California is generally seen as a place full of good food: after all, just about anything can be grown successfully somewhere in this huge state. However, excellent restaurants tend to congregate in specific areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Napa. In the past, Orange County has not been part of the fine-dining elite. But restaurants such as Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa are doing their part to bring Orange County eating up to speed.
Though owned by the fairly famous chef David Myers, Pizzeria Ortica’s kitchens are run day-by-day by chef de cuisine Justin Miller. He drives once or twice a week to Rancho Sante Fe to visit Chino Farms, a sustainable, family-owned 50-acre plot of different fruits and vegetables. It’s a bit more of a drive from Costa Mesa than the more famous (and chef-friendly) Santa Monica Farmers’ Market would be, but it provides Miller’s favorite produce. “The products taste ten times better than the stuff from your local supermarket – it really opened my eyes the first time I had a Chino strawberry. Besides the taste, I also like knowing that I’m not feeding people chemicals on their vegetables. And everyone there is so friendly, and very passionate about food.”
Though Miller would like to shop exclusively at Chino Farms (and have items like baby broccolini on the menu throughout its whole season), demand is not yet meeting the higher prices of organic, artisanal produce. Instead, Ortica offers a special farm menu with a dozen or so dishes highlighting the fresh, local fruits and vegetables.
The house-cured bresaola (lean, dried beef), served with a mustard vinaigrette and Chino Farms vegetables like kohlrabi, cucumber pickles and various radishes, is a fun, crunch-filled starter. Even more enjoyable is the bread salad with heirloom tomatoes, cucumber and garnishes such as green onions and pea shoots in a simple dressing. It’s so light and so perfectly highlights the taste of in-season vegetables that one might take this shareable plate all for themselves.
Dishes that aren’t specifically on the farm menu also hit some high notes. The pappardelle with lamb, sheep ricotta and a dusting of mint is perfection. The pizza here is crispy and chewy, closest in style to a Neapolitan pizza but with more toppings than are usually offered on traditional Italian pizza: guanciale, ricotta, scallions and fennel pollen make a nice combination – though, strange as this sounds, some bites tasted not-unpleasantly of Cheetos (a sense memory from before our organic days, of course).
The chocolate budino (which is more or less the Italian word for pudding) is nearly heavenly, with a slightly bitter chocolate paired with custard. When Ortica has them, the budino comes topped with Chino Farms strawberries: perfect tiny candy bites. Surely no one would judge if you were to lick the jar it comes in: despite the elegant food, it’s a casual place where the servers are uniformed in khakis and brown Converse shoes. Enjoy accordingly.