Thursday, July 18, 2024

Nonna Mercato debuts dinner service, offering up one of Long Beach’s best prix fixe menus

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Nonna Mercato—the bistro-meets-bakery-meets market of Bixby Knolls—has long been serving up some of the city’s finest baked goods and pastas. With Chef Cameron Slaugh at the helm, it has long been an underrated gem since its opening. And Slaugh has always had his eye on potentially diving into dinner service.

With that, he has—and it is nothing short of some of the city’s best.

Nonna Mercato experiments with weekend-only dinner service throughout the summer

Dubbed “Summer Nights,” Slaugh has opted to offer dinner on Fridays and Saturdays only through the summer. At least for now.

“This is about not only highlighting some great ingredients but also figuring out, logistically, how to make it work on the restaurant’s end,” Slaugh said. “We only have patio seating so summer is ideal—plus, we wanted to really provide something of value. I’m trying to make it as approachable as possible.”

Value is understated: The multi-course event is $55. That’s a three-part smaller bites opening followed by three courses: a veggie, a pasta, and an entree.

“Not only do I wanna be known for having a good deal, but I wanna offer quality and give people an experience when times are tough,” Slaugh said—an approach that is not uncommon for those that know the chef: Yes, he’s served for some of the highest of caliber of American kitchens, including Eleven Madison Park. And yes, his private supper club dinners showcases some of Long Beach’s finest dishes.

But ultimately, like all great chefs, he is a people person at heart who loves feeding those very people. And Nonna Mercato’s newly minted dinner service feels, if anything, deeply personal. As in one can feel his own Nonna guiding him along the way, offering a reflection of the food he grew up on

So what, exactly, was served on the inaugural menu for Nonna Mercato’s dinner?

For his inaugural menu, he starts the table off with three smaller plates. You have a piece of prosciutto slicked with cultured butter before being wrapped around a house-made sesame stick. That’s then drizzled with olive oil. It’s a two-bite, umami-meets-salt-meets-earthy lift-off that sets you up for more carbs—a wonderfully charred focaccia—and more meat—a breaded’n’fried pork meatball that is flecked with lemon juice before being dipped in a Calabrian chile aioli (that also acts as a great spread for the focaccia).

And that is just the first course.

This naturally segues into the vegetable course, where Slaugh’s love of seasonality shines bright among a choice of three. A panzanella—one of his signature dishes when Nonna Mercato opened for lunch and brunch last year—is layered with could very well be the best peaches in the city. Beets are tossed with an anchovy vinaigrette and doused in pecorino. Roccolo and parmigiano cheeses are layered between dates and lemon.

But of course, the real stars are his pastas…

Slaugh’s talent for pasta making is not only the city’s most underrated—he is also our most underrated chef—but he vies for making the best pasta in a city rich with pasta culture. (Hey there Michael’s on Naples, Vino e Cucina, Ellie’s, La Parolaccia…) His 12-days-of-pasta event last year proved just that.

And his pasta offerings for Nonna Mercato’s first dinner service flex that further: A ricotta gnocchi—soft, squared-out pillows—are layered with brightness and creaminess. White wine. Lemon zest. Extra milky stracciatella. And then bits of squash blossom and sunflower seeds for an earthy round out. The result is a definitively Italian take on shish barak from the Levant, where tart and rich blend with varying textures.

Then there’s the chittara dish. This umami-meets-earthy wonder is lined with the obvious—cockles are layered with sourdough bread crumbs—but there’s a beautiful, charcoal-like color to the broth. As in it looks like squid ink could have been used but there’s nary a drop to be found. Instead, with layers of bay leaves, garlic, and jalapeño, Slaugh chars his olive oil before slapping it with some wine. It’s pasta alle vongole on steroids.

And, as always, his pappardelle is a sexy, straight-forward dish that is literally his Nonna represented on a plate. Layering her famed bolognese between the gorgeous strands of pasta, this is the go-to dish for the person at the table wanting to stick to the hits. And yes, this definitively hits.

…and the proteins at Nonna Mercato’s summer dinners are also stars

It is, indeed, tempting to get the green peppercorn steak as your last course. A delectable coulotte steak—one of the lesser-known cuts—slathered in a creamy, peppery demi-glace and served with classic shoestring fries. It properly reeks of French-ness and it is an undeniably charming reflection of that.

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But Slaugh’s pork collar—also a lesser known cut—is on a different level.

This charred slab of Iberico pig neck uses the very peaches from the panzanella as a topping while layering in fennel pollen and pistachios. The neck is hardly used as an entree, which is sad considering its tenderness; this goes for all animals: pork, venison, elk, sea fish… And it is perplexing because the pork neck especially is tender to the point of being creamy—and in the case of Slaugh’s work, comes off as outright steak-y more than chop-y.

And for the vegetarians concerned about the last course, fear not: The polenta is not to be dismissed. Layers of squash and tomato sit atop Tehachapi polenta in one of the best polenta dishes to come out of the city. Add in a bit of nuttiness with pumpkin seeds and the result is a reflection of summer and Californian produce swirled into a pond of goodness.

This is $55. Therefore: go.

Nonna Mercato is located at 3772 Atlantic Ave.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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