Chef Brett Williams calls Orta his “third baby,” along with two youngsters at home in Scituate. He and his wife, Cara, bought the Pembroke restaurant last August from Jimmy Burke, his longtime employer and mentor.
Burke and his wife, Joanie Wilson, opened Orta, named for a lake in the Piedmont region of Italy, in 2009. (The Burke-Wilson team has since launched JW’s Burger Bar and JW’s Wood Fired Pizza Shack, both of Scituate.)
Williams spent six years honing his culinary skills at Riva, Burke’s former restaurant in Scituate, where he began as “a salad guy” and worked his way up to head chef. During that time, he made several trips to Italy, working in restaurants and absorbing the culture. He said he still subscribes to the philosophy he learned there: “Let the ingredients do their work, and the dish will always be delicious.”
Since taking over Orta, Williams said, he has focused on using more local fresh ingredients, and fine-tuning details of presentation and service. He has also expanded the wine list, and launched a line of signature cocktails that puts a modern twist on the classics (think a maple vanilla dark ’n’ stormy).
When our party of three arrived on a weeknight, we were greeted by Cara Williams, who runs the front of the house. The dining room is spare and warm, with soothing earth colors, rose-colored floor tiles, and tables and chairs in dark, glossy wood. From our round table in a wood-panel-lined alcove, we had a good view of the open kitchen and its big, wood-fired brick oven.
We started with a basket of good focaccia and a dish of olive oil with an artistic swirl of balsamic vinegar. It was one of many thoughtful presentations that enhanced the visual appeal of each dish.
Our waitress was pleasant and efficient. Because she insisted on brewing a fresh pot of decaf for one member of our party and she seemed to know the menu, we were inclined to trust her recommendations.
One of those was an appetizer of Prince Edward Island mussels ($9), which were among the best we’ve had. The small, tender mussels arrived in a light broth bright with slivers of garlic, leek, chopped basil, parsley, and smoked pancetta. It was all we could do not to sop up every last drop with our remaining bread.
Crisp lobster risotto cakes ($10) enveloped a moist filling of rice and corn, topped with a ribbon of piquant roasted tomato aïoli. While they were tasty, they did not taste particularly of lobster.
Our entrees arrived with dramatic flair. Three servers materialized at our table, each bearing a dish filled with food attractively stacked in a precarious tower on a white plate. Linguine with black truffle butter, porcini mushrooms, and chives ($19) was a generous portion of dense, chewy linguine that tasted homemade in a rich, earthy sauce. (We learned later that the pasta is not made on the premises, but is handmade for the restaurant). The linguine was more than enough for a meal, and eminently shareable as a first course.
When it comes to eating pasta, I am a twirler, and Orta is one of the few places where I have not had to ask for a soup spoon on which to twirl (my pasta, that is).
The restaurant’s signature item, a dish Williams told me later he has carried from restaurant to restaurant throughout his career, is braised beef short rib with house gnocchi ($21). The well-trimmed beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the succulent gnocchi, using a recipe the chef picked up while cooking in Piedmont, were bathed in a light Parmesan sauce. It’s a dish that could have been heavy, but here it was pleasantly light.
Almond-crusted salmon ($22) was a large piece of farm-raised fish with sweet-potato ragout and crimini mushrooms. The salmon was cooked through, as requested, but still moist. The crust had a satisfying crunchy texture, but we did not taste almond. Cubes of sweet potato were cooked just until tender and tossed with crimini mushrooms and onion in a light sauce flavored with amaretto liqueur.
Though we did not try the pizza, we did get to watch it bake in the brick oven. Williams said later the dough recipe comes from Naples, “the land of pizza.” Traditional Margherita with San Marzano tomatoes is the most popular flavor, he said, closely followed by “drunken mushroom,” a mix of crimini and oyster mushrooms and a touch of Madeira.
All of the desserts, except for the sorbet and gelato, are made in-house, Williams said. We settled on a chocolate crème brulee served with toasted marshmallow on a graham cracker ($8) — essentially a deconstructed s’more. This dessert was infinitely more than the sum of its parts. The brulee and the marshmallow were satisfying individually, but the taste of both combined was positively transporting.
Our dinner at Orta had all the ingredients of a pleasant evening out: good food, friendly service, nice pacing, and a comfortable ambience. Under the thoughtful direction of its devoted parents, we’d say this “baby” has a promising future.