Richard Foss

Redondo meets Brooklyn [restaurant review]

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Charlie’s delivers simple East Coast Italian goodness

Charlie’s Italian brings traditional New York Italian meals to California’s outdoors during the pandemic. Photo by JP Cordero

There’s a stereotype about people from New York City that we all recognize, of people who are brash, boastful, and generally larger than life. People from elsewhere in the state often like to put some distance between their areas and denizens of the Five Boroughs, but most of those who call Brooklyn or Manhattan home celebrate it. Not all will say “Fuggedaboutit” unironically, but it’s an attitude they all recognize.

The larger-than-life part of that description certainly applies to New York Italian food, which has a passing resemblance to the styles of Sicily and the region around Naples. The names of the dishes are the same, but New Yorkers make them bigger and bolder. More sauce, more cheese, more spices, bigger portions – it’s the NYC attitude applied to food.

Our best known Beach Cities purveyor of these flavors is Charlie’s Italian, which opened in 1992 as a quiet hideaway called Cialuzzi’s, became a sports bar in 2020, and now is serving outside like everybody else. The one thing that has been consistent the entire time is the food, which is relentlessly immune to trends. The buffalo wings, invented in 1969, are probably the newest thing on the menu, and everything else there would have been in the repertoire of any Brooklyn grandmother or Mulberry Street trattoria a century ago.

The menu at Charlie’s is a list of greatest hits rather than a deep dive, and in two visits we tried a representative sampling. Among starters, we tried the buffalo wings and the minestrone soup, plus both their Caesar salad and house antipasto. The wings have a spicy, vinegary kick but aren’t the hottest in town, which is fine with me. (As far as I can tell, the losers at any contest for who can eat the hottest food are the participants.) These had a nice balance of heat, sweetness and flavor, and you could actually taste the chicken underneath. They had been fried so the smaller pieces were just a bit leathery but the mini-drumsticks were done through, and served with celery and the traditional ranch dressing.

If heat isn’t your thing, the minestrone is a more subtle way to start a meal. I could make a meal of this, because the chicken-based stock with potato, onion, black kale, pancetta, beans, and pesto was exceptional. It was chilly at the outdoor tables on the night we tried it, and the soup had a rich, wholesome warmth that went all the way to the bones. It’s served with a fluffy, cakelike focaccia that doesn’t need oil or butter to be enjoyable.

As for the salads, the Caesar had a robust, garlicky dressing, and was topped with lots of cheese, with more available on the side. It was a simple, no frills Caesar with fresh croutons, just as it is supposed to be. The antipasto caused me to wonder aloud whether you can call something a salad if it is at least 50 percent meat by weight. My wife pointed out that tuna salad is almost always three-quarters fish, a point I couldn’t argue. Salad it was, an abundance of salame, mortadella and grated mozzarella with marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts with some red onion and lettuce to represent the vegetable kingdom. The herb and vinegar dressing was judiciously applied so it wasn’t swamped, which we appreciated. In case our garlic level dropped even momentarily, our starters arrived with buttery fresh garlic bread.

Charlie’s has a full bar, and on one visit we decided to honor their heritage by ordering a Manhattan and a Bronx cocktail. There are cocktails named after four of the five boroughs, though only one is well known. The Bronx is a mix of gin, orange juice, and both sweet and dry vermouth with a dash of bitters, and I actually liked it better than its better known sibling. We sipped our drinks and waited for dinner with a view that isn’t particularly lovely (it’s a parking lot), but the friendly servers did their best to make up for that. One thing that should be done to help diners is getting a couple of battery-powered table lamps for the tables that aren’t near the door, because it’s pretty dim without them.

The main courses on our recent visits were pasta al forno, chicken parmesan, and a pizza. Pasta al forno probably started as a way to use up leftover noodles from a previous meal by adding random scraps of meat and a dollop of marinara sauce, then topping this with cheese and baking it in the oven. It’s like lasagna with a texture difference because they use three kinds of noodles rather than just flat sheets, and if you like one, you’ll enjoy the other. At Charlie’s they add a hefty dose of fresh garlic along with the crumbled meatballs and Italian sausage, and it’s a huge portion with huge flavors. The spicy comfort food was enhanced by a glass of Chianti, and after eating it I was ready to hibernate for a few days.

Chicken parmesan with a side of spaghetti marinara at Charlie’s. Photo by Richard Foss

The chicken parmesan was different from what we expected, a breaded and fried chicken breast lightly sauced and topped with basil leaves and mozzarella that was briefly broiled so that the cheese melted and browned. It arrives with your choice of pasta and sauce, and my wife picked linguine with marinara. In Italy marinara is usually delicate and simple, but the version here was thick and there was a shot of red pepper along with the herbs and garlic. It was much spicier than any marinara you’d find in Italy, but very New York.

On the visit where we shared a pizza, my wife and I had been negotiating over whether to try one with the classic red sauce or the white pizza with a sauce made from several cheeses cooked with milk, olive oil, parsley, pepper, and garlic. On a whim I asked if they could make one which was half and half, which they consented to do at no extra charge. We were glad they did, because we enjoyed both toppings. As much as we liked their red sauce, we had eaten a lot of it, and the cheese and herb flavor was a welcome change. Making pizzas half and half is something they only do when the place isn’t very busy, because it does take more time, but if you like variety on a crust this is the way to get it. That crust was a bit thicker than I’ve had at other New York style places, with a browned and firm base that supported the toppings, but you could still fold it like they do in Little Italy for easy eating.

We’ve only tried one dessert, the tiramisu, and that wasn’t to our tastes. If you like the version that is sweet and creamy then this may be for you, but I prefer more of a balance with bitter chocolate and coffee. It wasn’t bad, but we’d probably try something else next time.

Portions at Charlie’s are large, while the bill is moderate – none of the entrees or pastas run over $20, and sandwiches and salads are all $15 or under. It’s an everyday place where warm, friendly people serve good food, and that’s something you can appreciate even if cities of concrete canyons leave you cold.

Charlie’s is at 601 N. PCH in Redondo. Open daily 11:30 a.m – 8 p.m. Full bar, a few outdoor tables and takeout. Parking lot. Some vegetarian items. Reservations recommended.(310) 374-8581. Charliesitalian.com. ER 

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