Thursday, July 18, 2024

Michael’s on Naples has one of the city’s strongest cocktail programs—so why do so few know about it?


Michael’s on Naples has been known for many things, be it their long-held steel grip on regional Italian cuisine or their dive into creating a sustainable market or… But their cocktail program, headed by master mixologist Jocelyn Jolley, is certainly an underrated gem that deserves constant praise (and yet receives so little).

Michael’s on Naples has seen a major shift in its cocktail program: A woman leading it

For Jocelyn, there is a beauty in spring menus that other seasons don’t quite offer: You aren’t quite lodged into the chill of winter nor the heat of summer but a mixture of both, all the while playing with some of the best ingredients that can be offered at the farmers markets. It’s also a beautiful, metaphorical shadow of the feminine. And across her leadership heading the bar at Michael’s on Naples for the past two years, there is an undeniably refreshing aspect to her cocktail program: Femininity.

Like Gianna Johns over at Baby Gee, Jocelyn has a touch toward a field that is overwhelmingly dominated men who dismiss vodka (rather than playing into its strengths) and avoid fruity concoctions in the fear of being called TGI Friday’s (rather than refining the endless iterations fruits and sugars can provide to cocktails).

Jocelyn? Her creations embrace the basic and invert the presumptions surrounding “basic bitch” drinks—all the while having countering concoctions that solidify her menus as worthy of even the manliest of drinkers.

“I cannot emphasize the amount of times I would hear from other men in the field, ‘That’s too many flowers’ or ‘Why is there a flower in that?'” Jocelyn said. “And to be frank: Fuck that. All my stuff is now going to be flowers. Flowers for you. Flowers for me. Flowers for everyone.”

Jocelyn’s ability to trust in herself has built what has become a steady patronage: People still asking for old cocktails that she made long before she headed the bar and she has also learned how to err on the side of her clientele. Much influenced by the very masculine approach Michael’s had toward cocktails before she began to lead the program.

michael's on naples
A lemongrass negroni—one of over the negronis on their menu–made with Mal Bien’s lemongrass mezcal from Michael’s on Naples. Photo by Brian Addison.

“It was all bitter, bitter, bitter, boozy, boozy, boozy, stirred, stirred, stirred with gin and bourbon leading the way,” Jocelyn said. “But we’re in Naples: We need to have vodka and tequila on the menu. Of course I want to make the craziest stuff as a bartender but there is also the fact that you need to read the room.”

Michael’s on Naples has a newly minted cocktail program wonderfully reeks of spring

And read the room Jocelyn does: Her newly minted spring cocktail menu includes—gasp!—vodka as well as mushroom gin, amaros, mastiha, date syrup, passionfruit liqueur, cane sugar, beet shrubs, Granny Smith apples, yellow chartreuse, bourbon, mezcal, tequila, absinthe, and, well, much, much more.

The “Diamante,” which includes “things we didn’t have at the bar beforehand, like passionfruit liqueur” and the aforementioned used of vodka since it wasn’t a “real” spirit, lemon, sugar cane, and mastiha, the Greek liqueur that is derived from mastic resin (a flavor common in the desserts of Chef Dima Habibeh at Ammatolí).

Largely what she calls her signature cocktail, Jocelyn created the “Dea Divina” after tasting the reserve mushroom gin created by Amoss: Using ingredients from all female-owned brands, she combines the gin with Gem and Bolt mezcal, Amaro Nonino, Americano Bianco, honey, and smoked palo santo. Dramatic, booze-forward, and dedicated toward the ladies, it inverts the idea that booze-centric cocktails are inherently masculine.

Dangerously down-able, the “Little Venice” uses Jocelyn’s house made beet shrub and melds it with gin, Carpano Bianco—a kind of white wine-y vermouth—lemon, and mint. It is a drink that is as refreshing as it is beautifully layered, its color reminding you that the the blooming flowers are just a hint of summer coming to Long Beach.

Continuing with gin, Jocelyn opts for Botanist gin, Giffard’s grapefruit and ginger liqueurs, and Lo-Fi’s Gentian amaro, a nicely bitter and floral amaro that has citrusy, hibiscus-y qualities to it. The result is a spirit-forward cocktail that lands on the eartht-meets-citrus lane and does so smoothly.

This wonderfully funky cocktail has a beautiful mouth feel thanks to layers of Old Forester 100 high proof whiskey, Lucano Aniversario amaro—an amaro that honors the traditional Lucano by amping up the bitter and herbaceous qualities—Aperol, Supasawa sour mixer, and good ol’ CO2. The result is a cocktail-on-tap that is boldly layered and hosts a distinctly what-am-I-tasting? quality that keeps you keep sipping.

The “Yucatán Spritz” is as light and refreshing as it looks: Using Las Californias Citrico gin as its base and Yucatán-based Alma Finca orange liqueur as its painted walls, this cocktail—with a small-but-punchy bushel of marjoram for the nose—is likely to make its drinker want summer to come quicker.

Jocelyn Jolly has jumped the hoops in order to garner her spot heading the bar at Michael’s on Naples

For Jocelyn, Michael’s on Naples—where its savvy’n’sexy upstairs space has been her playground for both testing and recreating her seemingly endless stream of concoctions—represents what is currently the best aspect of her career. And that is especially true given her former days of bartending at Bella Terra in Huntington Beach and George’s Greek Cafe in Long Beach.

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“It was bartending in the days when bartending was pretty much mudslides and mojitos representing the complex and Jack’n’Cokes representing the masses,” Jocelyn said, laughing. “I remember when someone ordered an Old Fashioned and none of us knew what it was except someone who guessed and they muddled a cherry with a sugar packet and a soda water. Back in the day, people didn’t know shit.”

Oh, how times have changed: About a decade ago, Jocelyn began to see a shift in Long Beach’s cocktail scene, where mixologists like Daniel Flores would kick off specialty cocktail gigs while touring local bars and residents would begin to talk about Noble Experiment in San Diego or The Varnish in Downtown L.A.

This growth in the scene is precisely what Jocelyn tries to harness with each changing cocktail menu.

Why Michael’s on Naples is perpetually solid—both culinarily and hospitality-wise

The long-loved Naples space has altered its menu umpteen times to reflect season, ingredients, and innovation—with a wine list curated by Massimo and a stellar food program steered by longtime Chef Samaniego. And yet, Michael’s on Naples really doesn’t have a reach beyond Naples and the Shore in the capacity that it not only should but definitively deserves. 

Samaniego’s talent, mixed with Arrone’s absurd knowledge about pairings, creates for one of the city’s most elevated, consistent, stellar Italian experiences. 

Has Michael’s on Naples rightfully received its laurels in the past? Yes—something that tends for many to dismiss them as a restaurant they’ve seen at some point on the Best Of lists. But the reality is that we should see them as always on the Best Of list.

But perhaps the most important thing to reflect is that, in a culinary world which is constantly aiming for either aesthetics—willing admitted or not, a huge portion of our food world is driven by social media-centric food that looks solely good on photo and little else—or overt complexity—we’re looking at you, Vespertine—Michael’s on Naples has not only maintained an elevated simplicity to its approach with success but has been one of the key cogs in developing Long Beach’s palate.

It’s a Long Beach classic—one that deserves to be repeatedly visit, be it for just a negroni or the multiple-hours experience that is the chef’s tastings. Each experience, be it a half hour or three, is worthy of our patronage. And more importantly, worthy of your worth.

Michael’s on Naples is located at 5620 E. 2nd St. in Naples.

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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