So what else can Sona, Boule and Comme Ça's David Myers possibly have in his sights? Italy.
No, Pizzeria Ortica is in Costa Mesa, practically next door to South Coast Plaza shopping center and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Obviously, Myers isn't skateboarding over to the O.C. He doesn't have to, because for this venture -- and for Ortica, the full-scale Italian restaurant planned for La Cienega Boulevard later this year -- he's teamed up with former Valentino chef Steve Samson. Half-Italian (his mother is from Bologna), Samson, who is a partner and the executive chef, is cooking Italian food that is more gutsy and accessible than you might remember when he was at the more formal Valentino.
In case you've jumped to the conclusion that Pizzeria Ortica may have been inspired by Pizzeria Mozza, I'd say you're probably right. What chef wouldn't want to emulate the success of the Silverton-Batali juggernaut? But Pizzeria Ortica is not a carbon copy. For one thing, the menu includes pasta, some of the best in Southern California, plus a fine antipasti and salad menu, and a handful of well-conceived main courses.
And if you're headed to an event at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, this is the place to stop either before or after for a quick bite or a full-on dinner.
The space is oddly configured, a long, narrow dining room and bar running along one side of a parking garage. And yet, coupled with the whitewashed high-vaulted ceilings, the effect is to evoke the covered arcades of Bologna's city center. There's an inviting bar at one end (though the lighting could be warmer) and, center stage, the wood-burning pizza oven and the chef. The wait staff is enthusiastic and informed about the food, and very personable, a far cry from the service at some of the bigger-name restaurants nearby.
The best place to start is with some antipasti, maybe a beautiful plate of prosciutto di Parma with Kermit-the-Frog-green olives. Or the house-cured , thinly sliced dried beef served with a pert salad of wild arugula and shaved Parmigiano dressed with a squirt of lemon.
Tonno e fagioli is a classic antipasto most often made with the flavorful tuna put up in olive oil and canned in Genoa or Sicily. Samson does a version with his own velvety house-cured yellowtail and another with ventresca, tuna belly he poaches in olive oil. Both play the rich taste of the fish against slivered red onions and the earthy starch of borlotti (cranberry) beans. And if you love sardines, try the sardines en saor -- fried and then steeped in vinegar with raisins and pine nuts.
I could happily sit at the bar and just feast on a slew of these small (and they are sometimes quite small and overpriced) plates. Pizzeria Ortica has the best carciofi alla Romana (braised artichokes) around, served with fine shavings of ricotta salata. That and the charcoal-grilled lamb skewers on wilted dandelion greens with a sparkling mint pesto keep good company with a glass of Barbera or Montepulciano from the fine, mostly Italian list put together by Sona wine director Mark Mendoza.
Though Pizzeria Ortica has an authentic sense of place, the menu doesn't stick to one region. When you see one of these luscious Neapolitan-style pies sailing by, it's hard not to want one -- right away. Blistered at the edges, the yeasty flavor of the crust shows that Samson and pizza chef Zach Pollack are very serious about pizza.
Pizza, pasta, sì!
You can, of course, get a fine pizza Margherita, or one with spicy salame or Parma ham and arugula added. More unusual is the pie topped with house-cured guanciale (pork jowl), ricotta, scallions and a dusting of fennel pollen. Another of my favorites is the one embellished with mascarpone, fennel, house-made pork sausage and a grating of cheese made from buffalo milk. My one quibble is that the pizzas aren't consistent enough yet.
But as good as it is, you may forget all about the pizza once you taste the pasta. The dough itself is supple and tender, made with Tipo 00 flour, a soft wheat flour. Handmade tortelli are plumped with pear and Pecorino, no sauce, the better to appreciate the pasta and the filling. Pappardelle with zigzag edges are tossed in a delicious lamb ragu. One night you might find hand-rolled with duck ragu, another time tortellini two ways -- in brodo (a rich gold chicken stock) and napped in butter and a little aged Parmigiano.
Still hungry? The menu offers a few main courses, including a nicely done pollo al mattone, in this case a jidori chicken breast and thigh cooked under a brick. It's crispy and juicy and served with sumptuous strips of roasted sweet red peppers.
There's also a nice rendition of pork cooked in milk, substituting pork ribs for the usual pork loin. But don't forget the sides like broccoli rabe with hot pepper or Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts, bread crumbs and lemon zest.
As enticing as Pizzeria Ortica is, I have just one question -- how soon is Ortica itself going to open?