Friend in Hot Places

doubt.jpgDid you ever think, when you were younger and the creaks of closing doors hadn’t yet become thunderous, that you and all of your friends were going to do great things?  Because now it seems like circumstance has threatened, in the friendships it didn’t destroy altogether,  that idea of mutually assured success.  Three years removed from the rapidly fading end of college, the majority of my peers sport psychic bruises gotten at the hands of a world we’ve learned isn’t vested in our personal triumph.  The few people who know what they want to do have discovered their chosen professions aren’t guided by the principles of meritocracy.  It’s ostensible chaos, and, after fifteen years of structured, teleological environments, it breeds doubt—doubt that like a giant black maw eats away at the confidence of those glowing assessments you made back in the ninth grade.  When the maw isn’t satisfied—its appetite is only whetted by the feast on your friends—the jaws of uncertainty turn inward and you begin questioning whether that secret self-conviction you’ve always harbored, the belief you would add to the world in a distinct and remarkable way, was ever really justified.

But there are methods for sating such an ugly beast.  I’ve discovered one is you feed it at the restaurant where my friend pulls from the oven pizzas that, prior to glorious consumable conception, spent thousands of hours parbaking in his head.

orticalogo.jpgZach Pollack is twenty-four and second in charge at Pizzeria Ortica, David Myer’s1 new restaurant in Irvine.  Six years ago, he was a vegetarian—well, technically, he was a pescetarian.  As a ten-year old on the way to AstroCamp, Zach passed the slaughterhouses whose violent stench has filled the car of anyone who’s ever taken a road trip through California.  He saw cows chained to fences, their faces tethered to the feeding troughs toward which they stooped, forcibly being fed more than their stomachs could handle so that we could engage in the same behavior by choice.  That was it. Anything raised with intention of being slaughtered for consumption, Zach forswore.2 Double Doubles never tempted him.  Late night trips to Jack in the Box didn’t break him. The accelerated metabolism of his puberty was wasted.  To him, eating was a requirement, not something from which you derived pleasure.  But Zach’s resolve started to fade right at the time that lots of kids first become aware of (and sanctimonious about) the moral implications of their food intake.  After writing his college application essay on that philosophy-altering drive down the interstate, Zach came face to face with fare from the ol’ dormitory dining hall.  Chicken re-entered his diet.  It was a matter of practicality; he had to sustain himself.  And then, the summer after his freshman year, things really took a turn. 

eiffel_tower-thumb.jpgAbout twelve of us sat drunk and hungry at the steakhouse beneath the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas.  Maybe the oozing excess of the city had started to seep into his brain.  Maybe fate was borne on the wings of the desert wind.  Whatever the reason,3 Zach ordered a hunk of dead cow.  And ate it.  And loved it.  The post-drunken regret that accompanies so many other bold choices remained conspicuously absent the next morning.  One buttery steak frites was enough to sustain his initial caprice.  Just as quickly as it had vanished, meat returned to Zach’s life.  The next summer he was chopping vegetables for free at Neal Fraser’s Grace. 

Since I’m pressed for space, we’re going to have to gloss over nuanced influences and stick to a discussion of forces that have shaped Zach’s cooking in ways that a sledgehammer might shape a statue in its early phases.  He originally intended on going abroad to Spain.  During the first week of school sophomore year, he missed one session of a pre-requisite language class and the teacher kicked him out of the course entirely. On a whim, he decided he’d go to Italy instead.  Having, by chance, done my semester abroad in Madrid, I’m pretty confident that three months of Spanish cooking4 would have left no permanent impression on my friend.  A semester in Florence sealed his fate.

