The name of the Italian dish, saltimbocca — a thin cut of meat dredged in flour, layered with sage and ham or bacon and then shallow-fried — roughly translates to “jump in the mouth.” Almost all of the dishes at L’Orcio, an upscale Italian eatery at 806 State St., live up to the audacious expectations of the dish’s title. Chef and co-owner Francesco d’Amuri creates an exquisite neoclassical cuisine, harking back to culinary tradition with modern élan. Under his direction, simple flavors tantalize and seduce, jousting and harmonizing on the tongue.
Antipasti ($6-12) consist mainly of salads. We ordered the insalata caprese, a mozzarella and tomato salad dressed with high quality extra-virgin olive oil and festooned with a chiffonade of basil. The medley displayed a bright triad of colors immediately recalling the Italian flag. While not the most innovative, the salad was fresh, appropriately seasoned and balanced.
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Primi ($14-19), or first-plates, include the simple pappardelle al pomodoro, ribbons of pasta in a tomato and basil sauce, and the dynamic Cavatelli alla Norma, folded tubes of pasta in eggplant sauce with aged ricotta cheese. Gnocchi Boscaiola, homemade ricotta potato pasta in a tomato cream sauce with mushrooms, was indulgent, but a little dull.
Flavors were better developed in the bold Bucatini all’Amatriciana, thick strings of hollow pasta snaking in between a chunky red amalgam of smoked tomatoes, garlic, onions, chili pepper and pancetta. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the generous coating of sauce exemplary in its piquancy. If only there had been more bread to wipe my plate clean.
For all of the pasta dishes, instead of dried pasta, homemade parpadelle can be substituted for a fee of $2.
Along with the saltimbocca, Pollo al Vino Bianco (chicken breast sautéed in white wine), filet mignon with creamy Gorgonzola sauce, and pan-seared sea bass with cherry tomatoes, cockles, mussels, shrimp and cavatelli make up the secondi ($20-30).
The limited but carefully selected wine list has 15 whites and 31 reds and places heavy emphasis on Italy, not surprising given the restaurant’s name, which in Italian means “jug” or “pitcher.” Offerings come by the glass or the bottle ($25-200). Our waitress suggested the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($8 by glass), which was zesty and full-bodied and pared well with our food.
Cocktails ($7-10) are also served at the ritzy bar downstairs, including a limoncello martini and the stregata, an Italian “herbal elixir” mixed with pineapple juice and soda, among other offerings fit for New Haven high society.
Desserts ($5-8) offer traditional preparations using basic ingredients, and are at best innovative and inspired. Though apple cake with pine nuts and raisins and chocolate mousse cake with amaretto crust sounded delicious, we ordered the flourless chocolate cake, which was delicate in its own right, but was improved when complemented by a velvety hazelnut gelato.
Big points for originality are found in homemade ice creams — which come in rosemary, sage and lemon tarragon varieties — and homemade blood orange sorbet. Though exotic, the lemon tarragon ice cream was an outstanding achievement. The anise flavors of the tarragon were a sotto voce underlying the acidity of the lemon and the fat and sweetness of the cream base, giving the smooth, decadent ice cream a wonderful, subtle complexity.
Service is friendly, attentive and unpretentious, belying the suspicions of snobbery I had upon walking in and seeing the sophisticated European interior: The two dining rooms are decorated with dark wood paneling and cornices, burgundy wallpaper interspersed with brick and vintage sconces. The overall ambience, like the service, nevertheless is comfortable and elegant, even spirited. Wall posters depicting the joie de vivre of Italian culture — from an idyllic villa nestled in forested mountains to buxom, dark-haired Italian maidens pouring streams of olive oil — echo this feeling.
L’Orcio’s main flaw is its pricing, which is expensive. The prices hint at haute cuisine pretensions, which the food, while often daring and delicious, does not entirely justify. Attention to tradition sometimes fetters originality. With entrée prices hovering around $25, preparations could do more to push limits; presentations could be more elaborate and refined.
But that should not dissuade students searching for a classy dining establishment on Parents’ Weekend. Dinner at L’Orcio is one satisfying experience — especially if someone else is paying.