Jason Neroni Swaps Lobster Rolls For Eggplant Parm in Marina del Rey

Catch & Release has closed with a new Italian-American spot set to open this spring

Short-lived but not necessarily unliked, chef Jason Neroni and the Sprout restaurant group have closed Catch & Release, his West Coast take on an East Coast seafood “shack” in Marina del Rey. But they’re not done with that space yet. Doing what he does best—pizzas, handmade pastas and other rustic Italian-American dishes—Neroni and Sprout will transition the space into a more family-friendly, easier-on-the-wallet concept this spring.

The timing is notable since this is the first move by the group since Bill Chait’s December departure from Sprout, which he founded, and not long after Neroni’s Rose Cafe-Restaurant November debut in Venice. That restaurant opening was equally newsworthy for transforming the former and much-beloved Rose Cafe, a Venice landmark for almost 30 years, into a more contemporary, multi-faceted breakfast and lunch spot with full bakery, cafe, bar and more. While the new Rose Cafe is Neroni to the bone, the change had fans worried that the place would lose its Venice soul.

As for the Chait departure, Neroni can’t really speak to it, but says it has little to do with this change-over. “We’re taking a long hard look at our concepts right now,” he says of the Sprout team. “At the end of the day, we’re in the business of making money, not to break even or lose money. We’re not really expanding, just trying to maximize our profitability.”

Catch & Release almost felt like a placeholder for Neroni, a place to play with so he had something to do while he worked to get the Venice project open. It never quite gelled. The location itself was Ricardo Zarate’s brief Peruvian seafood spot, Paiche, which closed after the chef’s unceremonious departure with Sprout. Turning it into a more Americanized seafood concept seemed like a winning combination for the neighborhood. And while it was fairly well-received, Neroni and Sprout decided they could create something even more fitting for Marina del Rey.

“It’s weird the perception people have about how I try to put my spin on things,” Neroni says. “A basketful of fried clams isn’t necessarily what they think of when they hear my name.” [Ed. note: But they were reallllly good fried clams.]

While the story seemed legit—Orange County born, a young Neroni spent summers in Maine with his family, legs dangling over the edge of a pier, stuffing a lobster roll in his mouth—the message got a little muddled in the eight months Catch & Release existed. “We started adding specials, but they weren’t seafood,” the chef says. “My wife said I should just stop fighting it, to stop trying to be something I’m not. I do pasta well, so why not just continue doing that.”

After running Italian restaurants in New York and L.A. (Neroni left 10 Downing West in NYC and came West to take over Osteria La Buca in Hollywood before opening Superba Snack Bar with Paul Hibler), he’s going back to what works for him. The still unnamed restaurant will undergo a quick redesign, mostly to become cozier and family friendly; a vibe more conducive to quick-serve meals during the day and casual dinners, plus deliver and to-go, at night. The menu will feature Roman-style square pizzas cooked in cast-iron pans, handmade pastas, and his twist on classics like antipasto salads, eggplant parm and pork Milanese.

“We want it to be more symbiotic with the other concepts, and especially tie into the Rose more. If you enjoy the pasta at Rose Cafe-Restaurant, you’ll probably like the pasta at the restaurant in Marina del Rey too,” Neroni says. “And we wanted to be more value-driven for the neighborhood.”

He says the staff have all been offered jobs at Rose Cafe, which debuts dinner this week. “It’s a humble goodbye,” he adds. “I’ve never really closed a restaurant before. But I’m not really looking at this as a closing, more of a rebirth.”

Look for the new restaurant to open this spring, possibly March or April.