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OC (10 of 18)I first heard of Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, California from my Chef Steve Samson when we were opening Sotto, in South Beverly Hills several years ago. I didn’t think much of it, or the Orange County dining scene for anything other than ethnic food for quite a while, until Joanie Karapetiean introduced me to Joel Anthony Caruso. “You guys should totally meet! You are like the same person!” I remember her saying one afternoon. I’m not normally told such things, so I immediately began investigating Joel’s Instagram account (The de facto standard of legitimacy in today’s world). I was impressed and intrigued; that someone in OC would have a specialty as esoteric as Amaro, but also be able to sport a power beard and a power suit so seamlessly.

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Joel Anthony Caruso (also known as Pretty Tony) is one of the most visible and talented members of OC Food and Beverage Community. Joel is one of the few Beverage Directors that can actually get behind the stick and produce a respectable cocktail (winning multiple bartending competitions) as well as a gifted sommelier with an extensive knowledge of Italian Wine.

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The wine program at Ortica is exemplary, and not what you would expect dining in Costa Mesa with indigenous varietals and stellar wine makers at every price point. Joel’s wine program has one of the best unions of old world and new world wine; with a keen eye for indigenous Italian varieties grown in California as well as some great vintage depth from the old world.

I got to experience Joel’s blind tasting ability first hand when I joined him in blind tasting through the grid with his Monday Morning tasting group. When I arrived at Ortica, I interrupted Joel receiving several bags of local produce from patrons for his exceptional handmade Lemoncello programs. You can’t get much more farm to table than that.

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Pizzeria Ortica was the location of a wine dinner featuring the wines of Portovino, which I represent in Southern California. PortoVino has a balanced combination of well known and eclectic wines from all over Italy, in addition they are distributed nationally. The pairings were daring, featuring some rule breaking and challenges to the palate.OC (12 of 18)Mark Middlebrook, the national sales director for PortoVino is based out of San Francisco. Mark is an expert on these wines, and was in town to speak about them for the occasion. OC (14 of 18)Quite a few people showed up to taste varietals such wines such as Walter Massa’s Timorasso, Antica Casa Scarpa’s Brachetto ‘Secco’ and Barbaresco ‘Tettineive‘, as well as and Alice ‘Tajad’. OC (18 of 18)While there were quite a few unique wines from the portfolio poured at this event of exceptional age and craftsmanship but the one that stands out for me repeatedly is the Grignolino d’Asti from Luca Ferraris. Grignolino is an aromatic variety commonly grown in Piedmont with acid, tannin, and lower alcohol.

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For me, this wine expresses perfectly the meaning of the phrase, ‘wine needs food.’ Like Pinot Noir, this wine is extremely insightful of its terroir – in this case the Casot vineyards, with red sandy soils nestled in the Monferrato hills where this grape has been grown since the 13th century. Fermented and aged in stainless steel, this elegantly perfumed wine appreciates a slight chill, has a green olive tang with a little spice, and heaps of texture in the mouth. For me this wine is ALL about the way it feels when swished around on the palate, preferably with shaved Prosciutto.

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Pizzeria Ortica is located right off the 405 – stop in for a bottle of Grignolino d’Asti and you’ll likely not regret it.

I was wrong about Orange County – where I would argue the most erudite and applied sommeliers in Southern California can be found, and where a new generation of culinary excellence is rising.