What attracts Zach to Italian cooking is partly the food, plain and simple, but the relationship also has a lot to do with some larger, abstract attitude with which Italians approach the act of eating.  Whereas the American disconnect with the things we put in our stomach has led us to complicate what and how we consume,5 generations of Italian tradition ground the country’s eating culture in much less prolix mechanisms, which, he believes, facilitate a more honest appreciation of food. 

cappuccino.jpgAn example, as outlined by Zach, deals with the basic and pointed differences in the way we drink coffee: here, you go most likely to a chain where you pay three, four dollars for a drink whose overload of minor personal adjustments bears direct reflection on your level of coffee sophistication.  The barista, who doesn’t intend to keep his job for more than six months, moves like a coked-up turtle to get you and the surly lady making frustrated eyes your drinks within a pressurized window of time. Quality is not foremost on his mind.  Which is fine, because you don’t even take the time to enjoy the thing, but rather transport it to a cup-holder in the car where it sits cooling and forgotten as your attention gets stuck on the asshole in front of you who keeps stopping short.  Versus in Italy: you walk into a bar, order a cappuccino if it’s morning, espresso most other times of the day. The person preparing it for you doesn’t view her job as some sort of stopgap on the way to acting fame so probably has developed over time a precise and kick-ass method for preparing this basic, yet easily fuck-up-able coffee.  She delivers the small achievement, you drink it—at your leisure—right there at the bar, before plunking down a Euro and heading on your way. 

The straightforward quality of this interaction, on both the production and consumption sides, is endemic of the larger Italian food system, where in a country geographically smaller than California, produce and meat availability still remain somewhat tied to the even narrower areas of their production.6 Zach lives for this regionalism.  When I accompanied him on a leg of his month-long trip to Italy in preparation for his lieutenancy at Pizzeria Ortica, after ten days of solid, no-nonsense eating, he forced me to sit down at a buffet—which are indigenous to the city of Trieste and denote a different operation than they do here—and consume various parts of a pig, including the snout, until I was on the verge of puking.  When I posit7 that it’s difficult to translate militant support of local suppliers and heritage when you’re cooking Italian food in California, Zach explains to me, that though it might be necessary to fly in ingredients from across the world, he can still uphold the ethos of their cooking—this idea that good food comes not from complication and ad hoc admixture but the ability to work deftly within one’s limitations in order to create the most self-evident thing possible. 

dough-ball.jpgIt’s hard to understand how much effort goes into any human-constructed thing that possesses a hint of grace—like the pizza at Pizzeria Ortica8 — since the precisely controlled illusion of the gift’s seamlessness makes us want to believe it has existed forever.  Only because I’ve watched Zach over the past seven months do I have a vague understanding of what it took to create the thing worth including in this restaurant’s name.  He has made and scrapped and remade more dough than would take to build a life-size replica of Jabba the Hutt.  He figured out how to rip off the restrictor on his oven at home so that the cowardly thing would approximate the heat given off by the wood-burning mother he now bakes in.  He has read books and blogs and articles about yeast care; traveled to Phoenix and Chicago, New York and Italy to eat pizza, in hopes of bringing back any small insight that’d help with his pursuit.  Of course there was much less leisurely research. 

On nights off from his former job—cooking on the line at pressure-cooker Sona fifty hours a week—Zach served dinner at home to friends and family, using the palates of his allies as testing grounds and taking out from under his own feet the steady ground where he should’ve been safe from the criticism of his endeavors.  As Ortica’s opening loomed closer, the meals inevitably turned into pizza parties.  Everyone in attendance got to get a little drunk and eat pies so good (and free) that the memory of them activates my salivary glands here months later. To us, these evenings were gifts that materialized out of nowhere. To Zach, each was the misleading culmination of another day spent alone tinkering with ingredients, changing the way he balled and stretched his dough; another day gone in the pursuit of something he could feel proud to offer to the world, while the doubt that plagues any creator hounded him from counter to refrigerator to stove and back again. 

