The Upper Crust
We got David Myers’ newest creation, Pizzeria Ortica, first. So, suck it, LA!
I don’t often lament OC’s lack of cutting-edge culinary phenomena. There’s plenty of great grub here to keep my fingers typing and my mouth full. That said, it does seem like LA has been having all the fun lately. First, there’s Kogi, the “Twittering” Korean taco truck that roams the nighttime streets, rallying the masses and the media like the Pied Piper. Then, late last year, José Andrés, the Spanish molecular gastronomist, opened the Bazaar—a place that pairs foie gras with cotton candy in the style of Ferran Adria.
But thanks to David Myers, the superstar chef/owner of LA’s Sona and comme Ça, we’ve got our ace. In Pizzeria Ortica, Myers has chosen OC as a proving ground for the restaurant before he opens a second location of it in LA. Though I’ve never been to Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali’s Mozza (another LA success story), Pizzeria Ortica is cut from the same cloth: modern, artisanal pizzas blasted in a wood-burning oven that reaches 900 degrees, resulting in a blistered crust that will make you feel like you’re tasting pizza for the first time.
The oven is the first thing you encounter. It faces the door, the centerpiece in a long alley of a room that’s decked out with tile from floor to ceiling. The space echoes like the hallway of a Roman bathhouse, naked and stripped of pretense, with bare tables and barely a picture frame on the walls.
Pizza is, of course, the main draw, but it doesn’t start or end there. Myers’ partner, chef Stephan Samson, boasts a full array of Italian dishes from antipasti (appetizers) to dolci (sweets). You are encouraged to begin with a few of the former, small bites brought out fast and served cold. The grilled kabocha squash are cut into boomerangs, slightly shriveled and glazed with a dark sheen of caramel and the vinegary bite of a pickle. Planks of naturally oily, fried sardine filets are stacked like pancakes, garnished with ribbons of marinated onions, raisins and pine nuts. Bresaola nostrana, house-cured beef, is shaved as thin as prosciutto and tastes just like it, lavished with wispy curls of Parmigiano, arugula, lemon and olive oil. Meatballs, octopus and even a preserved yellowfin tuna—the appetizer list is too vast to tackle in one visit.
There are fewer pasta offerings, ranging from the bizarre (stinging-nettle-and-ricotta ravioli) to the comforting (dumplings in chicken broth). Most irresistible is the pear-and-pecorino tortelli, pasta discs bulging with a belly of fruity/salty paste that oozes out when you bite. At the prospect of finding what amounts to jam in a savory dish, you’ll giggle, you’ll laugh—but mostly, you’ll wonder why no one else has done it yet.
Once you’ve been titillated with the culinary foreplay of the pasta, the pizza awaits. It’s a hand-stretched masterpiece worthy of Michelangelo, born from a 300-year-old starter dough and baked in that oak-fueled oven. You first notice its tactile presence, how light it feels in your hand and how extraordinarily rigid it is—almost impermeable, like sourdough’s shell. When you chomp down, it springs back at you with a crackle. Finally there’s the flavor: perfectly salty and slightly tart.
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When you’ve got the crust down pat, you can usually do without the red sauce. The Milanesa pizza is topped with fontina, Parmigiano Reggiano, asparagus and a single fried egg, laid right in the middle of the pie after it’s cut into quarters. Splitting up the egg is a task left to you and your friends. When you do, the yolk explodes to become the only sauce you’ll need.
Another pizza features their house-made sausage, which pops with sweet fat and a spiciness that smacks of black pepper. Mascarpone, that creamy cheese usually used for tiramisu, makes for a slice as rich as sin. But it could’ve done without the fennel, which becomes a flavorless distraction with no purpose or reason for being there.
After you’ve basked in the afterglow of the pizzas, there’s still the section of proteins. The milk-braised pork shoulder is best, served in compact cylindrical hockey pucks that surrender their tenderness at the touch of your fork tines. Surrounding it is caramelized radicchio. Together, it is a delicious dish—a confluence of the bitter with the porky sweet. More important, we get to eat it before LA does.
Pizzeria Ortica at 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 445-4900; www.pizzeriaortica.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 5-11 p.m. Pizzas, $10-$18; entrées, $17-$42. Wine and beer.