When it opened early in 2009, Pizza Ortica generated its share of controversy on Chowhound. This David Myers venture, next door to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California, was variously described as "the worst pizza experience ever," "$87 for pizza and pasta? Extortion!" and "embarrassingly mediocre." Many of the complaints repeated, ad nauseam, the old "too limp and wet in the center" refrain. More recently, several Southland bloggers have defended Ortica's pizza style as Neapolitan-influenced and, therefore, intentionally "wet centered" and relatively "limp" (I hate that word!) compared to typical American pizza.
Well, nearly a year and a half later and I still had yet to get down there but a propitious occasion presented itself a few weeks ago when a pair of fellow passionate pizza people, Cary and Lillian Steiner of Passion-4-Pizza fame, happened to turn up in Orange County in search of a wood-fired pizza adventure. Yee hahhh! I saddled up my 4 Runner and headed on down to Costa Mesa to see for myself just what Pizza Ortica was servin' up.
We sat down in the bar area, just a few meters from the focus of our collective interest, the wood-fired oven. The menu informed us that the pizza dough is made from a 300-year-old biga from Naples. Well, the crust certainly has a "classic" ancestry, but it would be up to the pizzaiolo to create magic from his tools and ingredients.
Ordering left me with a twinge of trepidation. Several of the pies had toppings that we all wanted to avoid, particularly the anchovies (yeah, yeah, yeah, we're wimps), yet the menu stated in no uncertain terms: No Exceptions! We prevailed upon our waiter, who promised us that he'd "see what he could do." As we were the only diners in the restaurant at that moment we felt confident he could convince the pizzamaker to indulge our modifications to the pies.
Our first pie was the iconic Margherita, the pride of Naples. While some pizza maniacs have grown bored with this traditional pie, when done right, it is a marvel of simplicity. And the pie set down in front of us unquestionably was, in its way, as hot-lookin' as Sophia Loren in the film Boy on a Dolphin. Round, with a thick, juicy, well-charred and blistered lip, with pearly pools of mozzarella, and a few curled leaves of basil floating on a fruity, crimson sea of crushed San Marzanos. Pizza porn, indeed!
And remarkably, the pie tasted just about as good as it looked. The all-important crust had just the right degree of exterior crispness and interior chewiness, with a hint of saltiness. The silky smooth mozzarella and fresh sauce, applied with restraint, provided textural balance and uncomplicated flavors. Each bite left me wondering, "What could these fools be complaining about?" Maybe one of them felt that the pie needed more cheese or that the basil had congregated asymmetrically in the center? Perhaps another thought the crust wasn't crisp enough?
This was a goddamn great tasting pie! And only $12! My one complaint was that I only got a single slice.
Our next pizza, the Amalfitana ($17), satisfied Lillian's veggie desires as, happily, the waiter succeeded in deleting the anchovies from this pie, which featured zucchini, summer squash, red onion, and ricotta. Again, the unassailable crust really impressed me. Most veteran pizzaphiles will grant that the crust is the most critical and most difficult element of the pie to perfect. It's not too tough to shop around and choose the freshest, tastiest toppings, but try making a perfect dough every day and perfectly maneuvering it around in an 800°F oven. No easy task.
By the end of the second pie, Pizza Ortica was batting an impressive, if difficult to maintain, 100 percent.
Now, the pie I most looked forward to devouring, the salsiccia ($17), arrived at our table. I must first confess that, by birth, I was forbidden to eat sauseeege! But, in college, my Italian-American roommates baptized me into the Italian family, not with holy water but with tequila, and ever since that fateful and rather hazy, sophomore year I have freely and joyfully violated the Lord's dietary laws, eating sausage and lasagna, sausage and peppers heroes, and, of course, sausage-topped pizza, whenever and wherever the opportunity arose. Thanks, bros!
So, imagine my horror and disgust when that first highly anticipated bite encountered a pasty, gummy, thoroughly undercooked crust! The sausage itself was spicy and juicy. The caramelized onions imparted a sweet note, and we also successfully substituted fresh mozzarella for the original mascarpone, which none of us felt belonged on this pizza. But the crust sucked! Under normal circumstances, I would have insisted on, even fought for the fourth slice, but the crust so disappointed me that I was left quite disinterested. Truly, it was as if this crust had been made elsewhere; it bore absolutely no relation to the two earlier pies we'd eaten.
Pizza Ortica was now batting 66 percent.
Finally, we came to the Prosciutto di Parma e rucola pie ($17). Essentially, a Margherita topped with prosciutto and wild arugala, this pizza restored the smile to my face. Typically, when I've encountered this pizza iteration, the prosciutto and arugula seem as haphazardly piled on to the pie as a heap of freshly dried laundry tossed into a basket. And there always seems to be too much greenery for my taste. This pie had a restrained balance of meat and cheese, and the tomato sauce on the base of Ortica's pie gave it spicy, fruity textures and flavors that enhanced its identity as pizza rather than an open-face sandwich. Most important, the crust, unlike the previous pie, delicately and successfully achieved the proper the crisp-chew ratio.
As subjective as the pursuit of perfect pizza is, I am still dumbfounded by some people's uninformed commentary. One may not appreciate the Neapolitan style of pizza-making but how a person can excoriate the pizza-making at this Orange County establishment is beyond my comprehension. While admittedly, pie makers can have an off day, and though the restaurant may, at busier times, enforce pizza fascism with regards to toppings, I can wholeheartedly endorse Pizza Ortica's quality. It is a bit of a schlep from Los Angeles, but if you live in the area or are heading to Orange County, you can't go wrong with their pizza.
Three out of the four pies, 75 percent, were superb, a Hall of Fame statistic in baseball and a damn good score for a pizzaiolo.