Late yesterday afternoon, word that Pizzeria Mozza opened in Newport Beach spread like lightning on Twitter. This writer broke the news on OC Weekly's blog, and headed to the restaurant for the opening-night madness.
Barring a few first-night jitters, the menu, food and service were identical to the Los Angeles Pizzeria Mozza experience. Newport Beach General Manager Sam Schamberg shared some backstory of the long-anticipated opening of the latest Mozza outpost. Turn the page for our interview.
Squid Ink: We've been watching your progress with the shell of the old Dolce restaurant that was still standing a year ago, and waiting eagerly for you to open. How did you come to choose Newport Beach?
Sam Schamberg: Mario [Batali, a co-owner] was doing a charity golf event here a couple years back and fell in love with the town and the community. That's what got the ball rolling. He said this was perfect location for Mozza. He started scouting locations and it went from there. It was almost by accident. He was here for the Tiger Woods Foundation, I'm pretty sure.
SI: You've been holding back the grand opening for a couple of weeks. Why the delay?
SS: It's been more than two weeks, and it was our ABC liquor license. There's been some confusion about the conditional use permit, and we were under the impression we could take over Dolce's license. If we had taken over Dolce and not torn down the building and just redone the building, it would be much easier to transition. You basically take over their liquor license. Since we started from scratch, we had to reapply for an entirely new license. We were orginally set to open on August 4. That's why Joe [Bastianich, a co-owner] had that Hi-Times [Liquors] event and that had all been planned around Joe being here for the opening of the restaurant.
SI: How is Newport Beach different from the L.A. restaurant?
SS: Newport has a full bar, and L.A. doesn't since they have the Osteria right next to them. We have a beautiful, brand new building that we love and L.A. is a very old building that's cursed in some ways.
SI: How is the L.A.building cursed?
SS: By cursed, I just mean that it is a very old building, so it requires constant upkeep.
SI: We were talking earlier about today's sudden opening announcement, and how things unfolded after Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich tweeted the news. What happened after that?
SS: I had actually been receiving correspondence from someone in New York, and she had been asking for general information so she could tweet it on @MozzaNewport. I had been giving her that information and when we opened the doors, we didn't expect the rush we got. In the middle of that rush, and in a panic, I emailed that lady in New York and asked, "please don't tweet any more, we're getting mobbed here." She responded promptly, "uh oh, Mario and Joe both tweeted about it. It brought on a little stress and a few hurdles, but at the end of the day, our staff and I are much less fearful of the days to come.
SI: Did everything work as you expected? Were you happy with the food?
SS: For the most part, we were happy with the food. Any time you're opening a [Mozza] restaurant, you're used to the standards in L.A. The kitchen's not quite as fast and the front of house isn't quite as efficient.
Then dough's a fickle thing. If the humidity and the temperature's a little different, the dough will act a little differently and it'll take a little longer to shape the crust. You add three minutes onto each crust-shaping, and before you know it you're an hour behind. Tonight we had what the kitchen will refer to as "slow dough," which is harder to work with and that was the only minor hiccup in the food.
SI: Tell us a bit about the bar that isn't fully stocked yet.
SS: We don't have our full liquor license yet. For now, it's just wine and beer. The bar program for cocktails isn't fully developed but Lucas Swallows [consulting mixologist] is in the process of setting that up so as soon as we get our full liquor license, we'll have cocktail menus to release. We're keeping our fingers crossed that we should have full liquor by the end of September.
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SI: Italian cooking is about fresh local ingredients. Are locally-sourced ingredients part of Mozza's core mission?
SS: We're in a local-produce paradise. Compared to other places, the amount of local produce is amazing. While Mario is the chef, he gives power and control to our operating chefs. If they bring a box of squash blossoms to Emily [Corliss, Chef di Cocina] and she's not happy with them, she won't hesitate to take squash blossoms off the menu. We're able to reprint our menus on-site and it gives the chefs the flexibility to add things as they come into season, but also to take things off if they're not happy with the produce they're getting.
SI: There are a couple of seafood purveyors, Pearson's Port and Newport Dorymen's Fleet, within a few miles of the restaurant that sell locally-caught seafood. Is that something that might have a place in your Food & Beverage program?
SS: I imagine that it would. I don't know the exact names of the fish purveyors we're using, but Mario and Joe have employed a woman by the name of Elizabeth Meltz whose job it is to make sure that all the restaurants are staying up to par with things like sustainable fishing. That's also why we're a LEED-certified restaurant. That's also why we don't serve bottled water. We don't want to ship bottled water from Italy to Los Angeles.