Pizzeria Orso, Falls Church, VA

“Where’s the rest of you?”

That’s what I said to Will Artley when he came up to say hello to me and Matt. Will has devoted himself to fitness, and has lost something like 80 pounds! Congratulations, chef!

More importantly to the diner – and I may just be imagining this – his newfound lightness is also reflected in his cuisine, and my one knock on Will’s cooking before was that it tended to be on the heavy side; not this time around. Could it be that getting into shape could actually change the nature of a chef’s cooking? I don’t think it’s as outlandish as it first sounds.

Wednesday is half-price wine night at Pizzeria Orso, and I got a bottle of 2011 Palacio de Vivero Rueda for $12 – no, you read that correctly! 75% Verdejo and 25% Viura, and 13% ABV, this is a medium-bodied, light-styled wine that is just an incredible value on Wednesday nights. We were ordering mostly light, vegetable-based dishes, so it was a perfect match.

My young dining companion enjoyed a fine Virgil’s Cream Soda ($3.50). I never let Matt drink soft drinks (other than diet) when he was young, but now that he’s older, I encourage him to enjoy upscale versions (or, even better, mocktails) as a “beverage” with dinner; not a “thirst quencher.” It’s nice to see him not left out when his dad is having a bottleglass of wine.

Grilled Heart of Romaine ($6.50) with grana, classic Caesar, and anchovies, is always good here, and this was no exception. There’s a thread somewhere on donrockwell.com about the virtues, or lack thereof, of grilling romaine, but as long as it’s not over-grilled (which it often is), I rather like it, and this was a good, well-dressed version, gently priced.

Slow-Roasted Corn and Pea Salad ($9) was a prime example of the lightness that I saw on this particular evening, the peas being tiny, late-season beauties that were complemented, not shoved aside, by some mint, basil, and mild feta – a stronger feta wouldn’t work with a pea salad (as I was to find out later in the week at another restaurant). 

Caprese ($9) used what also were late-season tomatoes, but these were terrific tomatoes, sliced and plated in-line with cylinders of buffalo mozzarella and brought to life by vividly aromatic basil. 

The previous two dishes were summer on a plate, and as I type this, they’re both gone from the online menu which has been changed for early autumn – a testament to Pizzeria Orso and the respect they show to seasonality.

Rice inside the Arancini ($4, half-price because of happy hour) was strongly accompanied with preserved chorizo and saffron, served atop a tarragon emulsion. There were three orbs, and two of them went to Matt, who was starving from his long day by the time we arrived. If you like assertive chorizo, you’ll like these arancini. And at happy hour prices? It’s almost like free food.

The one miss of the night was the Pork Belly ($9), the pork belly itself being fine, but it was served with a mushroom ragu (also fine) and creamy polenta, and the polenta was the culprit, being slightly congealed on the top and having a clotted texture throughout. Meh, it happens – execute the polenta correctly, and you have yourself a good dish here.

I ordered the Slow-Roasted Cauliflower ($7) for its accompaniments: lemon-parsley emulsion and garlic. I’m a sucker for cauliflower with lemon, and this was cooked right to the point where it was neither too firm, nor too mushy. We were both getting extremely full at this point (stuffed, actually), and I definitely over-ordered by getting this fine dish.

Nevertheless, there’s always that second stomach, kept in reserve for dessert, and Orso’s Carrot Cake ($6) was very good for a simple version (“great” carrot cake is an absolute art, and must weigh about 20 pounds, be moist throughout, and contain lots of raisins and walnuts, preferably having sour cream-based icing). This rendition was not something a dedicated pastry chef would make, but was a success within its genre because it was moist, not gratuitously sweet, and had good icing, piped on top of the cake (which contained neither raisins nor walnuts) from a pastry bag.

A second dinner at Pizzeria Orso was carryout – this time for pizza!

As my mom would always say, “my eyes are bigger than my stomach,” and I always (erroneously) think that one pizza here won’t be enough for me, so out of sheer terror, the terror of not getting enough to eat, I order something to go with it.

A Chopped Salad ($9) sounded harmless enough, but turned out to be nearly my entire meal. A *huge* container full of salad, it came undressed, with the extremely curdish buttermilk dressing in a separate tub. Orso’s chopped salad is made with romaine, arugula, ham, a hardboiled egg, pancetta, tomato, grana, and avocado. As I just typed that, I now realize that it *doesn’t* sound harmless, and, in fact, it wasn’t: it was not a healthy salad, had *lots* of ham and cubes of pancetta, and absolutely needs to be thoroughly tossed and dressed rather than trying to pour the dressing on top and stir it up with a fork (like someone we all know and love did – it doesn’t work!) This is a fantastic salad for the money, but be prepared to make it your meal; not *part* of your meal.

An Orso ($17.25) was quite expensive for four pieces of pizza (yeah, yeah, I got mine sliced – they ask when you call), but it was also great. For some reasons, I had convinced myself that this was a red-sauce pizza (probably because there’s an Orso Bianco listed right above it), but it isn’t. It is, in essence, a variation of a quattro formaggio, with mozzarella, pecorino tuscano, fontina, grana, ricotta (okay, cinque formaggio), garlic, and prosciutto – it’s the same pie as the Orso Bianco with the addition of prosciutto, and was perfectly topped, perfectly cooked, and as is usually the case, showcased the wonderful sourdough crust here.

Pizzeria Orso has always been in Italic in the Dining Guide, and remains there comfortably and securely.

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