“I wonder if she’d want to go to dinner…” My thinking continues.
“I wonder if we can get in to Pizzeria Ortica…”
It seems unlikely that such an evening will unfold. It’s rare that one impetuously stumbles upon a fine dining experience with a dear friend on a moment’s notice. Perfect evenings require planning – reservations, the coordination of schedules weeks in advance and then rescheduling when something inevitably comes up.
Yet something still compels me to make the call and find out if Anna from Banana Wonder is free. And something compels me to see if she wants to go to dinner. And later, as we sip a bright Sauvignon Blanc with my parents at their home in Newport Beach, something compels me to call Pizzeria Ortica to see if maybe, just maybe they can take the two of us for dinner that night.
“We’ll have a table available at 8 pm,” Says the reservationist.
And so it begins.
After securing a parking space in the nearby lot, Anna and I stride into Chef David Myer’s acclaimed Orange County pizzeria at precisely 8 pm. The linear space is broken into two dining rooms – one by the bar, and one that is decidedly more appropriate for families or those seeking a more tame dining experience. Though nobody would necessarily describe Anna or me as tame – tall, yes, but tame, no – we are seated at one of the empty tables in the latter section.
As we acclimate ourselves to our surroundings (i.e. scope out the other diners in our vicinity – mostly awkward couples) and ready our cameras for action, my thoughts can’t help but wander in the direction of Pizzeria Mozza, my current favorite locale for gourmet pizza. It’s seemingly inevitable that I will compare the two high-end pizzerias that are helmed by two of the most prestigious chefs in Southern California. And it’s seemingly inevitable that I will favor the place that still makes my heart seize up with excitement whenever I walk through the door.
But in the moment, I don’t want to think about that. I want to enjoy this unexpected pocket of time with my friend at a restaurant that I’ve been dying to try since it opened in January 2009.
Fluids are acquired – a full-bodied Italian red – to hug the curves of both our wine glasses, and then Anna I filter our way through the one-page menu that includes antipasti, insalate, primi and secondi courses, pizze, and contorni (sides). It proves to be a daunting task – we want everything.
That said, if we are absolutely, positively must select only four things, it’s a given that charred Mediterranean octopus will be one of them.
We start our meal with the Polipo e Patate with the aforementioned octopus, delicate Yukon Gold potatoes, celery hearts, and Sicilian capers ($12). The familiar Italian antipasti is always a risky order, and Anna and I are both concerned about the integrity of our favorite cephalopod. Will it have the texture of chewing gum? Will it require a saw to cut? Will we wear out our jaw muscles in the process of masticating it and be incapable of conversation for the rest of the evening?
Fortunately for us (maybe not for those dining around us), the answer to all these questions is, “No.” The grilled octopus has been braised into submission resulting in a bite that is both tender and substantial. There’s give, but also a satisfying kick back. The other components chime in with the right amount of acidity and brightness for a colorful balance to a Mediterranean version of meat and potatoes. Anna and I are delighted with the start to our meal.
We eagerly move on to the main event of our feast – the pizza. We opt to share two of the ten choices on the menu – the highly recommended Salsiccia with house-made sausage, caramelized fennel, mascarpone, red onion and buffalo grano ($16); and the Calabrese with San Marzano tomato, mozzarella, rapini, Calbrian chilies, and bottarga ($18).
The pizzas, prepared in a wood-burning oven, are a captivating sight to behold. The thin crusts, coated with a luxurious sea of hot toppings, stretch over the edges of the serving plates defying our expecations that they would be personal-sized. My hands immediately gravitate toward the Salsiccia pizza with its lusty chunks of sausage and heady aroma of caramelized fennel. My eyelids immediately collapse over my eyes as I take my first bite. The sweetness of the onions and fennel, the heft of the fat sausage, the lush river of mascarpone and buffalo grano – it’s pizza perfection. I want to marinate my mouth with the flavors forever – especially if they are transported on the thin, yet substantially chewy crust. I can’t help but polish off the doughy end like a bread stick.
I move on to the Calabrese with a reluctant sigh. The red sauce-based pizza showcases the flavors of a Margherita-type pie with a few additional nuances courtesy of the chilies and bottarga (dried fish eggs). It’s a nice slice, but after tasting the Salsiccia, it’s hard to evaluate it on its own merits. I quickly finish my piece so I can go back for a second helping of my first love.
Accompanying our pies is arguably the best side dish I’ve encountered in recent memory – including the truffled fingerling potatoes at Gjelina that I consider one of my favorite bites of 2009. Anna and I had ordered the Cavolini di Bruxelles, roasted Brussels sprouts with bread crumbs, hazelnuts, and lemon zest ($7), as an afterthought. An, “Oh what the heck, we’ll get some Brussels sprouts too.”
We never imagined that we would be receiving the type of sprouts that can take one’s focus away from pizza. Even brilliant, inspired, this-is-not-delivery-or-DiGiorno pizza.
Each crispy, oven-roasted sprout is better than the next. Our eyes bulge out in ecstatic telepathic rhythm as our forks keep flying back to the serving ramekin to scrape up every last vegetable and its crunchy counterparts.
Fullness is an unwelcome arrival at the table. We still have three pieces of pizza left, but with no more room for savories, we are forced to move on to dessert.
Anna opts for the Babà al rhum, rum-soaked brioche with pistachio gelato and candied orange peel ($7), and after a moment’s hesitation (i.e. five minutes of intense internal debate), I order the server’s recommendation, the Budino di Cioccolato, a chocolate crème pudding layered with caramel ($7).
After our show-stopping antipasti, pizzas and side, the understated nature of the pudding is a let down. While I wasn’t expecting it to be as potent or rich as a mousse, the texture and flavor are too similar to the pudding I grew up eating for me to reach that desired level of dessert satisfaction. In my mind, that level always involves sighing, groaning, and, ultimately, a slight stomachache from sugar shock.
With her permission, I steal a bite of Anna’s warm Babà al rhum – a refined version of comforting, soulful bread pudding – and immediately find myself feeling like I’m in When Harry Met Sally.
I want what she’s having.
Anna, the dear friend that she is, is not content to let me sit at the table with an idle spoon. She commands the attention of our gracious server and promptly informs her that I don’t care for the pudding. My face blushes into tomato-sauce territory, but the server’s reaction immediately puts me back at ease.
“Of course, I’ll bring you a different dessert.” She insists, a courtesy that endears her and the restaurant to me perhaps even more than the Salsiccia pie.
Moments later I dig into my own Babà al rhum and the near perfection of Anna and my unexpected evening is once again restored.
As the night comes to a close, I don’t want to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t let myself wonder “what if” on my drive down from Los Angeles that afternoon. I only want to wonder what my next experience at Pizzeria Ortica will bring.
I’m pretty sure it will involve Brussels sprouts.
And if she’s game, my lovely tall, and not at all tame friend Anna.
650 Anton Boulevard
Costa Mesa, CA 92626