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This place is the best thing to happen at 650 Anton Blvd. in years.
Despite its desirable proximity to the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Plaza, the oddball Costa Mesa storefront has a rich, sordid history of snuffing out restaurants. When hottie celeb chef David Myers expanded his L.A. empire by installing Pizzeria Ortica in the luckless site early last year, I wasn’t alone in crossing my fingers. The affordable, discerning Italian fare that followed proved some dreams do come true.
But then inaugural chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack abruptly resigned in March, mere days after being anointed “rising stars” by industry magazine StarChefs, as well as making Orange Coast’s best restaurants issue. The “now what?” buzz was drowned out by a spate of local restaurant openings before Myers tapped Justin Miller for the chef de cuisine slot in late April.
Not easily distracted, we revisit the mercurial pizza salon for a taste of what’s up with the new crew. First, the good news: Pizzeria Ortica’s kitchen is turning out fare that easily clears the previous team’s high bar. What’s disturbing and haunting is the absence of diners.
Early one evening, we’re the only customers. There’s no one to greet us, so we settle at the bar and chat with the bartender as she sets up her station and submits our pizza order. She mixes a fine Manhattan, confiding she must use bourbon since the bar is out of the rye billed on the menu.
Almost crisp at the edges, the broccolini pizza’s center turns soggy fast, so we tear away the chewy, smoky rim to eat in concert with goodies plucked off the middle. Pizza problems are forgotten once the tortelli arrives. The fresh pasta pouches are stuffed with pear and pecorino, then sauced with brown butter and sage leaves. Sweetly savory as ever, it’s no wonder this delicate dish is a menu mainstay. Jidori chicken griddled under a brick is better than I remember, the crispy skin yielding to juicy dark and white meat that marry wonderfully with a relish of meaty peppers and onions stewed in olive oil.
I say a little prayer when ordering desserts—the opulent chocolate caramel budino and the heady rum cake—hoping they haven’t lost any luster in the transition. No worries. Pastry chef Ramon Perez still excels with these signature sweets that, when paired, make a compellingly extravagant treat. What’s troubling is that only one more table is filled before our check is paid.
On another night, at a later hour, the house is busier but only half full. We try rustic dishes such as bruschetta with crumbled lamb sausage, and braised white beans flecked with green chilies. A salad of greens and vegetables, plus provolone and salami, isn’t as weighty as it sounds; it’s quite graceful and light thanks to careful proportions and an understated vinaigrette that lets every forkful sing. Tender ravioli filled with creamy hand-made burrata from El Monte’s Gioia Cheese comes splashed with a loose tomato sauce that’s a garden-fresh ode to Italy’s favorite fruit. The farmer also is the star of Cavolini di Bruxelles, a squat crock of Brussels sprouts, turned slightly sweet with roasting and elevated to irresistible with hazelnuts and bright lemon zest.
Seasonal produce is showcased on a weekly farm-to-table small menu of dishes prepared with ingredients gathered by Miller and George Horvath during their expeditions to Rancho Santa Fe’s vaunted Chino Farm. One summer week, the choices include Puglia-style bread salad with baby tomatoes and pea shoots, and pizza with pancetta, romanesco
broccoli, lemon béchamel, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and basil.
Service is efficient, and noticeably improved from past meals, even though the house looks sparely staffed. And though the front door is host-free on visits, I don’t miss the addled and/or arrogant attitude staffers often brought to the party. Sure, the oddly configured venue remains quirky and aloof, but as before, mindful and adept cooking trumps the setting.
It’s nice to see the musty website finally mentions Miller, though it still touts Samson and Pollack on key pages months after their departure. New enticements such as a beefed-up happy hour and family-style meal deals are gestures that can only boost the odds in favor of this little pizzeria that could. Here’s hoping Miller and crew triumph over distracted stewardship and a hapless location.
Bruschetta with lamb sausage, chopped salad, pear and pecorino tortelli, roasted Brussels sprouts, chicken under a brick, budino, rum cake, affogato.
Happy Hour x 2
From 3 to 6 p.m., and again from 8 until closing. Reduced prices on booze, snacks, and even a few pizzas.
Ask about a family-style meal that feeds three or four for $50. Choose a salad, pastas, and pizza from a special selection. Select bottles of wine are priced to accompany at $20.
Since the farm-to-table menu isn’t posted on the website, call ahead to see what’s cooking this week.
650 Anton Blvd.
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi