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Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa

THE REVIEW

Sona, Boule and Comme Ça's David Myers heads to Orange County to take on Italian cuisine. Pizza is only one of the reasons to check out the new restaurant.

April 15, 2009|S. IRENE VIRBILA | RESTAURANT CRITIC

Cutting-edge fine-dining restaurant with elaborate tasting menu, solemn servers and profound wine list? Done that. Elegant patisserie turning out pretty pastel macarons and gold leaf-adorned chocolates? Oui. Contemporary French bistro complete with cheese bar and handcrafted cocktails? Done that too.

So what else can Sona, Boule and possibly have in his sights? Italy.

Last month, the 35-year-old chef and Patina alum opened his take on Italian cuisine and la pizza with Pizzeria Ortica. But his first Italian address isn't anywhere near his usual stamping grounds on La Cienega Boulevard and Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Sona and Comme Ca are so close to each other, he can skateboard between them. And does.

No, Pizzeria Ortica is in Costa Mesa, practically next door to South Coast Plaza shopping center and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Obviously, Myers isn't skateboarding over to the O.C. He doesn't have to, because for this venture -- and for Ortica, the full-scale Italian restaurant planned for La Cienega Boulevard later this year -- he's teamed up with former Valentino chef Steve Samson. Half-Italian (his mother is from Bologna), Samson, who is a partner and the executive chef, is cooking Italian food that is more gutsy and accessible than you might remember when he was at the more formal Valentino.

In case you've jumped to the conclusion that Pizzeria Ortica may have been inspired by Pizzeria Mozza, I'd say you're probably right. What chef wouldn't want to emulate the success of the Silverton-Batali juggernaut? But Pizzeria Ortica is not a carbon copy. For one thing, the menu includes pasta, some of the best in Southern California, plus a fine antipasti and salad menu, and a handful of well-conceived main courses.

And if you're headed to an event at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, this is the place to stop either before or after for a quick bite or a full-on dinner.

The space is oddly configured, a long, narrow dining room and bar running along one side of a parking garage. And yet, coupled with the whitewashed high-vaulted ceilings, the effect is to evoke the covered arcades of Bologna's city center. There's an inviting bar at one end (though the lighting could be warmer) and, center stage, the wood-burning pizza oven and the chef. The wait staff is enthusiastic and informed about the food, and very personable, a far cry from the service at some of the bigger-name restaurants nearby.

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Antipasti starters

The best place to start is with some antipasti, maybe a beautiful plate of prosciutto di Parma with Kermit-the-Frog-green olives. Or the house-cured , thinly sliced dried beef served with a pert salad of wild arugula and shaved Parmigiano dressed with a squirt of lemon.

Tonno e fagioli is a classic antipasto most often made with the flavorful tuna put up in olive oil and canned in Genoa or Sicily. Samson does a version with his own velvety house-cured yellowtail and another with ventresca, tuna belly he poaches in olive oil. Both play the rich taste of the fish against slivered red onions and the earthy starch of borlotti (cranberry) beans. And if you love sardines, try the sardines en saor -- fried and then steeped in vinegar with raisins and pine nuts.

I could happily sit at the bar and just feast on a slew of these small (and they are sometimes quite small and overpriced) plates. Pizzeria Ortica has the best carciofi alla Romana (braised artichokes) around, served with fine shavings of ricotta salata. That and the charcoal-grilled lamb skewers on wilted dandelion greens with a sparkling mint pesto keep good company with a glass of Barbera or Montepulciano from the fine, mostly Italian list put together by Sona wine director Mark Mendoza.

Though Pizzeria Ortica has an authentic sense of place, the menu doesn't stick to one region. When you see one of these luscious Neapolitan-style pies sailing by, it's hard not to want one -- right away. Blistered at the edges, the yeasty flavor of the crust shows that Samson and pizza chef Zach Pollack are very serious about pizza.

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Pizza, pasta, si!

You can, of course, get a fine pizza Margherita, or one with spicy salame or Parma ham and arugula added. More unusual is the pie topped with house-cured guanciale (pork jowl), ricotta, scallions and a dusting of fennel pollen. Another of my favorites is the one embellished with mascarpone, fennel, house-made pork sausage and a grating of cheese made from buffalo milk. My one quibble is that the pizzas aren't consistent enough yet.

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