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Travel Dish: An Italian Food Diary by the Founders of Nerano, Beverly Hills

It all started about 10 years ago with an enviable trip to a charming fishing village between Sorrento and the Amalfi coast in Nerano, Italy, along with a single dish of legendary pasta, for one of Southern California’s most dynamic restaurant duos.

View from J.K. Place Capri

It’s all in the famiglia for Andy and Carlo Brandon-Gordon, as they belong to a group that owns six highly sought-after establishments from the Santa Barbara area to Los Angeles that includes the longtime staple of Toscana in Brentwood to SY Kitchen in Los Olivos. The pair owns and operates Nerano and BG Lounge in Beverly Hills with Puglian Executive chef Michele Lisi at the helm.

The Southern California-based restaurateurs, travel to Italy every year during the last week of August. And, we are happy the couple decided to honeymoon there almost a decade ago and now return each year for their anniversary as their subsequent annual return visits lead to monumental amounts of culinary research and the discovery of new drinks and wines that they bring back to their restaurants. These trips have turned into a gastronomic “think tank” that yields delicious results over a bottle Greco di Tufo – one of their favorite Campania whites, or a super Tuscan from the Ferragamo Estate.

Since Andy and Carlo have traveled extensively to the Amalfi Coast annually for food and wine research, friends have heard how much fun these delicious journeys are and have wanted to come along for the curated ride. Well, so did we – at least virtually. Here are some of the highlights and places that you should dine, drink and shop when you make your next trip to this magical part of the Italian coast.

Drinks at Il Pellicano

But First, Drinks

While at Hotel Il Pellicano in Tuscany, they fell in love with a traditional aperitif with a twist, the Pellicano Negroni, now on the menu at Nerano. “We had never had it before,” said Andy. (Please see recipe below.)

“Our bars [in the California restaurants] are all about Italy,” said Andy. “Barkeepers are well trained in Italy as a profession. Even the best bars in London and Paris are using mostly professionally trained Italians,” he added. “Our Bar Toscana (in Brentwood) was started by someone we hired from Milan.”

Bar at Il Pellicano

Loving Limoncello

To that end, they couldn’t imagine not having a Limoncello at Nerano in Beverly Hills. “It’s part of every meal on the Amalfi coast,” said Andy, “Especially at dinner. From little beach shacks to high-end restaurants, everyone makes their own.”

“When we opened the restaurant, I said we can’t buy store-bought limoncello,” recalled Andy. “You need grain alcohol to make it and that’s hard to find in California, its stronger with no flavor so the lemons macerate better. In Capri, the lemons are almost the size of grapefruits with thick skin.”

So, they decided to add a fruitful addition to their home in Sherman Oaks. “When we built our house, the landscaper planted this amazing lemon tree with Eureka lemons and they are the closest thing to the Capri lemons that we have found in America. We just bring boatloads of lemons from our own tree to the restaurant.” And, that is how their signature Limoncello at Nerano came to be. “It’s pretty easy to make but a labor love,” said Carlo. “You have to be present and can’t rush the process.”

Scenic Capri Beach

Off to Capri

From Tuscany, the couple traveled to Capri to stay at the J.K. Place, a boutique property on the island that feels like a stately home and is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and Virtuoso. Here they were joined by about 35-40 friends.This was the biggest group yet and it’s growing year by year.

Pro Tip: Boat or hike out of Capri and spend your days at a beach club because the town of Capri is filled with tourists during the day.

The Table is Set

Travel Dishes Discovered on the Trip

Some dishes they tried and can’t live without now that are appearing on the Nerano Beverly Hills menu include two standouts: Focaccia Caprese – it’s not a salad but a pizza meets a flat-bread and a pistachio pasta which is poised to be the new signature dish. Others that chef Michele Lisi is putting his spin on are the Puglian bruschetta, orecchiette Pomodoro and ricotta with zucchini flowers.

“Every time we go somewhere we try to figure out what’s new and different and bring things back with us, said,” Andy. From this most recent journey, they are most excited about the pistachio pasta and the Puglia menu. “We just show our chef the different things people are doing and let our chef create an interpretation or spin on the dishes,” he added.

Yachting Around Capri

How do they spend a typical day in Amalfi?

“There is a routine for us,” recounts Carlo.  “We start our day with a workout, and then we do a two-three-hour hike. After that, we end up at a beach club where we can justify “rose all day” and eating pasta and pizza. There is a little restaurant Le Grottelle. It’s a family-run spot tucked into a rock at the end of a road overlooking the Natural Arch in Capri. We hike all along the coast from Tragara Point and the Faraglioni past the huge rock formations. This is where the Focaccia Caprese dish comes from. He’s the best pizza guy on the island, and this version is so flavorful even without the cheese and the sauce.”

“It’s like out of central casting,” recalls Andy. “The grandmother is cooking with a group of young people. The grandfather is running the room. The son and his wife are serving and the grandchildren are managing the restaurant.”

Aperitivo Hour at J.K. Place Capri

Other Top Restaurants

When they do return around 6PM for dinner, Andy and Carlo recommend dining at some of the top spots,  Ristorante La Tonarella (Jackie O’s favorite, accessible by boat or swimming), Aurora and their favorite Conca del Sogno, the duo dubbed this one “the best restaurant on the Amalfi Coast.” For their anniversary, they dined at family-owned Bagni Tiberio. 

