Go out for hip Italian in OC, and chances are you'll eat Naples-style pizza: thin crust, circular, the edges blistered in a super-hot oven. Roman-style pie, on the other hand, is rarer around these parts. And the difference between the styles is night and day.
First, there's the shape: Roman-style pizzas are square, not round. And they're not served hot out of the oven, but rather cut from a whole pie usually displayed out front. But the real disparity begins with how the crust is made. The dough in a Roman-style pie is allowed to rise slower and longer, often for 90 hours. And when it's baked in its oversized sheet pan, it's at a lower heat, around 500 degrees to 600 degrees, rather than the blast-furnace temperatures associated with the Naples style. The result is a thicker, yeastier, more bread-like product. Somewhere between pan pizza and New York-style lies its constitution—not too thick, not too thin.
That was the way Chad Urata described his pizza when I first visited Centro Collective in Lake Forest. And when I pointed at a pizza I wanted to try, Urata slid a spatula underneath the pie, using it as a template as he cut out a square piece with scissors. Urata then disappeared to the kitchen not only to reheat my chosen slices in an oven, but also to fry an egg that would top one of them.
As I ate, I realized that for the $10 I paid (which included a fountain drink and four squares of pizza), this meal was heartier and more filling than any Naples-style pie I could get in OC, and I was able to try four different pizzas at once—something I can't do at, say, Pizzeria Mozza.
Urata's wild mushroom pizza possessed the concentrated umami of the sautéed mushrooms. His fruity grilled-pineapple pizza with spicy coppa ham and jalapeños bordered on classic Hawaiian. And then there was Urata's creative departures. The Gilmore elevated the always-great combination of asparagus, fried egg and cheese. And the Frenchie—a Swiss-mozzarella-and-caramelized onion pizza—came with a side of French-onion-soup broth for dipping. It was well-executed and fun to eat. But I expected nothing less of Urata, who previously worked at Cucina Enoteca and is one-half of the duo behind Centro Collective. The other is Brent Omeste.
Urata met Omeste in Orange Coast College's culinary-arts program. From there, they began their careers at Orange County's finest restaurants, including a stint at Charlie Palmer for Omeste. Last year, when Omeste bought this pizza place in Lake Forest and realized it was actually two restaurants, he called Urata. The idea of a taquería connected to a pizzeria snowballed from there.
Omeste is as good a taquero as Urata is a pizzaiolo. In addition to the pizzas, Urata is now starting to offer homemade pastas such as cavatelli with pork ragu. And Omeste offers six kinds of tacos on his side of the restaurant. He fries a beer-battered fish taco so delicate, it's almost tempura. And his chicken tacos are so full of crispy wisps of meat, you forget the protein's not actually carnitas. And for a vegetarian taco that even a carnivore would love, a crisped-up disc made of fried cheese holds squash blossoms, mushrooms and zucchini.
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His greatest taco is one that features pork belly slow-cooked with al pastor flavors. The belly is so well-made it could pass for a $15 appetizer at a fancier restaurant. If you're lucky, you might also see the pork belly used as the meat for taquitos, pairing the deep-fried crunchy shell with a filling that (finally) doesn't feel like sawdust.
The coolest things about Centro Collective are that it hits the sweet spot between trendy food halls and the workaday food courts and it's the first time the term "chef-driven restaurant" actually means something. It's Urata who takes your payment, and it's Omeste who makes your tacos and offers refills on the chips for your guacamole—the creamiest thing ever made from an avocado that wasn't a Vietnamese smoothie. Centro Collective's website has a "Meet the Chefs" section that offers their bios. But when you go to the restaurant, it's almost a guarantee. Say hi!
Centro Collective, 24531 Trabuco Rd., Stes. E & F, Lake Forest, (949) 305-5224; www.centrocollective.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Meal for two, $10-$20.