Michael Pirolo’s Melrose Avenue sandwich shop also has wings, meatballs, and reimagined mozzarella sticks.
Pirolo’s Panino, which opened with glorious chicken parm sandwiches, Italian dips, lemon pepper wings, baked pasta, and beef-and-pork meatballs in Los Angeles on Tuesday, is about “the little things.”
Chef Michael Pirolo is going fast-casual with a big focus on delivery at Pirolo’s Panino. But he’s still making food the same way he does at Miami’s Macchialina, the rustic-meets-refined South Beach restaurant that earned him a James Beard Award semifinalist nod in 2016.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Pirolo says of his new Melrose Avenue sandwich shop, which grew out of popular Miami pop-ups. “It’s a chicken parm sandwich. It’s a roast beef sandwich. It’s a roast pork sandwich. But we make all our breadcrumbs. We brine the meat. We roast everything in-house.”
The funky and fantastic salsa verde for Pirolo’s Italian dip is a combination of anchovies, parsley, hard-boiled egg, capers, and lemon juice. It’s a salsa verde that he’s served with chicken at Macchialina. The beef in the Italian dip is marinated overnight in garlic confit and seasoned with Italian salt before being roasted.
The chicken parm, available in sandwiches, over baked penne, or as a plate with roasted potatoes and broccoli rabe, is made with what Pirolo calls PFM: parmesan, fontina, and marinara.
“I feel like the fontina adds such a savoriness and umaminess, as opposed to just mozzarella where it’s there more for the texture and stringiness,” Pirolo says.
He’s right. The stronger flavor of the fontina amps up both the chicken parm and the meatball parm.
Pirolo, who was born in Jackson Heights, Queens and raised in Avellino, Italy, has lived in Queens neighborhoods including Kew Gardens and Astoria. Over the years, he’s eaten a lot of Italian-American sandwiches and had many discussions and arguments with friends and family about what makes a good chicken parm.
“You identify with the place you get your chicken parm from,” Pirolo says. “Are you a sesame-seed-on-the-bun guy or not?"
For the record, Pirolo, who researched dozens of L.A. bakers before selecting the ciabatta he’s using, is not a sesame-seed guy.
Pirolo and his siblings operate The Saint Austere, an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Every time he goes back to New York, his brother picks him up at the airport and has an egg sandwich waiting for him. Then, lunch is chicken parm at Best Pizza in Williamsburg. The Pirolos are a straight-up New York Italian-American family.
But Pirolo didn’t think about serving chicken parm in Miami until a VIP regular, esteemed art collector Dennis Scholl, made an off-menu request.
“He comes in to eat all the time at Macchialina,” Pirolo says. “He asked me for a chicken parm, which we don’t do. But he’s like our number one guest. We weren’t crazy busy, so I made him this chicken parm. I pounded it out, breaded it, fried it, tomato sauce, you know the deal. When I cut it to plate it, there was a little sliver and I ate it and it was incredible. I brought it out to him and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that I made you do this.’”
Scholl had no reason to apologize. The chicken parm was amazing, and Pirolo was fortunate that he was asked to make it. He had been thinking about “more esoteric sandwiches” for a pop-up, but he now realized what direction he should go.
“The crazy thing is, I’m trying to be true to myself by not making [chicken parm], but then I eat it and love it,” Pirolo says. “And now we have a sandwich shop on Melrose. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to have a Pirolo’s Panino on Melrose as my first location.”
This is just the beginning of Pirolo’s move into L.A. with his partners, John Kolaski of K2 Restaurants and Giancarlo Pagani of Pagani Projects. There are plans for a delivery-only outpost of Pirolo’s Panino that will serve downtown L.A., plus another brick-and-mortar location in Santa Monica.
Pirolo and his partners will soon announce the L.A. address of Massima, a modern Italian restaurant with pastas, pizza, and lots more.
“It’s going to be very similar to Macchialina, but we’re going to do breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Pirolo says. “We’ll make all the pasta in-house. That’s what we’ve been known for at Macchialina.”
Macchialina, where Kolaski and Pagani became frequent customers when they were in Miami working to open the SLS South Beach resort, opened in 2012. It’s turned into an enduring hot spot because Pirolo is a chef with a clear vision about what he wants to create and what voids he wants to fill.
“I always cook stuff I want to eat, especially stuff I don’t see around,” Pirolo says. “I was craving an Italian restaurant that was approachable. It wasn’t the big-city restaurant that Miami’s used to with the 30-foot ceilings and drapes everywhere. We did the neighborhood New York-style restaurant where it’s still chef-driven but you can come in jeans and a T-shirt and feel fine, or you can have date night.”
Or you can get off a plane and head straight there.
“I went to Macchialina and I was hooked,” Kolaski says. “This was the best pasta I’ve ever had. The environment was great. The energy was always great. It became my first stop every time I went to Miami.”
Kolaski is the former president of SBE’s Disruptive Restaurant Group. He’s opened more than 60 venues in the last decade, including outposts of The Bazaar by José Andrés, Katsuya, Cleo, and Umami Burger. So it’s not surprising that he and Pirolo, who worked for Scott Conant at Scarpetta in both New York and Miami before opening Macchialina, are planning multiple restaurants. They have a fast-casual pasta concept in the works. The goal for Pirolo’s Panino, in the meantime, is expanding its reach so that customers all over L.A. can call up any delivery app and get a chicken parm sandwich delivered within half an hour.
Pirolo is a chef just getting started in a new city, but he’s already deep in the middle of how food is changing in L.A. Pirolo’s Panino is in the former location of Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, which was run by a chef, Eric Greenspan, who’s now focused on delivery-only menus. Pirolo’s Panino will fulfill downtown deliveries at the same CloudKitchens facility where Greenspan is making the kind of bodega-style egg sandwiches Pirolo loves so much.
And of course, there’s Uncle Paulie’s Deli, the excellent sandwich shop that Queens-raised Paul James opened last summer. Technically, Pirolo’s and Uncle Paulie’s are competitors. But there’s also some love here. Brooklyn chef Frank Pinello worked on the Uncle Paulie’s menu. Pinello is the man behind Best Pizza, where Pirolo eats sandwiches whenever he’s in New York.
It’s funny, when you think about about it now, how Pirolo was once resistant to making chicken parm despite his affection for it. He had gone to culinary school in Turin, cooked all over Italy, and spent a lot of time considering the strictures of regional specialties.
“I used to try to stay within these parameters,” he says. “Finally, I got secure enough with myself and my own cooking. I’m just going to do what I like and what tastes good to me.”
Having an Italian-American restaurant like Pirolo’s Panino means he can color outside the lines.
“We’re not trying to stick with the idea that this has be this way because an Italian restaurant will only do it this way,” Kolaski says. “No, we have jalapeno poppers on the menu.”
Pirolo’s Panino also has Buffalo wings, made with brined chicken and served with the restaurant’s housemade blue cheese.
And there’s something Pirolo proudly calls cheese puffs.
“This is our take on a mozzarella stick,” he says. ”It’s two-to-one mozzarella to ricotta and a tiny bit of flour. Then we roll it flour and we fry it.”
The result is a delightful bite that’s more flavorful and airier than a typical mozzarella stick. Like much of the menu, it goes perfectly with Pirolo’s marinara.
Pirolo’s Panino, 7461 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 323-424-7550