Thursday, January 3, 2013

Neapolis Delivers Rose Parade Worthy Small Plate Breakfast in Pasadena

I love Pasadena for nostalgic reasons. It reminds me of all the glamorous things Southern California used to stand for like a sunny manifest destiny, ranches and fruit groves, old school men who were half cowboy and half business, and sprawling and romantic architecture full of articulated details like porcelain colored molding and stamped interior roofs. It still glimmers beneath its modern exteriors of a time when craftsmanship reigned in the city that has my second favorite bridge in the state. Today that historical beauty remains in its parks, gardens and legendary estates and is spruced up once a year for the traditional Rose Parade and Bowl game.

We had stumbled upon Neapolis while coming home from a trip to the desert a few weeks ago. Hungry and tired of traffic in the rain, we hopped off the freeway to grab a pizza after dark. We found a rather dreary and doughy pie but then adventured into the small plates portion of the menu where we were pleasantly surprised.

A dish of Sicilian meatballs came with four tiny gems of super-densely packed, but with a meticulously fine gritted, pork that was seasoned in a subtle pink tanginess that verged on savory but with a dose of pickle. It tasted like a totally reconstructed and elevated corn beef with a new identity. The kale salad was simple and beautifully dressed with leaves how I long for them – not too hard but not too wilted, teetering right in the center about to submit to their fate on the palate.

We were so excited, we noted that we would have to come back again and skip the pizza and pasta that dominated the offerings and continue to veer off into the starters and sides because clearly that was the chef’s gift. Even though we rarely visit a restaurant twice, and NEVER go to breakfast at a joint, we ended up back there a mere week later for post-Christmas brunch with the Cute Gardener’s folks.

It was actually kind of nice and homey to revisit the restaurant in daylight after driving past the makings of the Rose Bowl parade throughout the city. Bleachers and porta-potties were cropping up all along the route and banners with the grand festival logo were strategically draping the city. As we drove down the streets we even gave halfhearted little Miss America waves to the empty seats that would be crammed full in a few days.

It seemed apropos to enter the morning-gleaming restaurant, draped with Stanford banners, and looking classy in the damp, crisp winter air. We got a better chance to see the grandiosity of the three dining rooms dressed in old times where red acrylic meat machines glistened on counters near deli cases strewn with freshly made charcuterie, bar tops were stacked with polished glasses for the day, and a television played sports in black and white. Mirrored tiles dusted with gold flecks lined the cozy and deep upholstered benches and even the bathrooms boasted floor to ceiling wooden doors for private quarters – a classy joint.

The Cute Gardner who rarely finds a breakfast entrée that can compete with the basic eggs he makes at home finally found his dish. A gorgeous pile of golden polenta came bearing two beautifully plump and pillow-y poached eggs (even if they weren’t exactly runny inside) alongside two savory rafts of fried pork belly and little piles of sautéed mushrooms. A deeply satisfying and earthy dish for a cold day.

I, the mother of all who cannot resist risotto, ordered the arancini balls, which were crunchy on the outside and swimming with gooey cheese on the inside. The rice was cooked perfectly and studded with tender, flavorful cubes of butternut squash. I could barely eat two of the full four-piece order because they were so rich and delicious. 

I also ordered the Brussels sprouts, which was more like a dolled-up fruit salad. Crunchy, diced Brussels sprouts halved shared equal space with nutmeg spiced apples, cranberries, walnuts and daubs of goat cheese. I am going to copy this one at home.

I was happy I had chosen to venture further into the small plates, which is definitely where the chef shines best. Like the Rose Parade itself, it seems that a great breakfast out of the house is something special that tends to come around only once a year.

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