Highlight of the Trip

For Andy, it was scuba diving around the islands off the coast of Il Pellicano. “We met twins that told us to go to this restaurant run by a family and it was in their backyard. Only 11 people live there year-round and run this little restaurant only open during the season. Carlo recalls, “You sit on benches and they pull the food out of the water or ground and serve you whatever is available. It’s a very limited menu. It was actually a home where the woman who lived there made us a dish with squid ink pasta and pistachios, topped with red shrimp.” A version of that dish is now featured at Nerano.

According to Andy, “The original dish we had was black squid ink pasta with pistachios and red shrimp (but you can’t get it here) so our chef took it and made it a little more Southern Italian and added this pistachio cream – which is really a pesto. Instead of pinenuts he uses pistachio and basil. And uses yellowtail instead of the shrimp.”

Strolling in Capri

Shopping Finds on Capri

Since you can’t live on pasta and negronis alone, here are three of Andy and Carlo’s favorite shops, and it sounds like any of these would make great gifts to bring home as well.

Sweet SandalsSandal di Capri across from Carthusian Profumi di Capri on Via Capodimonte in Anacapri.

Local LimoncelloLimoncello di Capri (15 Localita’Maresutton Anacapri.) They make a lemon grappa called “Limon” – only available in Anacapri as well as Pistacciocello.

Cool Clothing – Chantal Boutique (part of Grand Hotel Quisisana retail shops) Via Camerelle, 10/a, Capri Clothing and home shop with Grandmothers sketches of Capri on shirts and other goods.

Coastal View from J.K. Place Capri

The Lure of Amalfi?

According to Carlo, “We went to Nerano before we opened the restaurant. We were going to open a Toscana restaurant in Beverly Hills here but we came up with another plan. The original concept was everything on the menu was one of our favorite dishes from our favorite restaurants in Nerano, but then we found chef Michele at a gastropub in Washington, D.C. who had been cooking since he was a teenager.”

“We had an amazing chef and wanted to showcase him,” said Carlo. “We committed to the menu to make it really Amalfitano, but chef Michele could also focus on his creations and skills.” They sent him to train at 2-Michelin-star Quattro Pazzi in Nerano and now their chef also comes out to cook for special occasion dinners in Beverly Hills. (The next one is coming up in Feb. of 2022.)

Nerano Garden

Back home at their Beverly Hills-based flagship Nerano, the ground floor has the feel of casual elegance that you will find in a great Italian-American restaurant where exceptional service and food are on the menu. Upstairs at BG Lounge, there is an underground, speak-easy setting where you can imagine they host moguls to movie-stars and other locals in the know.

Here you will find familiar dishes such as Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana are elevated to contemporary levels and they have rolled gracefully through the pandemic by constructing a romantic back patio dining area showing old black and white Italian movies.

Other popular dishes on the Nerano menu that they specialize in include Southern Italian eggplant, whole roasted branzino; Dover sole, porcini parmesan salad, and bouillabaisse with roasted halibut. They also make their own gelato. Chef Michele sends his proprietary recipe to a friend with a factory that makes the gelato for them to scoop out in-house.

Spaghetti alla Nerano

Spaghetti Alla Nerano for the Win

If you have spent any time in Southern Italy or watching Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” series on CNN this past year, you know that the pasta Nerano is a highly sought-after dish. Below is Executive Chef Michele Lisi’s interpretation of this Italian staple, now served at Nerano in Beverly Hills, California. This also brings us full circle from Andy and Carlo’s first trip to Nerano, Italy which initially inspired their restaurant.

Spaghetti alla Nerano

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients

  • 8   oz. Spaghetti Rustichella (available online or in fine grocery stores)
  • 3 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 T unsalted butter, cubed, divided
  • 10 each fresh squash blossoms
  • 3 each of fancy Italian zucchini cut into half moons
  • 10 each fresh basil leafs
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano, aged 24 months
  • 1/3 cup shredded Provolone del Monaco cheese
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

  • Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in a pot. Season with salt. Heat a medium skillet to medium heat and add the extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown and then remove.
  • Add the zucchini and sautée until it reaches a nice color.
  • Season with salt and pepper and cook for about 1 minute.
  • Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes just before tender.
  • Drain, reserving 3/4 cup pasta cooking water.
  • Add pasta to the skillet with the zucchini and add the butter, the Parmigiano, the squash blossoms, and basil leaves then toss.
  • Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water, stirring and tossing with tongs until the cheese melts into the pasta (Add more pasta water if needed to make sure that the pasta is creamy).
  • Transfer the pasta to warm bowls and serve with Provolone del Monaco cheese and garnish the plate with a fresh basil leaf to finish.
Nerano Teller Negroni

The Teller Negroni (from Il Pellicano)

  • 1-ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • 1 ounce Plymouth gin
  • Splash of Chinotto
  • Slice of orange for garnish

Combine the vermouth, Campari, and gin in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Top off with the Chinotto, stir, and garnish with the orange slice.


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