Cities have their respective strengths and weaknesses. Los Angeles may be the nation’s best when it comes to affordable ethnic restaurants. We certainly have our share of Italian food, but for many reasons, nobody has been able to produce an elite pizza. Earlier this year, Steve Samson gave me hope, opening Pizzeria Ortica with David Myers (Sona, Comme Ca) at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. He worked at Valentino for years and clearly had a handle on Italian cooking, but pizza seems to be another animal entirely. Still, Ortica was promising, so when I was invited to eat there, I gladly jumped at the chance to make the two-hour drive, which turned out to be a small price to pay for high quality pizza…and pasta…and antipasti.
Samson prepared an antipasti sampler platter featuring small servings of four different starters. Polipo e patate (normally $8) was especially good, featuring supple tentacles of charred Mediterranean octopus, Yukon Gold potatoes, Sicilian capers and celery hearts. Farro con frutti di mare ($8) featured the nutty grain that’s certainly en vogue – farro – topped with red peppers, mussels, calamari and sweet oversized shrimp. Conserva di pollo ($7) probably would have been better off with the traditional tuna, but the olive-oil preserved chicken was still solid, paired with chopped vegetables, shavings of salty Parmigiano and tangy balsamic dressing. Carciofi alla Romana ($8) was a little too straightforward, just Roman-style braised artichokes with shaved ricotta salata.
Samson and his crew make pizzas to order with Gioia mozzarella delivered twice a day from El Monte, olive oil from the boot of Italy and crushed San Marzano tomatoes. For the dough, he uses a 300-year-old starter from just outside Naples.
Margherita pizza is probably the best litmus test when it comes to pizza because the ingredients are limited to tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. The crust was blistered and crisp at the edges with a subtle sourdough tang. On the other half: silky prosciutto di Parma and a judicious amount of bitter arugula leaves. The sauce was a winner, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. The crust could have been crisper in the middle, but that’s a minor quibble with a very good pizza that’s probably the best in Southern California at the moment.
All pasta is made in house using local eggs and Giusto 00 flour from Northern California. Samson’s mother is from Bologna and taught him to roll sheets of pasta using a hand-cracked machine. Considering the volume, he uses an electric machine at Pizzeria Ortica.
Tortelli di pece e pecorino al burro e salvia ($14) was a creation of sous chef Zach Pollack, pear and pecorino tortelli, topped with brown butter and crispy sage. Even though the pasta incorporated pear, it wasn’t too sweet.
Tagliatelle Bolognese ($15) was another winner, honoring the cuisine of his mother’s homeland – Bologna – featuring hand-cut spinach pasta – stained and flavored with the leaves – ground meat sauce and shavings of salty, sharp Parimigiano Reggiano.
Samson said the next Pizzeria Ortica will debut in 2010 in either Venice or Silver Lake. His pizza and pasta were very good, and if it doesn’t require a long drive, even better.