Chef Jason Neroni has had a career with many stops in the upper echelon of both fine dining and California cuisine. He worked in restaurants run by icons like Alain Ducasse, Dan Barber, Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. In Europe, he cooked alongside Massimo Bottura in Monaco and spent time at El Bulli and Arzak. His extensive resume also includes running the kitchens at New York’s 71 Clinton Fresh Food (which he took over from Wylie Dufresne) and 10 Downing Food & Wine (where he earned a three-star New York Times review).
In Los Angeles, where he now resides, he’s known for opening Superba and resurrecting The Rose (a colossus that’s seen 3.5 million covers since Neroni reopened it in 2015). But it’s only now, with the dazzling new Best Bet, that Neroni feels like he’s cooking the most personal food of his career. Part of it, he says, is about having a pedigree he wants to showcase. And part of it is a culinary independence he’s experiencing for the first time.
“Every restaurant I’ve ever opened, there’s been another person involved,” Neroni says. “There’s always another personality. There’s always history. This was the first time ever that, top to bottom, left or right, it was all me. It’s funny, after 30 years and all the success and accolades I’ve had, I’m kind of surprised. Here I am. It seems to be honestly the biggest success, the most well-received restaurant I’ve ever opened.”
What Neroni has on his hands is LA’s most thrilling new restaurant. Best Bet, which debuted in July at the storied Culver City location that was previously home to an IHOP and then Roy Choi’s A-Frame, is billed as a pizzeria. But it’s a lot more than that.
“At the end of the day, I’m not here to sell just food,” Neroni says. “I’m here to sell my experience.”
He’s put together a dynamic new-school Italian-American restaurant with standout dishes like braised pork-and-brisket meatballs in white Bolognese (which you can get with a side of buttered macaroni or red-sauce macaroni, because Neroni was thinking about how kids eat and then ended up making one of the best appetizer combinations in Los Angeles), oysters-and-clams fritto misto (because Neroni, whose family is from Maine, isn’t the type of chef who will just serve the “obligatory calamari” and also because he has fond memories of Howard Johnson’s fried clams), corn raviolo (part of a strong lineup of pasta from a chef who’s long excelled at pasta) and rabbit confit saltimbocca (because, well, you know there’s a pedigree here).
Neroni’s inspired cooking, precise and serious and playful and free-spirited all at once, is the LA version of what Rich Torrisi is doing in New York. It’s about understanding the rules and rigor that got you to this point and then using your skills and intuition to create dishes that are both familiar and groundbreaking.
Or as Neroni puts it, he’s proud of the work he did that preceded Best Bet, “but at the end of the day, it’s a piece of me. It’s not the true me.”
This is Neroni’s time to flex and get personal. Having the true Neroni at Best Bet means he’s putting in the work to serve three styles of pizza: wood-fired (New York/Neapolitan-style), cast-iron baked (focaccia) and fried (montanara). He was in Italy, like he is every summer, and Nancy Silverton urged him to go eat Franco Pepe’s pizza. So now he has an Ode to Franco pie with mozzarella, scamorza, tomato confit and pesto powder.
“I saw the attention to detail and the pizza he was doing,” Neroni says of visiting Pepe. “He really rewrote the script. And I was like, if this guy can win the hearts of Italians and get the D.O.C. to listen to him, I feel like I could get away with doing that in LA because we already have some interesting pies at The Rose. I was like, fuck it.”
So Neroni is nodding to Pepe and also to other pioneering chefs at Best Bet while simultaneously writing his own script.
He’s got a pizza he named Todd English, which features “all the olives.” He has a seasonal melon dish that’s a nod to Gray Kunz. But Best Bet is also about serving unique dishes, like a ricotta zeppole with avocado honey that Neroni shaves truffle atop.
“I wanted to come out and do something that I have never seen anybody else do that was interesting enough to create conversation,” says Neroni, who adds that the idea for the zeppole started with the simple realization that Romans and Americans both like fried food. “And enough people go absolutely crazy for it. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s earthy. It gets your palate dancing immediately.”
Neroni wants your palate to keep dancing until you leave the restaurant, so he’s also got a dessert pizza (which is on the menu every Sunday but also available to in-the-know guests on other nights) he had been thinking about for five years. It’s a tiramisu pizza, enhanced by what’s essentially grilled chocolate, that tastes better than actual tiramisu. The chewiness of the pizza dough, which fights back the right amount when you bite into it, adds dimension to this dessert.
“I’m just an instinctual chef,” Neroni says. “I go off touch and smell and taste.”
When he came up with the tiramisu pizza, which deftly balances sweetness with savory and smoky notes, he decided to pour brown butter over it. Take some of this pizza home and you’ve got a nice breakfast the next morning, too.