Mike Hale, The Grub Hunter: When it comes to cocktails, Mezzaluna is raising the bar in Pacific Grove
PUBLISHED: October 29, 2019 at 10:55 am | UPDATED: October 30, 2019 at 4:39 pm
There’s something abuzz atop Forest Hill in Pacific Grove that would have made the city’s fussy founders faint in their pews.
An Italian restaurant with a full liquor license is throwing a nightly festa that reaches beyond the Roman celebrations of the wine god Bacchus.
Anyone these days can open a bottle of pinot grigio, or pop a prosecco. Mezzaluna Pasteria & Mozzarella Bar takes a different approach, revving up the party like a Maserati with something unique (at least to us in the culinary hinterlands) — before-dinner apéritifs.
You see, the proper way to pave the road to gluttony is to drink a few dry, refreshing beverages, such as an Aperol spritz or Campari soda — to help stimulate the appetite.
And after dinner when we hit that inevitable carb wall, Mezzaluna says ciao by downshifting into digestifs. You know the song: When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s … amaro?
We’re not talking love (that’s amore), but rather the Italian word for bitter. Amaro is an herbal liqueur commonly consumed after a meal, a way to better process that pizza pie that threatens to turn your stomach into Mount Vesuvius. Amaro has a bitter-sweet flavor, typically produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark and citrus peels in alcohol.
The ancient Romans invented this herb-infused wine for its restorative properties, which makes sense when you read about the debauchery that took place at those old toga parties.
Apéritifs and digestifs (and the cocktails they create) have been popular throughout Italy for more than a century. Yet it took awhile for Americans to embrace the bitter, complex flavor profiles.
Not anymore. Cocktail-centric cities such as New York and San Francisco have been riding this Italian herbal train for some time. Big Apple bartender Francis Verrall worked at the center of the cocktail universe, shaking it up at celebrated bars and speakeasies from Brooklyn to Chelsea.
He launched the beverage program at The Gilroy on the Upper East Side, creating a craft cocktail lounge with a 1940s feel, specializing in negronis, that Italian-inspired apéritif (stirred, not shaken) with equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari.
His most recent job saw him tending to the bar at Lilia Ristorante in Brooklyn, a James Beard-winning restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Missy Robbins. Verrall complemented the cuisine with cocktails fueled by dozens of amaros, from Fernet Branca to Amaro Santa Maria Al Monte.
Earlier this year, Verrall followed his job-seeking wife out west, settling in America’s Last Hometown (and California’s last dry town). It seemed he had left The City That Never Sleeps for The CityThat Never Drinks. He was a man with a very particular set of skills, skills he had acquired over a very long career. Yet in P.G. he seemed as unhirable and out of place as Liam Neeson in the Butterfly Parade.
But one day an online help-wanted ad from Mezzaluna caught his eye. The new Italian restaurant — run by green-leaning, German-born Soerke Peters and Amy Stouffer — needed help creating a cocktail program.
“When Soerke told me his vision, it fit into perfectly with mine,” said Verrall, 39. “He’s a chef who is true to what he believes in, everything fresh and from-scratch. I take the same approach behind the bar.”
But when Verrall described his requirements for an Italian-spirit-leaning cocktail list, his new bosses needed some convincing.
“At first they thought I was crazy. It would mean 20 or so amaros,” he said. “I get it, this is not a big-city vibe, but they were super receptive and believed and trusted in me. Now everyone’s excited about it.”
Indeed, the city that didn’t serve its first legal drink until 1968 has embraced the concept. Reservations are a must, especially on weekends. And Verrall’s bar is buzzing — even beyond what Mezzaluna has named Aperitivo Hour. The Italian version of happy hour takes place weekdays (except Tuesday) from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Guests can order an aperitif or gin tonic for $8 (along with house white, red or sparkling for $5). A special crostini menu (three for $9) keeps the party going.
Verrall’s full cocktail menu includes the ubiquitous Aperol spritz (the darling of Venice), but ventures off into uncharted territory. Try the Americano (Campari, Carpano Antica, soda, orange), the Bicicletta (Contratto Bitter, Italian dry white, soda) or the Italicus Spritz (Italicus Bergamotto, Prosecco, olives).
When it comes to the Negroni, no local bar offers such a varied and interesting selection. Verrall makes a true classic, but then happily spins wildly off course. The Old Pal is a mix of Rittenhouse rye, Campari and Alessio dry vermouth. And his Back to Black uses Illegal Mezcal Joven, Campari and Branca Menta. All are priced at what has (sadly) become standard at $14.
Since gin is still the hottest spirit out there, Verrall makes a variety of gin tonics ($12). He originally hails from England, so he knows a thing or two about this botanical spirit that has achieved royal status across the pond.
