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Octopus is a house specialty at Luigi al Teatro.
Octopus is a house specialty at Luigi al Teatro.
Anne Fishbein

Southern Italian Food Takes the Stage at Luigi al Teatro

Tucked away in one of Santa Monica's oldest neighborhoods in Ocean Park, just down the street from the historic shotgun house, is the romantic Luigi al Teatro, Michelin-starred chef Luigi Fineo's second restaurant. It's an upscale version of his nearby Osteria Venice West on the boardwalk.

Heading off of the noisy beaten path near Rose Avenue and Main Street, you have to search out Luigi al Teatro at the edge of a residential neighborhood in southern Santa Monica. Once you spot the big orange Mission Revival–style building draped with twinkling lights, you've arrived. The candlelight from the stained glass windows is the beacon that leads you to the almost secret entrance in the back, down the side of the restaurant and through the indoor/outdoor patio, which only builds up the intrigue.

One of the first permanent structures to be built in Ocean Park in 1910, it was the original building to house the Southern California Edison electrical plant for the city of Santa Monica, dubbed the Power House. In 1982 local personality Rey Hay, with his friends Paul Linke and Lucinda Zeizing, converted it into a theater. It was nearly destroyed by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Now Fineo has turned the building into a theater for his coastal Italian seafood. It's a restaurant with two very different dining rooms. The patio has a younger vibe; the west wall is covered with organic potted herbs, cherry tomato plants and organic lettuces used for the kitchen and cocktails. The roof is retractable for warm evenings.

The bar and salon have a more elegant feel. The furniture is all custom-built and the paintings on the lofted ceiling walls represent theater actors. The lighting is dim, so the open kitchen and the chef's culinary performance are center stage.

Southern Italian Food Takes the Stage at Luigi al Teatro
Anne Fishbein

Almost exclusively pescatarian, the menu offers only one meat of the day (market price) and an appetizer of Wagyu beef, sea urchin and pickled mushrooms ($46). If you don't love fish, you may not want to navigate the pathway to the Power House.

Inspired by the abundant seafood of his hometown in Puglia in southern Italy, Fineo offers a unique crudo choice: amberjack with smoked roe and egg yolk, sprinkled with espelette pepper and Himalayan salt for a slightly crunchy and smoky finish ($22).

Octopus, probably one of Fineo's favorite and most mastered ingredients, is a good cotti choice. His charred pulpo is served with pureed chickpeas, olives and blistered teardrop tomatoes grown on the patio for a sweet pop ($18). The scallop crudo is beautifully served in the shell with Olio Tenute Chiaromonte, preserved lemons and bagnet, or deep-fried pork belly ($19).

Southern Italian Food Takes the Stage at Luigi al Teatro
Anne Fishbein

The pasta dishes aren't dwarfed by dough; it's more of an accompaniment. The seafood is plentiful and pronounced; the sauces are light and simple. Pillowy gnudi with shellfish in fish broth — gnocchi-like dumplings made with ricotta cheese instead of potato and semolina — melt in your mouth and are spiked with mussels, clams and oysters ($36). The seafood lasagna is a tower of chef's fresh choice — mussels, calamari, langoustines, heirloom teardrop tomatoes and one thin sheet of fresh pasta ($36). And no Southern Italian ristorante would be worth its salt without sardines — pasta con le sarde is on the menu, too ($30).

The salmon is wrapped in puffed pastry with spinach ($42) and there's a Tuna cannolo with mango, peperoncino and avocado ($18). Italian Calvisius caviar is also on the menu. The Prestige is $80 an ounce and the Royal is available for $135 per ounce.

For dolci, we recommend the pastiera Napoletana. The traditional Easter tart is deconstructed, with house-made ricotta, and topped with a fried crust.

Luigi al Teatro is not for the faint of wallet. The wine list, which reflects Fineo's Italian heritage, includes a $750 bottle of Gaja Barbaresco Costa Russi as well as more reasonable options such as his signature cabernets. But it's a memorable visual and culinary experience worth a special occasion, with a vibe reminiscent of Abbot Kinney in the '80s.

In 2008 Fineo earned a Michelin star while executive chef at La Botte in Santa Monica. After that he joined Thomas Keller and team at the French Laundry. He served as executive chef alongside acclaimed Italian chef Gino Angelini at Rivabella Ristorante. In 2016 Fineo co-founded Landmarks Restaurant Group, which includes Osteria Venice West and Luigi al Teatro, both housed in historic beachside buildings.

If you're looking for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner, Chef Luigi is offering a five-course set menu at $160 with prosecco. The regular menu won't be available.

Luigi al Teatro, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; (310) 328-0000, luigialteatro.com.

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