Orto is hot right now, and with good reason.
The Station North restaurant isn’t perfect; during a Saturday night visit about two months after it opened, we experienced some service hiccups. But even with room to improve, Orto is very good.
Orto, which opened in February, is the baby of Elan Kotz, whose previous restaurant experience includes opening The Food Market with Chad Gauss back in 2012. Kotz is a front-of-house and behind-the-scenes guy; Orto’s kitchen is helmed by Chef Stefano Porcile, who has recently cooked at erstwhile Station North favorites Colette and Bottega.
The Colette/Bottega connection is no surprise: Orto occupies the N. Charles Street space that was home to both. The restaurant’s look has been updated since Bottega closed–it’s charming, light and bright, from the red neon sign that glows over outdoor seating to marble tables and simple wooden chairs inside.
Like Bottega, Orto’s menu is Italian, but the new restaurant is not a copycat of the old one. It does, however, capture some of Bottega’s finer points, namely food that feels special, but more rustic than fancy, and deceptively complex.
Everything was cooked beautifully and the kitchen’s attention to detail, both in terms of flavor and preparation, was stellar.
We started with a pair of appetizers: cacio e pepe arancini and chicken liver mousse crostini. I’d go back for more of either any day.
The arancini–fried risotto balls–arrived over tomato emulsion and scattered orange peppers, with a sprinkling of mixed fresh herbs on top. Crispy on the outside and hot and creamy in the center, they were a good match for the sweet flavors of the sauce and peppers.
The crostini paired generous smears of smooth chicken liver mousse with a compote of golden raisins and pine nuts and–again–fresh herbs. The pairing of sweet fruit with chicken liver is classic for a reason: both are natural complements and the fruit cuts through the mousse’s extra-rich texture. The nuts were an exciting addition to this mix, adding crunch.
The bread is often an issue with dishes like this one. Even if it’s excellent on its own, sometimes its chewiness or hard crust makes it challenging to eat without making a mess. Or, on the flip side, bread that’s too soft doesn’t stand up to its toppings. Neither was a problem here; the charred sourdough achieved the golden mean.
Orto’s kitchen makes its pasta in-house; the menu always includes a few different options. We tried two and were impressed with both.
A bowl of ricotta cavatelli mixed with peas and black trumpet mushrooms was creamy–thanks to bits of burrata–and had interesting crunch, courtesy of a sprinkle of hazelnuts. The dish was a great representation of early spring. With its sweet peas, earthy mushrooms and fluffy pasta, it was light enough for warm weather but comforting enough for chilly nights.
Casarecce–homespun pasta twists–was a little heavier but just as likable. Mixed with pork sausage, rapini and bits of chiles, the dish was savory and just spicy enough.
The pastas are hearty enough to serve as main courses, but the restaurant also offers a short selection of bona fide entrées. The six choices during our visit were diverse enough to make both vegetarians and strident carnivores happy.
From that list, the large slab of suckling pig, served over white bean and prosciutto ragu with greens and balsamic onions, was a favorite at our table. That combination of ingredients sounds like a lot–sweet and salty and bitter and acidic all at once–and it was, but the flavors worked together in concert rather than overwhelming one another.
The other entrée we tried–grilled bronzino with preserved lemon, bok choy and spring onions–seemed austere compared to the pork, but it was also lovely. While the pork’s plate was a pile of meat and beans, the fish was served whole and appeared nearly naked on the plate alongside the pale green and white vegetables.
The dish’s simplicity is what made it succeed. The lemon brought out the flavor of the fish without overwhelming its delicacy. Dishes that straightforward require some confidence, too–overcook the fish and the plate is a disaster.
Fortunately, Porcile’s kitchen is on top of its game from a technical standpoint. Not only were we thrilled with the flavor combinations, we were also impressed that everything we tried was cooked and seasoned adequately.
Even if you don’t have time for a full meal, Orto makes a nice stop for a drink. The restaurant’s cocktails are the type that are likely to include at least one or two ingredients you’ve never heard of; just trust your gut or ask the bartender to steer you in the right direction.
Our favorites from the drinks list were the By Jove, a rye, lemon, honey and black pepper concoction, and the Melancholia, which mixed gin, cocchi, lemon, absinthe and an herbal liqueur from the Alps called Dolin Genepy. We also asked the bar to create a fun mocktail; they came up with a tart, herbaceous and likable drink.
The wine list is a good one. It’s Italy-heavy, as you might expect, and includes options at a variety of price points. Our selection, the Piedmontese red Seghesio Barbera d’Alba, was fruity and big and worked best with the suckling pig and casarecce.
Desserts were just as pleasing as the rest of the meal: We loved a rich dish of espresso chocolate mousse and a cool scoop of hazelnut ice cream. A small blood orange tart was equally captivating, though it also pointed to the main problem we had with the meal.
The tart arrived at our table by mistake. We didn’t order it, and when we let someone know about the mix-up, they told us to keep the dessert on the house. That’s great and we appreciated it. But that was just the last in a string of small service glitches we had throughout the evening.
Early on, we were confused by a waiter who came by our table to take drink orders. He didn’t offer any sort of introduction, just a question about drinks. We were left feeling unsure about whether he was, in fact, our waiter.
He was, I think, though throughout the meal, several staff members tended to our table at different points in time. That approach is just fine–when it works.
But during our meal, there seemed to be a disconnect somewhere. Everyone who came to the table was personable, but there were a couple lags, especially early on, when we were ready to order but didn’t see a waiter in sight.
Once our orders were in, dishes were fairly well-timed. Unfortunately, one–an appetizer of marinated gigante beans–went missing and even after we inquired about it, it didn’t turn up (except on the bill).
Service stumbles like that aren’t uncommon, though, especially on a busy Saturday night during the first couple months of operation. Those little issues will, I expect, work themselves out as the staff gets its footing.
And they’re easier to forgive when the meal itself is satisfying. And ours certainly was.
Orto, 1709 N. Charles St., Baltimore, (443) 759-7200, ortobaltimore.com
Final Grade: B+
Bottom Line: Excellent, sneakily complex Italian food makes up for a few service stumbles at this Station North hotspot.
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