It's been three years since I reviewed Pizzeria Ortica
; two years since Chef Steve Samson left to start Sotto in LA. In that time a little place called Mozza
opened in Newport Beach; Ecco
debuted not far off at The Camp; and the irrepressible Il Dolce
quietly did its thing near Triangle Square. Though it could be argued that the breed of everything-old-country-is-new-again pizzeria that Ortica belonged started with Pizza e Vino in RSM when it opened in 2008, it was Pizzeria Ortica that I reviewed first. So it was time to reassess the place.
Ortica is still run like mission control, with two servers checking in at what seemed precise and predictable intervals making sure everything arrived on time, glasses weren't wanting of water, and that we had all that we needed. But I found myself comparing what I had on this revisit not just to what I remember having at Ortica in 2009, but also what I tasted at its competitors since then.
I ordered the same pizza I had on that first visit: the Milanesa, a pristine white pie with luscious fontina, roasted asparagus spears, Parmigiano Reggiano, and a sunny-side-up egg laid down right in the middle. The toppings were just as I remembered. The egg yolk was just runny enough so that when pierced it dribbles all over the pie like sauce. The cheeses fused itself homogeneously around the asparagus so well that the spears were now a permanent part of the pie, embedded like recently unearthed fossils.
But then there was the crust. The outer edge wasn't as bulbous and puffy as I recall. Not only did it seem as if it was deflated by a few millimeters, it had more chew than crisp, an indicator, perhaps, that it was just a touch underbaked. While I remember Mozza's and Ortica's pie circa 2009 tore with the ease of tissue, this dough put up some resistance.
There was a tricolore salad with walnuts, apples, arugula, endive, radicchio and a pasty/stinky/wonderful gorgonzola. Ortica's wasn't a bad salad by any means. Actually, it was great; but but somehow it didn't match the level of Mozza's tricolore that I tried a few years after, which was simpler, more humbly composed with fewer ingredients, but also, more flavorful.
Even subsequent trips to the trio of Cucina Alessas made the one item that I remember fondly from my first Ortica trip seem less special. The pear and pecorino tortelli with brown butter and sage is almost the same dish as the "Zucca" from the Alessas, which are butternut squash stuffed raviolis finished with brown butter and fried sage. While Ortica's were fine and well-done, it didn't seem to pop, not as sweet, not as salty, not as memorable as Alessa's pasta purses.