Orto — Chef Paul Verica’s new Italian kitchen nestled between the train tracks on East 36th Street in NoDa — has everything going for it.
As a new restaurant from a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist, it gives food lovers something to be excited about, especially after the year we’ve all had. For the neighborhood, it offers contrast to our beloved artsy, ramshackle aesthetic: a shiny, well-lit watering hole that is at once upscale and casual.
The service, much like that experienced at Chef Verica’s other restaurant, The Stanley, is impeccable without being stuffy, and friendly without being cloy. And to be sure, the menu, with its Northern Italian influences, includes just the sort of straightforward and approachable listings to encourage multiple visits from NoDa residents and weekend visitors alike — particularly the cocktails and the pizzas, which are spectacular.
The pizzas are born out of Verica’s childhood memories of meals at restaurants in Philadelphia where he grew up. But memory is a funny thing. As vibrant and visceral as we think they may be, memories never truly capture what really was. The chef’s memories of growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood and of trips to Tuscany may have been the genesis for the menu at Orto, but those memories — whether through space, time, or the lingering miasma of COVID — appear to have long since faded, and you can taste it in the rest of the food. Or, rather, not taste it.
My biggest problem with the food at Orto is that it is woefully under-seasoned. Pink lobes of pancetta should provide the perfect punch of smoke and salinity to invigorate tried and true arancini, but here, the only way that I knew pancetta was actually inside the fried rice balls was that I happened to look down and see it after I took a bite and wondered where all the flavor went.
Those arancini — which on two nights were perfectly cooked and golden, the rice inside still quivering and creamy, and which on another night flew by to the table next to me so over-fried they looked like chocolate — are done a disservice by dehydrated olive oil sprinkled on top that seems to serve no purpose other than to add visual appeal.
That’s a theme that carries through to the other starters. Why top scallops with a mound of chopped tomatoes, parsley, olives, and capers, when on the palate not a single one of those elements is distinguishable from the rest? And when combined distract from how beautifully sweet the scallops are by themselves? Why detour from something as simple and pleasurable as bruschetta by gussying up tomato toast with arugula and ricotta that offer nothing in return? The night I tried it, the toast itself was quite stale, and with all of those toppings that lacked any semblance of character, biting into it gave the unpleasant sensation of chewing on wet wax paper.
And if it’s not the lack of flavor that does some of the dishes in, it’s technique. Sure, the roughly chopped olives and capers on top of those scallops gave the dish a rustic feel, but as far as knife work is concerned, there’s a fine line between rustic and perplexing. That line is crossed in the entrees.
I would even argue that the veal saltimbocca owes this line a favor. No sooner does that dish arrive than attention is drawn quickly away from the sautéed veal cutlets, with their strange, mushy exterior, and from the polenta fingers, a clever idea in theory though lacking any hint of the gorgonzola folded inside, and squarely onto the mushrooms. Chopped in a haphazard manner, some appeared as thin strips, others as fat, thumb-sized rectangles, and still others as triangles, oblong and acute. Suddenly dinner had become a geometry lesson.
The Brussels sprouts on the plate, shredded, chopped, and sliced in a frenzy, were so unevenly cooked that some of the smaller pieces were still green and raw, while others were burnt and bitter. The knife work doesn’t do the risotto any favors, either. “Rustic” certainly isn’t what I’d called a giant, half-chopped piece of zucchini that came with the dish on one visit, but “PAC-MAN as a square” comes close.
As far as risottos go, the one currently on the menu eats less like a risotto than it does a baked rice casserole, the blunt and hearty kind that grandma used to make, albeit one where the flavor of chicken fat overwhelms what otherwise might have been a lovely sundried tomato pesto. But what does that say of the kitchen in an Italian restaurant that overcooks its risotto? Probably the same thing the pasta does. Pappardelle is neither thin nor graceful, but is thick and congeals into a knot at the bottom of the bowl. Perhaps too much moisture was added when making the dough, or else I just can’t explain it.
A blessing then that the braised rabbit sugo served with it has such flourish, with red tomatoes and yellow oil transforming into something orange and glossy and so satisfying that I could have eaten it by the cupful. Ravioli, on the other hand, presents the opposite dilemma: Rich lobster and shrimp were blended into a sweet paste that remained playful and bouncy as it cooked inside those taught and wholesome parcels. However, the ravioli was then topped with a runny saffron cream sauce that tasted neither of saffron nor cream.
None of which in any way detracts from how truly spectacular the pizzas are.
Each square pizza arrives in a pitch-black pan, perched on a stand so that it hovers above the table. Before the pizza even hits that pan, it’s coated with olive oil, semolina flour, and Parmesan, which insinuate themselves into the dough as it bakes in a woodfire oven. The result is a crust that is crisp, stunning, and sparkling with flavor. That crust makes every single ingredient it comes into contact with sing. A slice of tomato? Humble no more, it is now ravishing. Flecks of basil? You’ve never known them to be so sweet.
On the white pizza, a combination of ingredients turns this singing into a full-fledged opera. Caramelized onions and sprouts were the exact right amount of sweet, and arugula the exact right amount of bitter. Pancetta (where were you in the arancini?) reasserted itself as the seasoned thing of beauty it is meant to be, while smooth dollops of ricotta ensured that each and every bite was a seduction. In fact, this one glorious pizza has such robust and confident flavors, that you may be inclined to forgive the rest of the menu; it alone is worth the trip.
And let’s not forget the cocktails. I might even go so far as to suggest that it’s worthwhile to consider skipping wine altogether, despite a list that’s concise and eminently affordable. On their face, the cocktails are “Italian-inspired,” but it’s as though Amanda Britton has taken those two words, flipped them on their head, and infused them with her own formidable intellect.
Start with the Lemon Wooder Ice, which is a limoncello reimagined as a boozy adult slushie. Continue with the Paesano, made with rye in the style of an Old Fashioned, where coca nibs and cinnamon swirl into layers of complexity that pull you helplessly into their depths. And then stay and be awed by the wicked things Ms. Britton does with amaro. What a collection she’s built.
If you’re up for the challenge, then ask for a taste of the Elisir Novasalus. It’s a beguiling and solemn spirit, fragrant and arboreous; one sip, and I heard the music from a wooden church organ playing in my mind. She uses Pasubio in Give ’em the Boot, where that amaro’s blueberry and tree sap notes, together with Fernet Branca, pull your palate into a bear hug and squeeze so hard until you relent and ask for more.
If and when you do manage to come up for air, then be sure to try Toto e Peppino. With its sweet rum and almond notes, not to mention a whole egg, it presents as liquid custard and would be a fine, rich, and woozy way to end a meal even without amaro, but with the Montenegro and its balanced notes of vanilla and orange, this cocktail alone, like the white pizza, is worth the trip.
If only Orto just served pizzas and cocktails.
Before filing this review, I paid Orto another visit to ponder its inconsistencies. They were still there; a special pasta dish that night, instead of being under seasoned, was aggressively over. There was a moment on the patio, just after the sun had fully set, when a thunderstorm broke out. My dining companion and I were quickly moved to a drier table.
When I looked back up at the rain falling through the streetlights, I took advantage of that lull in the meal as our table was being reset to wonder aloud whether a restaurant with everything going for it would do better rebranded as a pizza and cocktail bar? That would be a pretty fine thing indeed.
Become part of the Nerve: Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and join thousands of Charlotteans by subscribing to our email newsletter. If you’re looking for the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of our local scene.