Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Open for Dinner - Mr. Sona and Comme Ca's New Dinner Menu at Pizzeria Ortica

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

Three weeks ago, Chef-Owner David Myers (of Sona and Comme Ca fame) quietly opened up Pizzeria Ortica, serving a Lunch-Only menu during its soft opening phase. During this time, their Pizzas showed all the signs of a work-in-progress, with inconsistent results between visits, but it was understandable for a restaurant in its first week of operation. After a few weeks, Pizzeria Ortica is now open for dinner, which felt like a good opportunity to try their new Dinner menu and see how their Pizzas have progressed.

While I was just here a few weeks earlier during the day, at night, Pizzeria Ortica takes on a more sophisticated feeling with its lighting scheme, both for its exterior and interior.

It was relatively quiet and relaxing on our first visit, with about 50% of the tables filled. They were in their soft-opening phase for dinner, so it wasn't surprising. We were quickly seated and perusing the menu, noticed the updated Antipasti and Primi selections, as well as the new Secondi and Contorni sections.

While Chef-Owner David Myers is helping out from time-to-time, Pizzeria Ortica's Executive Chef is Stephan "Steve" Samson (of Valentino Santa Monica and Valentino Las Vegas fame). Dinner began with an amuse-bouche (a nice touch): Crostini with Braised Spinach and Ricotta Salata. The Braised Spinach had a good pepperiness, was a little too salty, but the nice Ricotta Salata brought it back into focus with a mild, creamy flavor.

One pizza that I wasn't able to try during the initial few visits was their Salsiccia e Finnocchio Pizza (House-made Sausage, Caramelized Fennel, Mascarpone, Red Onion, Pecorino). According to their menu, Pizzeria Ortica uses a 300 year-old Biga (pre-ferment) from outside Naples to start their dough, before cooking in their oak-burning oven.

Like previous discussions on Pizza, I want to preface this by saying that everyone's notion of what "Pizza" should be might lead to disappointment here, since there are so many regional variations and specialties and new incarnations of the Round Baked Bread with Toppings. I've enjoyed most types of "Pizza" from the hole-in-the-wall in New York years ago, to Chicago's offerings, to So Cal's various incarnations, so I went in expecting nothing and hoping for the best. :)

Ostensibly, the Salsiccia e Finnocchio Pizza looked much more stabilized and "complete" than during their opening week: The toppings weren't undercooked or runny, but instead everything seemed to be properly cooked and baked in. And taking a bite revealed a very good crust: A nice thin crust and crispiness (not overly so) and good crunch, much improved from the slightly chewy crust during their opening week.

The House-made Sausage tasted rather straightforward: It lacked the depth of flavor I was hoping a good House-made Sausage could have, and was instead a basic, salty ground pork. The Caramelized Fennel was a bit too faint, with most bites of the Pizza being dominated by the Sausage and Pecorino and Mascarpone cheeses (which is fine for a "Sausage Pizza," but slightly disappointing when Caramelized Fennel is listed as a key component). And inevitably when the words "Fennel" "Sausage" and "Pizza" are mentioned here in So Cal, comparisons to Nancy Silverton's Pizzeria Mozza's famous version are inevitable. They are different preparations, but if I had to choose one, it would be Mozza's version easily, with its enticing aroma of fresh Fennel working beautifully with the rest of the ingredients.

Their Spalla di Maiale al Latte (Milk-braised Pork Shoulder, Caramelized Radicchio) arrived next, and was something I was really looking forward to.

The Milk-braised Pork was fork tender, and had nice notes of Rosemary. It was topped with a portion of the milk that separates during the braising, mixed with bread crumbs and caramelized. Unfortunately, it was a little too salty for my tastes, but when combined with the Golden Raisins and Radicchio, it helped offset the saltiness and had a nice blend of savory and sweet.

After having the absolutely delicious Tortelli di Pere e Pecorino al Burro e Salvia (Pear and Pecorino Tortelli, Brown Butter and Sage) last time, I was really looking forward to the rest of their pasta dishes, which are all made fresh, in-house. This time, we tried the Pappardelle al Sugo D'agnello (Pappardelle Pasta, Braised Lamb Ragu, Sheep's Milk Ricotta).

The Pappardelle Pasta was cooked just right, with a good bite / chew, and delicious! :) There is really nothing like fresh-made Pasta, and it helped make this dish shine. The Lamb Ragu was a bit too salty here as well. The Sheep's Milk Ricotta was creamy and mild, and when combined with the fresh Pappardelle and a little bit of the salty Lamb Ragu, made for a great combination. If the Lamb was a bit less salty, this would be one of my favorites at Ortica.

Dinner ended with an order of their Honey Gelato made for Ortica by Boule in Los Angeles. The first couple bites of the Honey Gelato revealed a luscious fragrance, literally a honey perfume that entices and brings a smile to your face. But after a few spoonfuls, it became too cloying and sweet. It feels like this dessert would be best served with something more neutral to help offset the amount of sugar. It's a generous, huge coffee cup filled with Honey Gelato, but I could only finish 10% of it.

