Bello by Sandro Nardone opened last November at the Newport North shopping center where Pita Jungle once reigned. The restaurant is the creation of Chef Sandro Nardone, born in Italy to parents who ran a chain of restaurants.
After Nardone came to the United States in 2012, he founded Angelina’s Pizzeria in Dana Point, which quickly built a loyal following. However, Nardone wanted to expand on his passion to offer classic Italian dishes as they would be served in Italy — hence, Bello.
I was able to sample a variety of dinner dishes prior to Bello’s opening and talk to Nardone and his Chef de Cuisine, Frank DeLoach, who has worked in the kitchens of The Playground, Early Bird and Tavern on Two. He was also a winner of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, and was featured on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri.
“You are familiar with Italian food, which is served in Orange County,” Nardone told me in November. “That is American Italian. In Italy, we would not eat that kind of food. I thought it was the right time to open a restaurant serving the real food we serve in Italy. A lot of the recipes are my interpretation, but it is something we would eat in Italy in restaurants.”
Now, Nardone is reinventing Italian lunch with what he calls “lento o veloce” (translation: “slow or fast”) which began this week.
“While our dinner menu is meant to present an experience that you would find at a top restaurant in Italy, we’re doing something a bit more casual during lunch,” Nardone said. “It’s called ‘lento o veloce’ because we want guests to be able to come in and eat lunch in 45 minutes or less, which we know is important if they have limited time to grab a bite.”
Or they can enjoy a more leisurely lunch, which is what I did last week when I sampled several lunch dishes with a dozen fellow food writers.
Bello’s lunch menu is divided into four sections: Salads, sandwiches, pizza and pasta. The pizza is only available at lunch, and is made in an authentic wood-burning pizza oven.
We sampled three salads, which range from a familiar Caesar salad to a splendid conserva di pollo with poached and marinated chicken plus carrots and celery in a lemon-olive oil sauce.
“I’m really proud of the conserva,” DeLoach noted. “We slow cook the chicken until it’s just done so that it retains its flavor and texture. We then lightly season it with lemon and really good olive oil. Simply put, it’s incredibly good chicken. I could eat it every day.”
I agree. The chicken was moist and tender, and while the serving is generous, it still leaves you wanting more.
DeLoach warned us about the fried chicken sandwich with sweet and spicy Calabrian peppers, which he said packed some heat. It’s served between two large slices of focaccia bread, with a heap of slaw on the chicken. It is indeed spicy — the slaw helps cut the heat down, but it left my mouth on fire for several minutes.
The pizzas are as perfect as can be, with soft and chewy crust, a nice char, and flavorful toppings. My favorite was the margherita — or was it the marinara? They were all simple, yet quite addicting.
Most lunch dishes hover in the $12 to $15 range. Service is fast and attentive. And parking is plentiful. Lunch service is offered daily from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
For more information, visit bellobysandronardone.com.
Ocean at Main Says Farewell
How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? Start with a large one.
This rueful joke is often true, especially in Southern California, where hundreds — make that thousands — of restaurants compete for customers. Newport Beach alone has several hundred restaurants of all types and sizes with so many seats that they can’t rely on locals alone to fill them.
Laguna Beach has a similar problem, with additional challenges. The small town with a population of around 23,000 is practically landlocked, with only two roads leading in and out. It’s also a summer tourist destination, with thousands of visitors flocking to the charming seaside community between June and early September to enjoy Pageant of the Masters, the arts festivals, and the beach.
Other times of the year, the town is relatively quiet. Laguna Playhouse offers programs year around and draws audiences from throughout Southern California, and tourists still come to Laguna during the off season, but foot traffic is down and both retail and restaurant businesses experience seasonal challenges.
Some restaurants, such as Lumberyard and 230 Forest, have been in Laguna for many years and seem to have carved a niche with local customers. Others give it a go, but for one reason or another, just cannot sustain themselves.
Launching a new dining endeavor in Laguna Beach is, to borrow a Vegas phrase, a crapshoot, but Chef Craig Strong came prepared with loaded dice when he opened Ocean at Main in October of 2018. He spent nine years at Studio at the Montage, one of the most acclaimed restaurants around, and garnered a loyal following.
He left Studio to open Ocean at Main, which has a large dining room and patio, along with bar seating.
“We wanted to create a great neighborhood restaurant that has the attention to detail and the quality you would expect from my pedigree at a price point that people can enjoy much more regularly,” Strong told me shortly after Ocean at Main opened. “The approachability, the way that we bring things to life here at Ocean at Main, is a lot more inviting and accessible.”
His menu at Ocean at Main is creative, fun, and accessible. His pizzas are terrific, his hamburger one of the best, and the oxtail risotto a delightful treat. And I doubt you’ll meet a nicer, more likable chef in the business than Strong.
That’s why Strong’s announcement this week the restaurant’s last day of service will be Feb. 5 came as somewhat of a shock.
“While we are actively looking for another location, we have loved serving and connecting with our patrons since 2018,” Strong wrote in an email. “Ocean at Main has been the adventure of a lifetime, and we are honored to have served so many wonderful guests, created lifelong friendships, and hosted so many memorable celebrations. We are wholeheartedly grateful for our hardworking staff who brought this place to life and for our guests and regulars who called our restaurant home. As a Laguna Beach local, it breaks my heart to see the challenges the restaurant community faces in Laguna Beach — and across California. With rising costs of rent and labor, we, along with many other restaurants, have experienced this incredible challenge. When one door closes, another opens. I look forward to serving you again soon.”
I’ll be dining at Ocean at Main one last time this Saturday, but I know it won’t be the last hurrah for Strong. I’m confident he’ll find another location where he can continue to bring smiles on the faces of patrons and satisfaction to their souls.
For more information, visit OceanAtMain.com.