Santa Monica’s New Ristorante Al Mare Serves Seafood With Italian Flair
Freshly prepared butter, simply the congealed fat that separates from its milk when agitating cream, is to a fine dining establishment as a well-manicured yard is to a clean home. By serving fresh butter, a chef communicates his or her attention to detail and care for his or her guests.
At Ristorante Al Mare on the Santa Monica Pier, executive chef Giacomo Pettinari’s influence radiates from every dish that is served from his kitchen to the table. And it all begins with fresh butter.
Before a menu is even opened, homemade grilled bread, salsa verde (or chimichurri for us non-Italians), and ciabatta with butter appears like magic before guests at dark wood tables in the main dining room at Al Mare. The fresh butter topped with sea salt crystals slathered on warm bread whets my appetite for highly anticipated and carefully constructed dishes deliberately prepared to satisfy both my hunger and culinary curiosity.
As a food and dining writer, I read menus from top to bottom but prefer to leave the tasting selections to the masters of the craft. Chef Pettinari’s choices spoke to me as examples of the best his restaurant has to offer, from meat and seafood to salad, pasta, and pizza to the finale: Cioccolato.
It might be hard for guests to pass up the carpaccio de carne trentino, with paper-thin slices of delicately prepared beef, Asian pears, Parmesan, and arugula served on a long, rectangular butcher block. The saltiness of the meat balances nicely with the sweetness of the pears. The umami of the dish comes together through the Parmesan against the sharpness of the arugula leaves. As an appetizer, the combinations of tastes complement many of the dishes on the extensive menu.
Polpo arrosto, a pile of parsley pesto-coated potatoes tossed with tiny black cured olives mounded mid-plate and topped with crunchy garlic slices, haricots verts, and crispy grilled chunks of fresh octopus, elevates both seafood and salad to an ethereal level. Although I do not usually order octopus because of the texture when prepared incorrectly, this salad was simply and complicatedly delicious. Playing with textures, from soft to crisp to tender, this salad can stand in as a main course or be savored as an appetizer.
Any visitor to Al Mare must try the chitarrine neri ai frutti di mare, which features squid ink pasta below mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid in a tangy tomato broth. Imagine a plethora of freshly cooked seafood on top of and immersed in black seaweed that is actually fresh al dente black pasta; that is exactly what you get in this playful dish.
Another must try at Al Mare is the pizza. We sampled the Giacomo, made with tomato sauce, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, Taggiasche olives, burrata, and basil. I loved the chewy texture, faint olive oil taste, and charred bottom of the crust combined with the salty olives, creamy burrata, and crispy basil. We also enjoyed the eggplant lasagna and gnocchi con granchio.
Chef Pettinari stopped by our table toward the end of our meal to bring dessert. He told us the wife of an investor of the restaurant complained there was not a chocolate dessert on the menu so the chef created what he calls “Cioccolato,” or chocolate fantasy, just for her. The platter consists of chocolate six ways: liquid, ice cream, brûlée, lava, mousse, and fudge. As a self-proclaimed chocoholic, I can say this was one of the most decadent chocolate desserts I have ever seen or tried. It was incredible.
Al Mare has a modern rustic Italian style, with wine bottle chandeliers and 1950s chairs at dark wooden tables. The restaurant occupies three stories with an outdoor patio on top, a patio and small dining room (and the kitchen) on the second level, and two dining rooms and a bar with indoor and outdoor seating on the primary level. With so many spaces and uses, the restaurant is prepared to host events and private parties year round. Huge glass walls and windows around the building mean Al Mare’s views are as magnificent as only the beauty of the Southern California coastline can provide. And the view of the Ferris wheel is the bomb, too!