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Dining Out

Napoletana rules

Orta's pizza and other dishes are authentic Italian

The Margherita Napoletana pizza is loaded with mozzarella, basil, and tomato sauce on a thin but still chewy crust. The Margherita Napoletana pizza is loaded with mozzarella, basil, and tomato sauce on a thin but still chewy crust. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / May 6, 2009
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How long does it take to learn to make the perfect pizza? Maybe more than a few weeks, but a few weeks spent learning from the masters in Naples, Italy, go a long way. Restaurateur Jimmy Burke did just that, and it shows in the pizza at his new restaurant, Orta.

Here, the pies are made according to strictures set by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The size of the pie; the thickness, consistency, and color of the crust; and the appearance and taste of the toppings are all strictly dictated. For example: "The pizza as a whole should be soft, elastic, easily folded as would be a pamphlet" and "In the case of the pizza Margherita, the white of the mozzarella should be in patches more or less close together, with the green of the basil leaves more or less dark from the cooking process."

Though the pies' diameter exceeds 35 centimeters (a no-no!) to satisfy American sensibilities, I can say these pizzas meet my specifications, which aren't as strict as the AVPN's. Mine go like this: The pizza as a whole must be yummy. Orta's are. The crust is just thin enough - still bread not cracker, crisp but with chew. They're cooked in a wood-burning brick oven whose perfume you get a faint whiff of from the parking lot. On one occasion I wished my pie had stayed in the oven longer to get a bit more of a char, but I can't quibble with the bright flavor of the Margherita Napoletana's sauce, made from San Marzano tomatoes, or the array of vegetables on the Ortolana. Even topped with peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, the crust stayed crisp.

But there is more to Orta than the pies. Semolina gnocchi cloaked in Parmesan taste like really good mac 'n' cheese without the noodles. Beets, slightly crunchy, are marinated in orange, balsamic, and rosemary, refreshing and sophisticated. These are among the piattini, or small plates - a few bites each, and each $4.

There are also slightly larger antipasti. Suppli al telefono are one of the many delicious foods humankind has devised with the aim of using up leftover rice. Here, the grains are formed into balls stuffed with mozzarella, then fried. They're named after telephone wires because that's what the stretchy cheese is supposed to resemble when you pull the rice ball apart. Orta's suppli lack the chewy strands, but they're still very good and nicely fried.

Involtini al forno are rollups of eggplant and cheese covered with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. They're baked in the brick oven, the edges slightly crisped and caramelized, the flesh soft and sweet. Polpette, rich little meatballs, feature a similar sauce.

The appetizers and pizza here are excellent, and if I returned to Orta, I would make a meal of items from that top half of the menu. The pasta and entrees are fine, they're just in a different league.

Fettuccine with asparagus, peas, spinach, mushrooms, and cream has a nice, woodsy flavor to it. But the cream dominates, and the vegetables are overcooked. Lasagna Bolognese is a solid effort marred by too much nutmeg in the veal and beef sauce. Gemelli with mushrooms, prosciutto, mascarpone, and tomato sauce is a giant bowl of red sauce that walks a fine line between tasty comfort food and upscale Boyardee.

Scallops with a sweet pea risotto cake and saffron butter sauce sound lovely and springy; with a bit less heat on the shellfish (they're chewy) and a bit more technique on the risotto (it's gummy), this could be wonderful. Veal Milanese is a dish that has nowhere to hide: thin-pounded cutlets breaded and fried. When the veal is tough and the breading slightly burned, it's a disaster.

But chicken parm, a similar preparation involving chicken, is quite good - though a pile of linguine underneath and a blanket of tomato sauce and cheese on top might make cardboard Milanese taste all right. Veal meatloaf is rich and savory, topped with mushroom sauce and served with little potatoes and a side of amazingly delicious, buttery glazed carrots. And a half-chicken marinated with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and herbs goes into that brick oven and comes out crisp, juicy, and flavorful. The brick oven can do no wrong.

Desserts are successfully homey, the likes of rhubarb crisp and a perfectly fudgy flourless chocolate cake. The wine list is mainly Italian, with a few New World selections. There are several bottles for $19, and some glasses of wine for $4.95. I'd rather pay a few bucks more than drink the Italian chardonnay I sampled at that price, but it's nice to have the low price point as an option.

The restaurant - named for a lake in Piedmont - is a vast and pleasant space. With sage green walls and Italy-themed pictures, the dining room is dominated by an open kitchen and the brick oven. There's a long bar, plus a second bar area in the back with a TV tuned to the game. Despite its size, the restaurant fills up. Burke, one of the original chefs at Harvest in Cambridge, has owned a host of restaurants over the years, including Tuscan Grill in Waltham and Tullio's in Quincy. He's developed a following. With Orta's great pizza, reasonably priced small plates and wine list, and extremely friendly and accommodating staff, it's no wonder that following has followed him here.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

ORTA RESTAURANT

75 Washington St., Pembroke. 781-826-8883. www.ortarestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $4-$9.75. Pizza $7.95-$13.95. Pasta $11-$14.95. Entrees $13.95-$21. Desserts $5.95.

Hours Sun and Tue-Thurs 5-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest Semolina gnocchi, involtini al forno, polpette, any pizza, brick oven-roasted chicken.