Subtlety, Italian style [restaurant review]
Slay’s Italian has a midwestern accent
Julia Child demystified French cooking for Americans, but Italian cuisine was a mystery to her. In a conversation with author Mark Bittman, Child remarked, “I don’t get the whole thing with Italian cooking. They put some herbs on things, they put them in the oven, and they take them out again.” Bittman immediately replied, “That’s exactly right.”
Not all Italian dishes are that simple, but it does sum up the core aesthetic. Combining flavors so natural ingredients are enhanced rather than smothered is also emblematic to American midwestern cooking, and the two come together famously in Chicago’s Italian community. It might surprise you that Missouri has a similar tradition, and even more, that a practitioner is in our midst.
I’m referring to Slay Italian Kitchen, whose owner grew up in St. Louis. Many people moved there from Lombardy in Northern Italy, which has a more delicate culinary style than areas to the south. Slay features those in his restaurant, or rather, at the sidewalk tables outside, because that’s where they’re actually serving. It’s a pleasant space on Manhattan Avenue, and a few tables have beach views. The rest have planter boxes and other decorative elements to lend the space atmosphere, and it was at one of those that we dined.
On a pleasantly cool evening my wife, brother, and I stopped in just as the autumn sunset faded. There was only minor traffic noise, and we relaxed and enjoyed the sound of the ocean as we made our final decisions on shared appetizers. As we did this, Chef Slay walked by – not an odd thing at this restaurant because he divides his evenings between this establishment and his other place down the street. He’s one of the rare owners who probably puts more mileage on his sneakers on any given night than his servers. Since we knew from previous experience that he knows his wines, we asked him to suggest something to go with our starters – a tomato and cheese focaccia, carrots in a sriracha glaze, a beet and cheese salad, and toasted ravioli. These arrived at about the same time as the owner bearing two bottles – a Gavi by Serafino and a California rose. He poured half-glasses of each so we could test the pairings with our starters, which we appreciated. The tomato and cheese focaccia was excellent though the portion was a bit small, just two thick slices of pan bread. We wished we had more after tasting the carrots, because we would have mopped up every bit of that sauce. Unlike many glazes that are heavy on the sugar, in this case the carrots themselves provided a natural sweetness, and it was perfect. The beet and cheese salad was a classic, well executed, heavy on the fresh whipped goat cheese and recommended for those who like it that way. The most distinctive item was the fried ravioli, a creation of Italian restaurants in St. Louis that may have been an accident when a chef dropped a dough packet in the fryer. This is one of several stories about carelessness in the kitchen producing a popular dish, and whether legend or not they’re a tasty snack. In this case the ravioli were filled with chard, spinach, and ricotta and served with a tomato-basil dip. They’re like egg rolls given an Italian twist.
I usually think of pink wines as summer coolers and didn’t have high expectations for the rose that Chef Slay suggested. But it had the right touch of sweetness and minerality that made it perfect with the spicy carrots. It came from Slay’s own vineyards in Santa Barbara County, so pouring it might have been a matter of justifiable pride for the chef. The Gavi was an exceptional companion to something that arrived unexpectedly, a plate of steamed mussels with tomato and basil. The chef sent this over because he thought we’d enjoy it, not knowing that my wife eats shellfish rarely, my brother not at all. I thought I’d have the plate to myself, but I was digging in with such gusto that my brother hesitantly decided to try one. He ended up eating five. Tese were the first he had ever had that weren’t rubbery and had a flavor he enjoyed.
We decided to dine as Italians do with a pasta as a second dish and settled on the pappardelle alla Norma, wide ribbon pasta with eggplant, tomatoes, ricotta, and herbs. This is the type of cooking that so bewildered the great French chef, a simple combination that demanded no great technique, just excellent ingredients in the proper proportions. You could taste each flavor as a separate thing and savor the way they combined, an idea at the heart of Italian and California cuisine.
For our mains we chose sole milanese, herb crusted beef skewers, and a daily special of a pork chop that was breaded and fried and then topped with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and herbs. If that sounds like the pork chop was treated like a veal or eggplant parmesan, that’s because it was. I meant to ask why they didn’t just call it that, but I was distracted by the plateful of porky goodness and forgot. The big chop was served with panzanella salad that I found to be one of the few missteps of the evening. The combination of bread that has been baked dry with tomatoes and dressing was probably invented by thrifty cooks to use stale bread, and it works great when the bread has had enough time to absorb the flavors but not get soggy. Unfortunately, that’s what happened here, and though the flavor was fine I left most of the bread on the plate.
There were plenty of other winners among the items my companions ordered. Sole milanaise is another simple recipe, fish fried in herbed breadcrumbs and topped with a citrus butter sauce, and in this case served over a few leaves of Swiss chard. A grilled lemon was served with it in case we wanted to add acidity, but it was already in fine balance. The skewered beef, called spiedini in Italian, had a nicely peppery herb crust that was an excellent contrast with the creamy spinach risotto they were served with. Chef Slay suggested a Montepulciano and his own Pinot Noir as accompaniments, and the Pinot had a slight edge with the fish, the Italian red with the meat dishes.
For dessert we tried pieces of chocolate cake and orange olive oil cake and a coffee-chocolate crème brulee. The olive oil cake had a fine combination of citrus tartness and sweet oil flavor, though I’d change the presentation with a ring of citrus on top. It’s decorative, but you have to tear it to pieces because the texture is tougher than the soft cake. To chop it and scatter bits over the top might be less pretty but would spread the flavor more evenly. The brulee had no such problem and offered finely calibrated flavors, but the chocolate cake was a bit disappointing. Some berry coulis or similar accompaniment would have elevated it, but it was ordinary where so much of our meal was better than that.
Dinner for three ran about $200 for food only. Wines by the glass run $12 to $20 and include some excellent choices. That’s equivalent to other high-end Italian eateries in the Beach Cities, and for those who take their farm-to-table ethos seriously, this will be a place of pilgrimage.
Slay Italian Kitchen is at 1001 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open Tues. –Thurs 5 p.m. – 11 p.m., Fri. — Sun 4 p.m. – 11 p.m. Street parking, outdoor dining. Beer and wine served, corkage $45.Some vegetarian items. (424) 257-8301. SlayItalianKitchen.com. ER
by Richard Foss