Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mr. Sona and Comme Ca Takes On Pizza - Pizzeria Ortica (Lunch)

*** Update: Chef Stephan Samson has left Pizzeria Ortica.

With the plethora of high-profile restaurant openings in L.A. the past year (most within a concentrated area of Southern California), one had to wonder if it might've been better to spread out some of the culinary love. To kick off the new year, Chef David Myers (of Sona and Comme Ca fame) has decided to do just that, opening his new Pizzeria Ortica across the street from South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

I first heard about Ortica thanks to the great early previews from Eater LA. Pizzeria Ortica has been open for only 4 days and it's been drawing in large crowds for this soft opening period. Partnering with Executive Chef Stephan Sampson (formerly of Valentino Santa Monica and Valentino Las Vegas), the initial menu offers up a balanced selection of Italian Appetizers, Salads, Pastas, Pizzas and Panini Sandwiches, as well as nice selection of Desserts.

Ortica's space is certainly unique: The dining room is far more wide than it is deep, with the open kitchen front-and-center, which gives it a more casual, relaxed feel.

Their open kitchen also includes a wood-burning oven for creating the much-awaited Pizzas from David Myers and Stephan Samson.

On our first visit, we were able to secure the last open seats without a wait. Bread service began promptly after seating, with their bread being baked and brought in daily from an off-site location in L.A. The bread tasted fresh, and was fine, but it was nothing outstanding. Their complementary olive oil for the table was a bit watery, thin, and flavorless.

Before going further, I should begin with a note: It might be better to call this Chef David Myer's attempt at "Round Baked Bread with Toppings" rather than calling it "Pizza." :) Like we've seen with Pizzeria Mozza and countless other Pizza discussions, what a "Pizza" means to each person seems to differ greatly and can spawn endless debates on the pros and cons of what makes a good Pizza for that person. :) Around the world, Pizza means vastly different things to different people.

Our first order arrived relatively quickly (despite a full house): Milanese Pizza (Fontina, Asparagus, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Fried Egg).

Ostensibly, our Milanese Pizza most closely resembled something from Nancy Silverton's Pizzeria Mozza: Rustic, rough-shaped, round baked bread with less commonly found toppings. As the menu stated, it was topped with a fried egg and when we cut into it, the egg yolk broke and covered parts of the Pizza with the liquid yolk.

Taking a bite revealed a relatively thin crust Pizza, a bit more soft and chewy than what we were expecting (softer and chewier than Pizzeria Mozza). The Fontina was of excellent quality and fragrant, and the Fried Egg / Egg Yolk was a great combination, giving each bite a creamy quality. Being an Asparagus lover, I was disappointed that it was relegated to the background: Despite there being quite a few pieces of Asparagus throughout the Pizza, its flavor was overpowered by everything else. It was also a bit too oily.

Our second order arrived soon after: Guanciale, Ricotta e Cipollotto Pizza (Fresh Ricotta, House-Cured Pork Cheek, Scallions, Fennel Pollen). I was most looking forward to this Pizza, as it sounded the most interesting from the menu descriptions.

The first thing that struck us when we took our first bite was just how strong the House-Cured Pork Cheeks were. I'm all for a good Porkiness in a dish, but this was probably *the* most pungent Pork I've had in a dish in the past year or so. It wasn't bad per se, just *strong* in its aroma.

After getting used to the pungent Pork Cheeks, I was able to appreciate the other ingredients a bit more: The fresh Ricotta was beautifully mild and creamy, and the Scallions and Fennel Pollen added some herbal notes, but all of these ingredients weren't enough to balance out the Pork Cheeks. It was also extremely oily (probably due to the fat from the Pork Cheeks :), and my guest couldn't finish this dish without taking some napkins and dabbing / absorbing some of the oil to make it more palatable. The oil didn't bug me as much, but it was definitely more than I expected in this type of Pizza.

We decided to also try one of their Antipasti at this point: Conserva di Pollo (Olive Oil-Preserved Chicken, Chopped Vegetables, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Balsamic Dressing).

The Chicken preserved in Olive Oil resulted in an extremely soft and tender, fall-apart texture, similar to Tuna in many ways. It had a very clean taste, with a nice textural contrast and crunch from the Yellow Bell Peppers, Onions, and Zucchini. The bit of fresh Mint and fresh-shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese added the final touches to a refreshing appetizer.

