Compared to its proudly indie neighbors, Ecco is downright mainstream. The new Costa Mesa trattoria offers nothing overtly novel—no outré recipes, no quirky settings, no progressive credos, just straightforward Italian fare made with local, organic goods, and a special devotion to Neapolitan pizza.
Open since last August, Ecco is the creation of the Beau Monde Group, a cabal of local investors. But chef Kris Kirk and general manager Danny Reyes are more familiar to O.C. diners, Reyes coming off a long stint at Hush, and Kirk from the kitchen of Sage on the Coast. Neighborly Ecco is far more come-as-you-are than those two now-closed spots, and it’s a treat to find top players plying their trade in such a folksy venue.
Hiding in the darkest, most southern crook of The Camp, Ecco is in the former home of The Lodge, and Aire Global, stylish but short-lived bistros. Mirrors and 3-D art help soften the boxy space that was stripped down to just this side of industrial. Cement floors, bare wood tables, and cushion-free seating create a casual vibe; soaring glass windows pull in precious little sunlight and amplify sound to a ghastly pitch when the joint is jumping.
The smattering of diners at lunch ensures that noise and eavesdropping aren’t issues, making this a sleeper choice for understated business meals. Sandwiches include a top-notch meatball sauced with luscious marinara and served under a blanket of melted provolone in a freshly baked roll. They’re not on the dinner menu, but those fine meatballs do appear with bucatini on Monday night’s special. Pizza with a swab of fragrant pesto, nubs of goat cheese, and thin slices of carefully distributed eggplant and asparagus is a lovely, light repast starring a stellar crisp-chewy crust with a puffy, charred perimeter. True to Neapolitan style, the pizza’s center is floppy, but not soggy.
Salads and starters cover familiar ground, so execution separates the memorable from the unremarkable. Chopped salad with chickpeas, red onion, olives, and peperoncinis is uniformly diced and shot through with matchsticks of dry salami, but the vinaigrette lacks punch. Bruschetta two ways is halfway ho-hum; the toasted bread with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and burrata far outshines the crostini topped with mild ricotta and meek peperonata. The surprising champ in the salad lineup is the local organic baby greens, tossed with crunchy shaved fennel, toasted almonds, and halves of grapes, lusciously laced together with a rustic red-wine dressing.
About a dozen wood-fired pizzas are the menu centerpieces, all upgradeable, with prosciutto de Parma, pancetta, arugula, or an organic egg for an extra $3 each. Two winning pie choices rely on forceful flavors: The Diavola isn’t shy on peppers and chili oil for a spiky heat that rocks juicy San Marzano tomatoes, and the sausage pizza impresses with gutsy fennel-rich pork sausage against creamy mozzarella, caramelized onions, and dried oregano, also nicely supported by the crushed, sweet tomatoes. The pies exhibit plenty of precision by pizzaiolo Carlos Albarca, who closely adheres to the venerated Neapolitan methods. One seasonal pizza is always offered and often includes fruit. In April, it was ambrosial red pears paired with mascarpone, gorgonzola, and guanciale. By now you can look for players such as ripe figs or fresh mozzarella and basil pesto.
When pizza isn’t enough, Kirk supplies worthy pastas and grilled dishes. Breast of chicken in a restrained marsala sauce lets the plump white meat shine, and roasted fingerling potatoes are a sweetly earthy side starch. Sliced hanger steak is a standout, loaded with deep flavor, fired to a perfect medium-rare, and exceptionally tender—but dip lightly into that black-olive drizzle that masks the beef’s rich character. Fine, garlic-tinged risotto with salty Grana Padano cheese finds the intersection of creamy and grainy, with bits of seasonal vegetables adding freshness. Pappardelle with Bolognese is atypically weightless, its delicate ribbons of pasta sparingly dressed with a refined meat sauce. Grated pecorino romano adds a welcome sharp note. Bucatini puttanesca is properly chewy and bold, bursting with brash, tangy tastes of capers, olives, anchovies, and aged cheese.
Ecco’s weakest link is desserts. Butterscotch budino is commendable, but not always. Clearly lacking salt on one try, the accompanying pine nut cookies are flavorless and floury another time. Zeppole—little fried doughnuts crusted with cinnamon sugar—look enticing, but deliver a bland, pasty interior that the side pot of listless chocolate sauce can’t rescue. Pass on the utilitarian cheesecake and order the cheese plate, an Italian trio of gorgonzola dolce, pecorino, and taleggio. Who cares if it’s listed as a starter?
For the most part, the sociable, accommodating service easily trumps the iffy desserts. And there are some inviting deals if you time your visit right. Happy hour ramps up as the week advances. Nightly bar discounts include $5-to-$8 appetizers, and $6 well martinis. Fans include office escapees, SoBeCa habitués, and pal posses on the first leg of their night out. Value-heavy dining room specials rotate throughout the week as well. Tuesday’s two-for-one pizzas is a sweet sale. And the nightly family-style upsize for pastas for an extra $18, and salads for an extra $10—both feed three or four—is a deal as well.
Solid, simple Italian cooking and a room free of hipster elements make Ecco a low-key island of respite in The Camp’s ever-churning sea of subculture retailing. Here’s hoping it’s in for the long run.
Gretchen Kurz has written about food and dining for Orange Coast since 2004. She also is the local editor of Orange County’s Zagat Survey.
Meatball sandwich, pizzas, baby greens salad, pappardelle Bolognese, bucatini puttanesca, chicken Marsala, vegetable risotto, hanger steak, cheese plate.
Lunch, $7 to $16; dinner, $7 to $24.
Banquettes on half wall; the small patio in nice weather.
For surprise offerings and discounts, join the mobile notification list via Ecco’s Facebook page.
2937 Bristol St.
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.