Pizzeria Ortica allows—invites, even—interested parties into the kitchen

So, it wasn’t perfect. The wood-fired oven isn’t installed in my own garden, and I couldn’t do more than taste the delicious Sicilian wines due to, you know, having no designated driver, but it was still darn fun, getting a preview of the cooking classes chef Justin Miller is offering at Costa Mesa’s Pizzeria Ortica.

I got to run the Italian electric cheese grater, the ONLY way to get the familiar snowy-light texture that eludes every other grating method including Microplane, and to stretch pizza dough based on a real Neapolitan biga, starter, used for all the pizzas served in the restaurant. I learned some excellent pizza-shaping pointers that I’ll be happy to apply next time I make pies at home. I topped my pizza with a little San Marzano tomato sauce, cooked rapini and chiles, fresh mozz, finished after baking with an umami-rich breath of grated bottarga (a topping combination called “Calabrese” on the restaurant menu).

Before the bottarga, however, there was that oven, with its hypnotic almond-wood fire and irresistible long-handled peel. For once, I got enough char on my pizza! Miller has tricks up his sleeve for enhancing or emphasizing the vital aspects of this thin, quickly-cooked pie. Pulling one out for a look, deciding that the mozz wasn’t quite there yet, Miller lifted the pizza on its peel up near the top of the domed oven chamber where convection heat is highest, bringing the cheese to proper activation in nanoseconds. Neapolitan pizza has but a handful of ingredients and is baked only a short time. It’s you and the dough and the 900-degree oven, and it’s exciting to be the one manning the peel.

Prior to pizza, we made yolk-rich pasta dough and used the restaurant’s big pasta machine, a larger, motorized version of the familiar home-use Imperia, to roll out long, thin sheets destined to become tortelli, a ravioli-like filled pasta. Another great chef hint emerged when we were piping filling onto the pasta sheet. Miller doesn’t push from the wide top of the piping bag, but further down near the point, a method that gives great control over both placement and amount. I foresee faster, easier filled pasta production in my kitchen. We made Pizzeria Ortica’s signature Pear and Pecorino Tortelli with brown butter-sage sauce… can’t you just taste on your mental palate, if you haven’t yet at the restaurant (I hadn’t), how good a combination this is? And, with a little guidance from a professional, within the reach of any motivated home cook.

The pizza, unless you are blessed with a wood-burning oven in your garden, is a bit removed from most home kitchen capabilities. But it’s still worth making—good ingredients can be closely duplicated, your oven preheated to high temps previously unseen, range vent hood set to Stun—won’t be exactly the same, but it can still be very, very good.

Look for the pear tortelli recipe coming up in ToOC. Information about future Pizzeria Ortica cooking classes can be found here.

Pizzeria Ortica, 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, 714-445-4900.

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