I have my eye on the Grapefruit, made with Malfy Gin Rosa, Fever Tree Mediterranean tonic, pink grapefruit and juniper berries.
Each of Verrall’s house cocktails ($14) contain at least one Italian spirit. Some of the highlights: Hot in the City (blanco tequila, Aperol, pink grapefruit, lemon, red pepper, chile syrup); Naked and Famous (Ilegal mezcal joven, Aperol, yellow chartreuse, lime); Black Manhattan (Rittenhouse Rye, Averna, Angostura bitters, cherry); and Berry Nice (Tru Organic Vodka, Lo-Fi Gentian Amaro, blackberry, lemon, ginger beer).
He even has a large section on non-alcoholic cocktails, a nod to a growing trend in the bar scene. Younger drinkers especially have gravitated toward no- and low-alcohol and healthier alternatives.
“It’s very important these days,” Verrall said. “Everyone drives (in California), so it’s different here. But they’ve proven very popular, and the movement is getting bigger and bigger.”
He ensures guests, though, that his NA drinks contain “the same amount of love when making it.”
For example, his Garden Party includes Seedlip Garden (non-alcoholic, herbal spirit), Fever Tree tonic, peas and cucumber.
Verrall is also one of the few green bartenders on the Peninsula. “I’ve always tried to be green at every place I’ve worked,” he said. Mezzaluna uses no plastics, dehydrates bar fruit to eliminate food waste, and composts the rest. “And we use fresh, local, seasonal ingredients,” he said.
Thoughtfully prepared in-house, the pasta dishes at Mezzaluna are simple yet sophisticated and precisely prepared. Chefs Soerke Peters and Miguel Hernandez even make several different mozzarellas in the Pacific Grove kitchen.
Photo by: Nic Coury
Mezzaluna Pasteria and Mozzarella Bar
By Taryn Yudaken | May 30, 2019
A mezzaluna is a half-moon shaped knife. It’s also a half-moon pasta shell. In Italian, it’s just “half-moon.”
So it only seemed right to try the mezzaluna di zucca at Chef Soerke Peters’ newest restaurant, Mezzaluna Pasteria and Mozzarella Bar. With three decades of experience cooking Italian food in Manhattan and L.A., Peters was up for the task of bringing Pacific Grove something that he not only enjoys himself, but excels at.
“I don’t get tired of pasta,” he says. “I can eat it every day.”
The namesake dish didn’t disappoint. Decisively al dente half-moons somehow delivered a melt-in-your-mouth sensation as they soaked in a sage sauce. Parmesan added a kick of saltiness, but the mild butternut squash filling smoothed it out. With nutmeg and cinnamon, this one could warm the rainiest night.
Agnolotti di capra maintained the same al dente firmness as the mezzaluna, though the braised goat stuffed inside was tender as could be. The goat also could have passed for beef, with not even a hint of gaminess, but rather a savory heft like a slow braised Sunday roast.
The menu boasts all kinds of appetizing pastas (and all housemade), including white wine braised rabbit with spinach and cauliflower, Dungeness crab ravioli with meyer lemon and asparagus, and carbonara with house-cured pancetta and duck egg yolk. Yet, Mezzaluna is about more than just pasta. It’s a mozzarella bar as well, and small plates are as carefully concocted as entrees. Each cheese is made in-house (it’s a theme), and complemented by interesting counterparts.
Salty baked beets and balsamic-macerated blackberries make lively complements to fiori di latte, a creamy cow’s milk mozzarella with a luxuriousness that appreciates the tart fruit and sweet veggies. Other “small” plates also stand out, like the lamb meatballs on a bed of cannellini beans. Super hearty, the dish still reserved a sense of delicacy with a light tomato sauce clearly made from perfectly ripe tomatoes.
It wasn’t even the star of the menu, but I’d go back for those meatballs any day. I’m also still fantasizing about Feeling Spritzy, a booze-free cocktail of Seedlip (a non-liquor cocktail mix) and ginger Baladin, an Italian soda which actually contains no ginger but heaps of bitter orange. At first sip it was almost too bitter, but it grew on me so fast to the point that I now can’t stop thinking about it.
And for more tastes that are hard to put down, you can’t go wrong with gelato, which Mezzaluna makes from scratch. Not to mention the affogato, featuring vanilla gelato topped with indulgent whipped cream. A sprinkling of crushed Amaretto cookie brings crunch, and ending it all is a tiny pitcher of espresso to pour on top.
With help from Chef de Cuisine Miguel Hernandez, Peters will soon roll out pick-up options, including gelato and raw pasta with sauces to go. Mezzaluna is also in the process of becoming P.G.’s first green-certified restaurant. Bravo!