Bertrand Chemel has worked at some of the finest restaurants in the world. He’s cooked in the kitchens of Laurent Tourondel and Daniel Boulud and helmed the kitchen of the acclaimed Cafe Boulud in New York City. Since 2008, he’s been the executive chef at Falls Church’s award-winning fine dining restaurant 2941, and just last October he took over the reins at Pizzeria Orso in the City. But despite his extensive culinary background, up until five months ago, Chemel had no history with Orso’s signature offering. “I had zero experience when it came to Neapolitan pizza,” he says. In fact, Chemel says he had no experience cooking any kind of pizza.
But with the same drive and motivation that had him sweeping the floor of a local bakery at age 14, Chemel is tackling the pizza world with fervor. So much in fact, that he’s currently in California training for his official Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana certification this week. His goal is for Pizzeria Orso to join an exclusive club as one of the few VPN-certified pizzerias in the area (there are only five others in D.C., Maryland and Virginia). Neapolitan pizza differs from other styles in that there are strict regulations as to how they are prepared. Everything from the ingredients to the temperature of the oven and even the way the dough is mixed is sanctioned to assure adherence to the tradition of Neapolitan pizza making.
Since he took over Orso last October, Chemel – who’s still the executive chef at 2941 – says the transition has been smooth, mostly because much of the kitchen crew also works at his sister restaurant. “They’re all my guys,” he says. But despite the familiarity in the kitchen, the new Italian cuisine – not to mention the pizza – presents its own set of challenges. Orso is more Mediterranean than the French 2941 and, therefore, relies on different ingredients. “It’s more olive oil, seafood, cured meats,” he says. Evidence of this is a new cured meats and cheese section on the menu with sweet and dry pork sausage, housemade garlic sausage and prosciutto di parma.
Also new are shareables like bruschetta with tomato confit, basil and garlic, a delightful beef tartar crostini dressed in truffle oil and a you’d-swear-it-was-burrata cold parmesan dip drizzled in olive oil and capers. A new octopus appetizer is another example of Chemel’s take on Mediterranean, mixing peppers, smoked eggplant and mozzarella di bufala with chunks of the grilled cephalopod.
Chemel says while the pizza dough recipe has remained largely the same, it’s now a little more yeasty and less sour than before. As for those Neapolitan pies, the 14-deep lineup keeps the restaurant’s longstanding favorites – the eponymous Orso and Orso Bianco – along with other, more traditional pies like the Margherita DOC and Diavola. And while Chemel respects those classic combinations, he also likes to have some fun. “There’s a couple on the menu with a little twist,” he says with a smile. And one of those is, quite literally, a twisted pizza. For the Rotolino, Chemel takes fontina, pecorino, ricotta, prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto cotto and rolls it all up in dough before tossing it in oven. The result is a pizza-calzone hybrid in the shape of a crescent moon with an arugula salad in the middle for good measure.
The other pizza twist is the Orso Di Fumare, an excellent example of Chemel’s deft touch when it comes to smoked vegetables. Sausage, peppers and onions mix with delightfully smoky tomatoes on this one. Another testament to the chef’s wizardry with veggies and fire is his baked eggplant. Don’t be put off by the burnt-looking outside, its amalgamation of sweet, smoky richness is nothing short of wonderful.
Larger plates include pasta dishes like a traditional spaghetti with beef and veal meatballs but also more upscale fare like braised short ribs and pork belly agnolotti and a light and pillowy ricotta gnocchi mixed with spicy sausage and baby kale. There’s a rib eye, in a portion suitable for a cave man, served with grilled onions and crispy potatoes, a chicken parm and a burger that just may be one of the most underrated in the D.C. area.
Along with Chemel, Jonathan Schuyler and Caitlin Dysart – 2941’s wine and beverage director and award-winning pastry chef, respectively – have lent their skills to Orso, too. Schuyler revamped the beverage program (including a new “quartino” wine option that splits the difference between a glass and a bottle) and a new dessert menu from Dysart features standouts like vanilla cream donuts, a playful spin on a sundae with blood orange sorbet and a decadent chocolate cake with Nutella cream and toasted hazelnuts.
Chemel says he’ll be a frequent attendee of the Falls Church Farmers Market and his future plans for Orso include an herb garden outside, chilies growing on the patio and he wants to make his own foccacia along with homemade ricotta, too.
For a guy with relatively limited experience with Italian cuisine and someone who just started making pizzas for the first time six months ago, Chemel is certainly a fast learner.
“Orso has been my most challenging restaurant yet,” he says.
He could have fooled me.
Pizzeria Orso | 400 South Maple Avenue | Falls Church | pizzeriaorso.com