On another visit, the evening began with an amuse-bouche of White Bean Puree Crostini, topped with Frisee. The White Bean Puree was a great match with the Olive Oil and Frisee, and another nice starter.

On this evening, their daily special was Pulgiese Burrata, a special Burrata Cheese from Puglia, Italy. It was served simply dressed with a little Oregano, Sea Salt, and matched with an Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Bari, the capital city of Puglia, Italy.

Breaking into the Pulgiese Burrata resulted in a smooth, creamy center, delicious with the Bari Olive Oil, but the Burrata lacked the brightness of the Burrata Basilicata at the Mozzarella Bar at Osteria Mozza. It was still an excellent appetizer and something I'd order again. :)

Their Insalata alla Bagna Cauda (Romaine, Shaved Vegetables, Warm Anchovy Dressing, Parmigiano Crostini) was slightly disappointing: While you never want to see a salad overdressed and drowning, this Insalata was too underdressed, with the Warm Anchovy Dressing lacking the pungent brininess one would hope for, and instead tasted more like a basic vinaigrette at times. I enjoyed their excellent Tricolore Salad much more than the Insalata.

Their Risotto con Radicchio e Guanciale al Vino Rosso (Carnaroli Rice, Valpolicella-Braised Radicchio, Guanciale) arrived next.

The rather stark colors reflected just how refreshingly different this Risotto dish compared to many of the more common offerings: This was a celebration of subtlety with mellow bitter notes from the Radicchio braised in Valpolicella Red Wine, combined with the subtle hints of porkiness from the Guanciale. Just a note that if you don't like bitter foods, this dish might not be for you, but I found the slight bitter undertones a good contrast to the perfectly cooked Risotto and other ingredients. I only wish they had a bit more Guanciale in the dish.

But then came the highlight of the entire menu: Branzino alla Piastra con Pesto Trapanese (Crisp Mediterranean Seabass, Tomato and Almond Pesto).

This deboned Branzino was probably some of the best cooked fish I've had in the last half year. Before even taking a bite, this Mediterranean Seabass had a gorgeous golden exterior, and the fish itself surpassed the visuals: A perfect sear imparted the crispiness most restaurants could only hope for, giving way to moist, tender, delicate meat.

The Tomato Almond Pesto was the perfect complement as well, lifting up the Branzino, instead of fighting with it. The lightly dressed Baby Arugula was also a great counterpoint to the luscious fish. Delicious! (^_^)

The Patatine Montanare (Fried Kennebec Potatoes, Sage, Aged Balsamic) was an interesting side dish: Essentially fancy French Fries, they were cooked really well, with a good crispiness giving way to a soft, fluffy interior. The Sage was just fine, but the Aged Balsamic is what gives this dish the most interesting and challenging facet: There was a pungency to each piece of the potato that was a bit strong, but also enjoyable as well.

The Cavolo Nero con Guanciale (Tuscan Kale, House-Cured Pork Cheek) was a great example of perfectly cooked Kale - lightly sauteed so that it was tender, but still retained just a bit of the original firm texture - and the Guanciale had just the right amount of fat to balance the slight bitterness of the Tuscan Kale.

Their Pollo al Mattone (Jidori Chicken Griddled Under a Brick, Peperonata) didn't fare so well. There are a variety of styles of preparation for "Chicken Under A Brick," and I'm always looking forward to a great version of this dish, but Pizzeria Ortica's was a bit too straightforward and too salty.

Part of the reason could be the choice for the healthier and leaner Breast portion of the Chicken, but even then, it's impressive that Chef Samson was able to keep the Chicken moist. If only it wasn't overly salted and had a bit more complexity (and perhaps a Leg & Thigh option).

On the third visit, the kitchen's amuse-bouche was another new item (and probably the tastiest one to date): Baccala alla Vicentina (Italian Dried Cod, Polenta). The Baccala (from Vicenza) was only lightly salted with a beautiful brininess and softness, which tasted perfect with the Polenta, and another great start to the evening. :)

The Farro con Frutti di Mare (Farro, Mussels, Calamari, Shrimp) arrived soon after. This was a great appetizer, with the Calamari stealing the show with its soft, tender texture, wonderfully cooked. The Shrimp were good, but nothing outstanding, while the Mussels were excellent, with a light sweetness to each bite.

Their Carciofi alla Romana (Roman style Braised Artichokes, Shaved Ricotta Salata) was another outstanding dish. These were chilled, tender pieces of Artichokes that had been braised with Basil, Parsley, Anchovies and Olive Oil, and the result is an intense depth of flavor and complexity that's uncommon for Artichoke dishes I've tried recently. The Ricotta Salata was a great pairing as well. Excellent. :)

The Ravioli di Burrata al Pomodoro (Burrata Ravioli, Fresh Tomato and Basil) arrived soon after.

