Fluent in Italian

I f I had to choose one word to describe the cuisine at L’Orcio, it would be “delicate.” This is high praise and might be surprising, considering that Italian food is often associated with words like “robust” and “hearty.” But at L’Orcio (pronounced LOR-cho), Chef Francesco d’Amuri cooks with such a light hand that every bite unfurls gently on the palate, revealing essences of lobster, lamb, fennel, figs and so much more.

To diners whose idea of Italian cuisine is based on Southern Italian fare—red sauces, baked pasta dishes, spaghetti and meatballs—L’Orcio can be something of a revelation. “I’m American-Italian,” says Alison DeRenzi, who co-owns the State Street restaurant with her husband, the chef. “I grew up on Sunday Sauce, eggplant parmesan, pasta e fagioli.” She notes that these specialties are all from the same general region, which includes Amalfi, Naples and Sicily, and were brought to our country by a wave of immigrants in the early 1900s. “It’s peasant food from home kitchens,” she says, “and here it sort of got stuck in time.” It remains the dominant cuisine of America’s Little Italy neighborhoods, including Wooster Street in New Haven.

Alison’s understanding of Italian cooking changed completely while studying abroad in the ’90s. “I went to Florence and saw steaks, beans, vegetables and a lot of pork, and thought, ‘Whoa, I must be in paradise’ – I couldn’t believe the variety.” When she met Italian native Francesco (he’s from Francavilla Fontana in the province of Brindisi), her window to Italy’s cuisine flung open entirely. The couple explored the country’s intensely regional cookery via sagras—food-driven festivals in which communities come together to prepare feasts based on hunts, harvests and the like. “Our favorite thing to do is travel and eat,” smiles Alison, and says that she and Francesco have been to festivals celebrating truffles, hares and wild boars, among others. “The Italians hang on to their history via their food,” she explains, noting that Italy was a collection of city-states for much of its history and didn’t start to unify until the 1800s. “The food and the way they prepare it is their identity, so it’s super important to them.”

Alison’s history lesson explains how L’Orcio can be both contemporary and traditional. “This is the kind of food you’d be eating if you were traveling through Italy today,” she says, “It seems modern, but the cooking techniques and the ingredients are traditional to various regions.” Because this is America, however, everything is open to interpretation, and Chef Francesco is known for his original versions of ancestral dishes.

L’Orcio’s menu is a mini-masterpiece. Entirely a la carte—as restaurants in Italy are—it presents such tantalizing antipasti as a vegetable terrine baked in puff pastry, a plate of local mixed cheeses with lavender walnut bread and honey, and pan-fried stuffed sardines atop gently dressed greens. There are simple salads and inspired sides like oven-roasted fennel dusted with bread crumbs, and a list of “classic” entrees such as hand-made ricotta gnocchi in Gorgonzola sauce, an oven-roasted Mediterranean sea bass with cherry tomatoes, zucchini and white wine, and L’Orcio’s ever-popular meat ragú—which is much like Bolognese, but because it isn’t 100 percent traditional, Alison and Francesco won’t dare lay claim to the name.

The shining stars of L’Orcio’s kitchen are the Piatti dello Chef, Francesco’s ever-changing specialties of the house. Here is where delicacy comes into full play. A handmade pillow of lobster ravioli in sherry cream sauce inspired me to make a note that it was “made by angels in heaven,” while a second ravioli, a marvelous invention of Francesco and Alison, combined broccoli rabe and sausage, minced and mingled in a creamy roasted garlic sauce and enhanced by leaves of fresh sage. Lamb chops on a cauliflower puree were herbal, succulent and cooked to temperature, a challenge considering their petite proportions.

Other options, not sampled by my date and myself but tugging at us for return visits, include mushroom risotto with pulled pork shank; an oven-roasted Scottish salmon; and a grilled New York steak. (One of these wafted by us and was served to a clearly delighted patron at the end of the bar.)

What we did try was one of Chef Francesco’s desserts. These are house-made (as are L’Orcio’s breads). Out of seven on the menu, Boyfriend chose the Charlotte, a chocolate mousse cake encrusted with rum-soaked Amaretto cookies and topped with clouds of whipped cream. It was very sweet, and very successful.

There are many good reasons to visit L’Orcio, including a well-priced wine list with lots of yummy bottles from Italy. What’s most compelling this time of year, however, is L’Orcio’s secret garden. The restaurant is situated in an 1889 house that was once home to a private club; its earth-toned interior is welcoming, with dining rooms on two floors and a big bar just right for twosomes and lonesomes. But walk out the back door, and it’s a different world: a glorious patio, invisible from the street, under the shelter of a massive arbor dripping with wisteria blossoms. (“It’s a beast,” Alison says of the vine. “It would cover the house and the church next door, if we let it.”) In this tranquil retreat are ceiling fans, stacked stone walls, grapes, strawberries, an herb garden (the mint is for mojitos), and a terra cotta fountain for those lucky enough to reserve a table on a balmy evening. It’s no surprise that the chef does all of the gardening himself; he and Alison have created their own little region of Italy with its own rooted traditions, right here in New Haven.

806 State Street, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-6670
Tues-Thurs 5-9:30pm, Fri 11:30am-2:30pm & 5-10:30pm, Sat 5-10:30pm, Sun 4:30-9pm

Written by Todd Lyon. Photograph courtesy of L’Orcio.

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Todd Lyon has been covering the New Haven dining scene for 20-plus years. She has authored, co-authored or ghost written 17 books on subjects as diverse as business, wedding gowns and kissing; currently she co-owns Fashionista Vintage and Variety, a clothing store for eccentrics.

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