is incredibly thrifty, Sandra—just… Just so cheap and I don’t know why!” I heard one lady exclaim as she perused Witzl’s offerings that span a $50 New York strip to a $5 grilled bread’n’pork butter, one of the city’s best dishes. This was shortly followed by, “Everyone in Naples is talking about you, Jason,” once the chef appeared at the table to thank them for their patronage.
This internal dichotomy—a neighborhood-y restaurant, offering takes on immigrant Italian food side-by-side with the city’s most affluent—is a testament to not just the quality of food but the reality that the wealthy have little clue of what fantastic, contemporary dining is anymore.
Perhaps most hilarious is the fact that Witzl himself is, by no means, pretentious, arrogant, or excessive.
He is a self-described “condiment whore,” a “saucy bitch” who loves to lather things in layers of flavor. If it’s something as simple as a sandwich, he is unafraid to douse the wall of carbs with aioli and ground mustard and crème fraîche and whatever edible lotion he can find.
This lovable characteristic—the one which, when seen in a friend, makes you grin after the server asks what kind of sauce your friend would like with their dish and they say, “Every one you have, please”—plays out in the cuisine of Witzl.
He pipes this characteristic out through the flavorful, salty’n’sweet dollops of aged black garlic, created through a patient process that pours humidity and salt into garlic bulbs over the course of weeks. Its inky, dark body, once matured, is placed next to the creamy, white brilliance of burrata and colorful array of roasted heirloom tomatoes.
This personality trait is in the hidden, hefty underlay of Green Goddess dressing that sits underneath a patch of red leaves’n’cress and shaved baby squash, tucked between sliced grapes and snap peas. The secret pool of sauce offers up layers of anchovy paste and egg yolk melded seamlessly with avocado and lemon—a simultaneous, concurring ode to both Sicily and California.
This drippy personality trait is soaked and rendered in his vegetarian-friendly, creamy sauce of melted leeks and chèvre, creating a simultaneously sweet, caramelized onion-like dressing cut with a sharp tartness for his masterfully created agnolotti dish.
This admirable obsession with sauce becomes tangible in Witzl’s delicate, if not outright artful take on mandilli de saea al pesto, a typically minimalist dish that is also a Genoese classic. Dubbed the “silk handkerchiefs” of pasta, Witzl and his crew cover the bases—they roll out delicate sheets of pasta and create a pesto to go along with what tradition calls for—but amps it up with shavings of raw squash, pine nut droppings to bring out the subtle nuttiness of his pesto, and a braised lamb neck that leaves the gaminess behind in favor of succulent, almost creamy bits of meat.
Of course, Witzl’s love and talent for sauces isn’t his sole trick.
As with his mandilli‘s lamb neck, Witzl’s talent for handling meat in all its forms—steaks, ground, sliced—and equal talent for preparing them—braised, grilled, or otherwise—makes his sauces, garnishes, and accoutrements stand out colorfully and brightly on the palate.
Take his take on the Amatriciana red sauce, the classic Roman staple that is made with wonderfully fatty, uncured pancetta and tomatoes. Eschewing bucatini—the delicately-made long tube pasta typically served with the sauce—Witzle aims for color thanks to a veggie-based, hallow garganelli. The meat comes in Witzl offers up more pig flavor by way of his pork polpette, a wonderfully meaty, sausage-like ball of wonder that makes it the city’s best meatball.
In other words, there are few in Long Beach putting this type of thought, amusement, and curiosity into their dishes—and Long Beach’s growing culinary scene deserves nothing less.