With the recent trend with fancier pastas, Ravioli is a classic Pasta that still remains a favorite of mine. :) Ortica's version was spot-on perfect: Fresh-made Ravioli had a great texture and silkiness to them, giving way to wonderful creamy centers of melted Burrata Cheese, and the fresh Tomato and Basil sauce made it a classic in every way. Delicious!

The Tagliatelle Bolognese (Hand-Cut Spinach Pasta, Traditional Meat Sauce, Parmigiano Reggiano) continues the trend of outstanding pastas with a slightly thick, flat, fresh Spinach Pasta given just the right amount of Bolognese Sauce. This is a very good interpretation of the classic dish, fragrant, meaty and pleasing.

The final dish of the evening was their Calabrese Pizza (San Marzano Tomatoes, Mozzarella, Rapini, Calabrian Chilies, Bottarga), it was then dressed with a little Red Pepper-infused Olive Oil.

Like the Salsiccia Pizza on the first dinner visit, it seems the kitchen is finding its groove for the crust and the pizzas in general. The crust for the Calabrese was good, again, with a nice crunch and crispiness. The San Marzano Tomatoes were delicious and always a welcome topping. The Bottarga (Cured Fish Roe) shaved on top of the Pizza felt like a misstep: The Calabrese tasted really salty and lightly spicy more than anything. I was hoping that there would be more of the fish / briny aromas coming through, instead of primarily sodium.

Service for the first two visits were excellent, with the waitress being attentive and spot-on. On the third visit, however, another waitress was non-existent. She took the order, and no one saw her again for 3/4 of the meal. I had to flag down a busboy to try and find her. For Dinner, their menu ranges from $7 - $11 for Appetizers, Salads range from $10 - $13, Pastas from $8 - $16, Pizzas from $10 - $18, Entrees from $17 - $26, and Sides from $6 - $7.

After being open nearly a month, Chef-Owner David Myers' foray into an Italian Pizzeria has begun to blossom. From Pizzeria Ortica's interesting and delicious selection of Antipasti (like their wonderful Carciofi alla Romana (Roman Style Braised Artichokes)), to their excellent, wide-range of freshly-made Pastas, and their outstanding Branzino alla Piastra (Crisp Mediterranean Seabass), the restaurant has finally become a great addition to the neighborhood. While their Pizza crusts have improved and are good foundations now, one hopes that their toppings and overall flavors can match their crusts in the near future. In the meantime, I'm more than happy to return for their other Pastas and the Branzino. :)

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

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

Note: Free 2 Hour Parking (w/ Validation) in the Parking Garage behind the restaurant.

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.


sha said...

Hi Exile Kiss, that Pulgiese Burrata really had me Drooling. does the 300-year old starter really make a difference?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi sha,

The Burrata was definitely nice; let me know if you end up trying it (or trying the Basilicata version at Osteria Mozza). :)

I'm not quite sure about the 300 year-old starter. The crust was definitely nice and crisp and had a good crunch, but in terms of aromatic fragrance, I enjoyed the crust at Pizzeria Mozza more, and something like Lou Malnati's in Chicago more (even though it's completely different). Ortica's was fine, but nothing mind-blowing.

ila said...

uwao! that burrata ravioli looks splendid.
it's great to hear input on well, most of their menu items for OC restaurant week. i was teetering between the milk braised shoulder and the brick chicken, but now i know what to get. arigato!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Thank you. :) Let me know if you end up going. Their Pastas and the Branzino were my favorites. :)

Anonymous said...

E-kiss, I really enjoy your reviews and find it outstanding that you visit a place multiple times before posting.

However, you do realize you may have killed a neapolitan-style pizzeria! Neapolitan style pizza is supposed to have a chewier crust and be slightly runny in the middle. Especially where the fresh mozzarella sits on the pie.

The fact that the pizza crust became more chewy and less runny with subsequent visits is a shame because now it's no different from P.Mozza.

Tell them to make that crust chewy again! ;)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for your candid and kind comments! It means a lot. (^_^)

I haven't been to Naples, Italy yet (hopefully soon! :), so I never spoke from a viewpoint of "authenticity" on how it compared to Naples Pizza, but purely on taste. Apologies if it came across in a different way (^_^;. For example, the Bottarga on their Calabrese Pizza was just underwhelming. It was primarily just too salty and lacked any discernible fish / ocean flavor (in a good way). Just salty.

I enjoyed some of the flavors, but from a taste point of view many were lacking, but that's only my opinion.

I definitely enjoy Pizzeria Ortica and it's a *good* addition to the South Coast Plaza area. :)

Dazy said...

We don't go dine-in there regularly since it is not close to our place. I make it a point to come every time I'm in the neighborhood. We get filled up and usually have leftovers to take home.

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