On my second visit, we arrived earlier in the day and were seated promptly, with most of the staff looking eager to please and still in soft opening mode.

We began with their Tricolore Salad (Radicchio, Arugula, Endive, Apples, Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts).

This turned out to be an excellent salad! (^_^) Normally, Radicchio, Arugula and Endive together as the main base of a salad may prove too spicy, bitter and/or overpowering, but when mixed with Chef Samson's house-made Balsamic Vinaigrette, with chunks of a good Gorgonzola and really fresh, nutty Candied Walnuts, the result is a softened, but vibrant Salad that's delicious and fulfilling.

Our first Pizza arrived soon after: Margherita Pizza (Tomato, Mozzarella, Basil).

This was, unfortunately, as simple as it sounded, perhaps even less so. When our server set down the Pizza we noticed the top layer moved(!): It was still liquidy, a touch undercooked, but the outside crust was blistered and slightly burnt already.

Digging into it, this second visit's Pizza turned out to be slightly crispier than my first visit, so it seems the kitchen is still experimenting with the Pizza. Beyond that, though, was a really basic, bland Pizza. I normally enjoy lighter dishes and less salt as opposed to more salt, but this Margherita Pizza tasted of mainly a flat Mozzarella Cheese and Tomato Sauce. The Basil was non-existent and lost in most bites. The Mozzarella wasn't "bad" or anything, but it lacked the brightness and punch one might expect at a high-quality restaurant.

Our next pizza arrived: Prosciutto di Parma e Rucola Pizza (Margherita with Prosciutto di Parma, Wild Arugula).

Like the previous Margherita, it seemed that this day's Pizzas were on the slightly runny / liquid side (just a touch), but besides that, this Pizza was very good. Unlike the House-Cured Pork Cheeks on the previous visit, the Prosciutto di Parma was a great topping that had a nice Pork pungency without dominating the other ingredients. It was also much less oily than the House-Cured Pork Cheeks.

The Wild Arugula added a nice natural spiciness and peppery note, and helped transform this into something more than one-dimensional. Overall, this was our favorite of the Pizzas we tried.

Pizzeria Ortica also offers a Salame Piccante e Funghi Pizza (Margherita with Spicy Salami, Mixed Mushrooms), and a more intriguing Salsiccia e Finnocchio (House-made Sausage, Caramelized Fennel, Mascarpone, Red Onion, Buffalo Grana).

The Tortelli di Pere e Pecorino al Burro e Salvia (Pear and Pecorino Tortelli, Brown Butter, Sage) arrived next. All of their Pastas are made fresh, in-house, for their three current Pasta offerings, and as expected, the results are fantastic.

The fresh pasta immediately instills a delicate quality, with each bite of the Tortelli being pliant yet with a nice firmness. The filling of Pear and Pecorino is just wonderful: Faint, fleeting notes of Pear fruit blend in with the mild Pecorino filling. The Brown Butter and Sage sauce is a classic pairing and perfectly complements the filling. This was my favorite dish of our two visits. :)

At this point, we decided to try one of their Dolci from Sona Pastry Chef Ramon Perez, who's moved over to Pizzeria Ortica to oversee all the Dessert offerings and train the staff. The Baba Al Rhum (Rum-Soaked Brioche, Huckleberry and Pistachio Gelato) arrived about 15 - 20 minutes after we ordered it. It was a bit long to wait, but with them being open for only 4 days at this point, it's understandable.

The Rum-Soaked Brioche was well executed: A just-saturated piece of Brioche, moist without being soggy, and sweet without being saccharin. The Rum was non-existent, but that might've been a good thing. :)

The Huckleberries and Huckleberry Sauce were nicely prepared as well, having just a bit of the tart to counterbalance the sweetness throughout. The house-made Pistachio Gelato was really nice, with good chunks of Pistachios throughout each bite, and a mild flavor otherwise.

