You don’t need an airline ticket to find yourself transported to that perfect little Italian restaurant. You can find it right on State Street at a place called L’Orcio. From the bubbling lion’s-head water fountain under a wisteria arbor, to the white tablecloths and ochre walls of the dining rooms, the decor instantly brings you to Florence, or Naples, or Rome. But it’s Francesco D’Amuri’s food that places you squarely on that Italian hillside with the cicadas buzzing in the bright, Mediterranean sunshine.
Although D’Amuri is from Puglia in southeastern Italy, he began his career at age 17 in a kitchen in Rimini, in the Emilia-Romagna region. He moved from restaurant to restaurant, region to region, town market to local garden, until he had a thorough understanding of the variety of regional, homestyle Italian cuisines. “Food [culture] in Italy is in everybody. It’s not just grandma, it goes from generation [to generation] and everyone is so proud of their local cuisine.”
D’Amuri switched gears for a while, co-owning a successful wood shop in Florence, making pieces to be used in renovations and restorations of the city’s homes. During this break from cooking, D’Amuri met Alison DeRenzi, who was studying art history in Florence. They married in 2000. Two years later, D’Amuri sold his half of the woodshop to his partner and the couple moved to the States to find a spot for their restaurant. They chose Connecticut because Alison had spent many summers in Branford. After buying and renovating the State Street building, they opened L’Orcio in 2003, taking the name from the traditional terra cotta vessel for storing olive oil.
“It’s simple home-style food,” D’Amuri says. “Our food is no fuss, no muss. Very simple. Very great ingredients. Everything is very fresh. There’s no more than three or four ingredients in one place. If I am using fish, I am not going to use capers and cream and truffle oil. I treat my main ingredient like it is the king of the dish and I want that to be the focus.”
He continues, “I love to make risotto. It’s an expression of what is going on in the moment. If I am making artichoke risotto, I’m using artichokes and that’s it.” For his risottos, he uses his own vegetable stock, rather than a meat stock, to keep the dish light and consistent in flavor.
D’Amuri has had to adjust to a locale that has a relatively short growing season. He misses Italy’s longer seasons, which provided him fresh local produce nearly year-round. He also had a bit a challenge finding what has become his restaurant’s most beloved dish: European sea bass, known as branzino or spigola, depending on the region.
“When I came to Connecticut, there was no way I could find that fish until I talked to #1 Fish in Hamden, who went to New York to get it,” D’Amuri says. “We were the first restaurant in New Haven to use that fish. And now, ten years later, it is [everywhere]. We do it any kind of way: filleted, grilled, oven-roasted.”
Steaks are also very popular. “We also sell a lot of grass-fed, hormone-free beef and steaks,” D’Amuri says. But the high point of any L’Orcio meal is the homemade pasta. “We make it here daily: ravioli (lobster and spinach, butternut squash, ricotta and spinach, eggplant and goat cheese) papardelle and gnocchi.” D’Amuri will stuff ravioli with just about anything that’s in season.
L’Orcio can seat 45 on each of floors, and D’Amuri says the patio “fills up very, very fast. It’s a good idea to make a reservation for it so you’re not disappointed.”
Restaurant Website: http://www.lorcio.com/Home-Page.php
• The Detes: 806 State St. (between Eld and Pearl), New Haven. 203-777-6670. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m., Friday lunch 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday dinner 5 p.m. – 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Closed Mondays.
• Price Range: Lunch: $4 – 22, three-course lunch $19. Dinner: appetizers and salads $5 – 14, entrees $13 – 27.
• Style of Food: homestyle Italian from several regions
• Favorite dishes: panfried sardines, branzino, beef carpaccio, seafood salad, homemade pastas.
• Drinks: full bar; cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juice. “People say we have the best margarita in town.”
• Events: Tuesday through Thursday.
• Vegetarian/Gluten Free available: Yes
• Outdoor seating: Yes, on a wonderful rear patio under a wisteria arbor.