For almost a decade, we’ve known about chef René Rodriguez and his penchant for playing around with Spanish and Mexican flavours at the late Navarra. So it’s not a stretch seeing him take on Southern Italian cuisine at Orto Trattoria in the Glebe.
Cucina povera, or peasant cooking, is at the foundation of the menu (hence, meatballs and pappardelle al funghi). It’s when Rodriguez starts adding basil gel, butter made of black truffles and fermented white beans, and even Szechuan peppercorns that your interest is really stirred. Scanning the menu, one wonders as well at such obscure terminology — bring your Italian-English dictionary for looking up words like bottarga, soffritto, pangratatto, and Cergniolas. Upon tasting the dishes, of course, this quibble becomes fairly immaterial.
Spring salad is a perfect mix of greens, red endive, and grilled radicchio, lightly dressed. A drift of finely grated Parmigiano is on top, while two surprises await underneath: coppa alla Romana, a sweet, tender, prosciutto-like cured meat; and a crispy Parmigiano-pine nut tuile.
Another appetizer consists of two deep-fried golden balls called arancini (little oranges, in Italian). Atypically, the rice for the shell is ground rather than left whole, just as Syrians and Sephardic Jews do with their stuffed shells called kibbeh. Encrusted with Pecorino cheese, the centres oozing with Mozzarella, these arancini are worth their weight in gold.
Breaded and fried veal scallopini on a bed of fennel purée, is delicious. A simple tomato sauce napped over the meat is in turn covered by melted burrata (fresh cheese made from mozzarella and cream) and, at the very top, a row of asparagus. The grilled wedge of lemon on the side is a nice touch.
A buttermilk marinade tenderizes Orto’s silky pig cheek confit — so seductive. Truffled dwarf peaches, part of the dish, are similar in colour to the pork, so their crunchy texture is a surprise. I couldn’t detect any truffle flavour in these lightly pickled unripened peaches, but regardless the contrast with the meat was refreshing.
Now, a note about the service — it’s mostly good. An evening my guest and I dined, maître d’ Ian Martin, asked, “What can I bring you?” What a civilized way to ask for our order. Martin is also quick to give wine expertise from Orto’s all-Italian list. (I enjoyed afragrant white with fresh citrus flavour called Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna.) Unfortunately though, at the end of another evening, a top-40 rock station came blasting through the dining room while my espresso, half-finished, was whisked away. It was 10:30, and we were not the only customers in the place.
For dessert, try Romeo and Giulietta, a creation by pastry chef Marie Ford. A warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, very rich, sits next to a pavlova nest filled with white chocolate mousse and sweetly decorated with fine slices of dried strawberries. Exquisite romance.
We’re happy that Orto’s owner, Pino Guerra, asked Rodriguez to head the kitchen.
Mains, including pasta dishes, $21-$32
Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner; closed Sundays
151C Second Ave., 613-244-6786