It's clear that Pizzeria Ortica is still in its soft opening phase, with most of the staff being slightly on edge - a touch overeager at times, and lots of directing and redirecting of dishes to the right tables by the GM and Chef-Owner David Myers as well. But David Myers seems serious about this project, bringing in a Sous Chef from Comme Ca, the aforementioned Pastry Chef from Sona and other help, in addition to Executive Chef-Partner Stephan Samson. On our first visit, our server was excellent, being generally attentive and rather energetic. On our second visit, another server seemed overwhelmed and was non-existent for most of our meal. We had to flag down busboys or other servers to get our server's attention.

Menu items range from $5 - $17, with 7 Pizza offerings ranging from $9 - $17. We averaged about ~$24 per person (including tax and tip).

Despite being open for only 4 days, Pizzeria Ortica shows good potential, with some decent Round Baked Bread with Toppings (Pizzas) :), an excellent house-made Tortelli and a nice selection of Desserts. While they are still going through growing pains with their inconsistent Pizzas and spotty service, there's a lot to be excited about for local food-lovers. It's not a destination restaurant, and probably not worth a drive from Los Angeles, but it's a decent alternative if you're tired of Marche Moderne and happen to be visiting South Coast Plaza or in the general area. In these economic times, it might be a good thing that Chef David Myers is trying to open up a new, informal Italian restaurant, instead of trying to open up another Sona. If they can focus and hone their rustic Pizzas and offer more quality Pasta dishes like their house-made Pear and Pecorino Tortelli, then Pizzeria Ortica will be well on its way to becoming a Chow-worthy destination.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

*** Update: They are now open for Dinner, reviewed here. ***

Pizzeria Ortica
650 Anton Boulevard
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: (714) 445-4900

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Diana said...

I've been dying to read a review of this place! Sounds like they are still working out some kinks, but will definitely keep my eye on it for a future trek down to the OC. Great write-up!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Diana,

Thanks. Like you, I'm pulling for the restaurant to improve and eventually become a great addition to the local community. :)

Kat said...

Great job in finding this place! You know where all the new places are don't you. I will have to try it out, but I think I will wait until they've worked out some of the kinks. Cool find! Thanks for the tip!

Have a great weekend! ^_-

ila said...

oooo they're open already?! i was imagining it to be something a little less grand than sona, but i guess i was wrong.
maybe i'll go some time soon since it's so close to my home!

Tangbro1 said...

Great review, it does indeed sound like the kitchen needs some time to work everything out. Still being all about instant gratification I'll be convincing Kevin we should head down there for lunch Monday.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kat,

Thanks. (^_^) Let me know if you end up going; I hope they improve by the time you go. Take care~

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Yah, they just opened up this week. I look forward to your thoughts on the place if you end up going. (^_~) Let me know if you go.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Tangbro1,

Please let me know if you end up going. I look forward to your report (and Kevin's) if you end up going. :) Hopefully they're improving on a daily basis.

Noah said...

Hey, EK. Thanks for playing guinea pig on this one. I'm eager to check it months.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

No problem. :) While it didn't meet expectations, it showed potential, and like you said, I'd be more than happy to try it again in a few months to see if things improve.

rick said...

thanks for the tip, i checked out ortica today with a friend :)


Exile Kiss said...

Hi rick,

Thanks. Nice pics! :) Did you enjoy the visit? I'm hoping their pizzas are getting better than their first week in operation.

rick said...

unfortunately it still needs work, though i agree with you it has potential. the milanese was decent, though the prosciutto di parma e rucola was really soggy. the crust on both was too tough. time will tell if they can get their act together. i know mozza took a while before they hit their stride.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi rick,

Bummer; sounds like you had the same result that I did with that pizza. Hopefully they take the time to improve sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

the thing is - their pizzas are spot on perfect. They are of Neopoliatin style, and if you've had a pizza in Naples (where both the Chef & other staff have studied it as well), the pizzas are perfectly traditional. I've dined there about 4 times now - and though they do have some slight changes/improvements each time I go - I haven't had a single disappointing meal. OC needs this place! It's great!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for your feedback. I haven't had pizza in Naples yet, but hopefully soon. :) I can't dispute your claim, but from a point-of-view of just pure *taste*, they were problematic as noted above. That's something I try to write about. One pizza was just completely bland and the crust lacked the fragrant, beautiful aroma you hope from a good crust / baked bread.

There were certainly some good items there and I hope things improve over the coming weeks.

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