pizza1.jpgAfter my first dinner at Pizzeria Ortica, a button-bursting four hour affair, Zach leads me through the open kitchen.  He shows me where he mixes the dough, where their house-made pancetta cures.  The line cooks, many of whom look older, show deference when we pass.  He opens the oak-burning oven, already shut down for the night.  The heat from the strangling embers smashes into my face.  There is a matter-of-factness to the way Zach is giving this tour; the confidence that’s palpable as we move from station to station seems to be a function of his comfort in this kitchen.  Absent are the flourishes and ostentatious displays that precede little approval-searching looks meant to detect the confirmations of success. I feel like he’s managed to locate a really hard-to-find place, some narrow perch where he physically can cook for the people who are paying for his food, but feel in his body that his own lithe movements and gustatory decisions exist for no reason other than to deliver to himself the same quiet existential satisfaction he finds in his kitchen at home.  In this moment, my approval seems superfluous, and that makes me all the more proud of Zach.  I am thankful to and for him and my stomach is full of more than just his pizza.

1 He of Sona and Comme ça.  Ortica’s chef de cuisine, by the way, is a man named Steve Sampson.  As far as my taste-buds can tell, Mr. Sampson is very talented.   
2 Which explains why as a teenager, in a decade where everyone was less concerned with where her food came from, Zach could continue eating fish while under the misconception that all fish was fresh caught and not farmed.
3 I’ve asked him lots of times, why there? then? but the hindsight logic you want to apply to this kind of tale hasn’t ever been part of the answer
4 Defense of my argument with a hypothetical Spanish-food lover: yes, Spanish food changes from region to region (as does Italian, though, by the way) so it’s hard to make generalizations.  Yes there are some good traditional Spanish dishes and plenty of fine Spanish restaurants.  But the eating that’s done on a daily basis, by regular non-food hunting folks—to say nothing of students on a budget—is too fried and repetitive and so far inferior to unpretentious straightforward Italian cooking that there’s no contest between the two.  
5 See The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan for a beautifully constructed elaboration of this argument.
6 Imagine, for a second, finding out at the market here you couldn’t get a certain cut of meat because it’s raised up in Northern California. You’d think it’s ridiculous.  
7 Not in the same evening as the pig snout. I wasn’t looking to get bullied any more that night.
8 Or Kobe’s jump-shot.

The Pizza at Pizzeria Ortica

pizza2.jpgIt is Neapolitan1. Never having been to Naples, I can’t really say much about the pizza’s standing within that specific subspecies; however, zero cultural capital is required to understand that their version of the edible plate easily merits the drive to Orange County. The first taste—from what, uncut, used to be the radial center of a beautiful artisanal disc—droops under the weight of flavor it supports. As you work your way outward, replacing too quickly bite after bite, you start wondering if it’s possible to sustain, in perpetuity, in your mouth, these feelings of enjoyment derived from the simple harmony of cheese, tomatoes, and bread. But you arrive at the farthest reaches of the thing and hope flickers. That nine out of ten crusts are unimaginative and bland has created you in a Pavlovian reaction to discard said bread once it’s served its purpose as a gripping-handle. Please, stop yourself; this crust is its own adventure. Why so many pizza makers relegate the doughy parapet to status of postscript is beyond me, and thankfully is beyond Pizzeria Ortica as well. Their crust is best enjoyed after a good run through the vanished pie’s pooled oils. It straddles the line between dense and airy, is satisfyingly chewy, but at the same time possesses this soft shock-absorber-like quality that does wonders to prevent your jaw from feeling resentful at all the work it’s doing2. It’d be the fitting coda to a really fine pizza if the whole experience didn’t make you order another one.


1 Meaning intentionally not crispy.  If you are only into crispy pizza, this is not the pizza for you (which begs the question: why only crispy pizza?  Why not expand your horizons?  There’s probably some sort of reason behind the way they’ve made it in the bottom of the Boot for like a thousand years.)
2 This imbalance in description, vis a vis crust to topping, exists for a reason.  There are so many pizzas at Ortica that talking about an arbitrary one here would do just as much good as trying to give the feel of an album by describing one song.  The constant here is the crust and it’s more detailed rendering is justified.


Joey Power is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.