LONG BEACH, Calif A table of 4 enjoyed dinner, wine and conversation recently at Michael’s on Naples for about 3 hours. Servers and some owners might be expected to feel frustration at not turning the table. Not Michael Nene, owner/operator of Michaels on Naples, who was pleased they had enjoyed their evening and felt at home. “They said thank you for the great time and apologized for overstaying their welcome,” said Nene. He assured them that he was happy to have them to sit as long as they wished.
Nene sold his successful lighting manufacture company 7 years ago and retired. “I traveled around the world and realized retirement wasn’t for me,” he said. Owning a restaurant had always been a dream. He found the property in the cozy Naples section of Long Beach, a neighborhood of homes along canals. “I thought about finding someone to rent but decided I would do it myself.”
Wise in the ways of business, if not restaurants, he hired a consultant, Claudio Blada. He credits Blada for transforming the La Brea Bakery into the mega-success it became, as well as the popular Beverly Hills restaurant Angelinia Osteria. Blada and Nene interviewed 240 people before hiring a manager. “From the bussers on up, we took a great deal of care,” Nene explained.
One of his first hires, General Manager Massimo Arrone has an extensive background first in Italy at his family’s restaurant, then New York where he also managed restaurants.”He helped us open the restaurant,” Nene said.
Hiring just the right people was his first step to building a successful restaurant. Having sufficient capital was another equally important factor. “There’s a food side and business side,” Nene said. Food, quality and value were important to him. But he believes having a business plan and the resources to sustain it for a couple of years can be the downfall for chef/owners who are great cooks but not businessmen.
“We’ve had 21/2 years of hard knocks. We’ve finally turned a corner and I can make a penny, instead of just investing,” he said.
The owner is committed to Slow Food, which means sustainable, local and home made. “I think people are willing to wait. We’re not a cookie-cutter place,” he said.
Nene communicates with his staff on a regular basis and is in the restaurant every evening talking to patrons. His goal is to be the best restaurant in the area, not just the best restaurant in Long Beach. “I explained that in the early stages. If your sights are set for that (becoming the best), stay here,” he told his workforce.
Chef David Coleman
An essential part of his workforce is Executive Chef David Coleman. Chef Coleman grew up in nearby Anaheim as one of 9 siblings. “Mom always cooked,” he said. A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he supported himself working at a local restaurant. As if that wasn’t enough, the curious chef taught himself to brew beer. “The water in San Francisco is very good. I didn’t feel satisfied just drinking beer. I wanted to learn to make it. I wanted to understand the chemical reactions and ingredients that go into crafting beer, start to finish,” he explained.
His career took him to fine dining restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Orange County before coming to Michael’s. He also traveled widely in Europe. Naples, Italy, is fittingly his favorite, but food is the destination whenever he plans a trip. Coleman was sous-chef at Michael’s before being promoted to executive chef.
The chef knew the challenges before he started. “I knew it would be super-hard. I worked for really good chefs. I watched, tried to learn at every job and always asked, Chef, what more can I do?'” he remembered.
Along with brewing beer, he taught himself to make charcuterie by reading and testing. Coleman, happily following the wishes of Michael Dene, makes pasta from scratch. “Picci, hand-rolled spaghetti, is very laborious. One guy rolls all night,” he said.Local, organic produce and meat are purchased whenever possible. He visits his favorite farmers’ market once a week. On seafood, “We cook what’s in season.I talk to purveyors. Alaskan halibut are on the menu. Opah from Hawaii is sustainable,” he said.
He’s currently excited about blazie mushrooms grown in Escondido.Chef Coleman uses the nutty-flavored mushroom to coat seafood.
Naturally his menus follow the seasons and feature whatever fruits and vegetables are at the peak of flavor. Coleman’s Italian with California-influenced food is made with Italian and French techniques. “It comes down to execution. I get the guys to prepare and plate exactly how it should be. I teach all the time,” he said.
“I like that we constantly evolve the menu, although that’s also the hardest thing. It would be easier to dial it in and cruise.But we have to have integrity of seasons,” he said. Changing the menu also means taking popular dishes off the menu making some customers unhappy.
Coleman believes that his partnership with Michael Dene and Massimo Arrone makes the restaurant unique. “We want it to be the best,” he said in agreement with the owner.
The chef would like to see better restaurants in Long Beach. “Long Beach needs some improvement. There are too many chains and too many bad cooks. They say sustainable but I’m not really sure they practice it,” he said.
When he’s off, the chef enjoys spending time with his wife and three-year-old son. Coleman likes the Wurstkuche in Los Angeles for their fresh artisan sausage. “When I get a day off I tend to stay local. I prefer to eat anywhere that has good craft beer and fresh, local ingredients.”
Michael’s on Naples
Michael’s on Naples Ristorante-Long Beach
5620 East 2nd Street
Long Beach, CA 90803
Linda Mensinga is a contributing writer. If you have a great restaurant, recipe or food you’d like to share please send an email.You can reach her at [email protected]