Restaurant Review: Pizzeria Orso

Pizzeria Orso is still firing hot in Falls Church.

You’d expect a neighborhood pizza place to be family-friendly, and Pizzeria Orso certainly is. Stop by any night of the week and you’ll likely see a few strollers sprinkled amidst the couples lingering over saffron-scented arancini and glasses of Montepulciano.

On Tuesdays, tots under 10 can dine for free on selections from the kids’ menu. And the little ones will get a kick out of watching the 800-degree volcanic brick oven at the end of the bar, which can turn out a perfect wood-fired pie in less than two minutes.

But Orso isn’t just a kids’ place. It’s also a mecca for those who take their pizza seriously. It has been ever since 2010, when the restaurant opened in the Pearson Square complex in Falls Church City with pizza genius Edan MacQuaid—formerly of 2 Amys and Ardeo + Bardeo in Washington, D.C.—at the helm. The following year, MacQuaid was succeeded by Chris Nye, a former sous chef at Orso’s sister restaurant, 2941.

The current chef, Will Artley, ran the kitchen at Evening Star Café in Del Ray before earning a certification in Neapolitan pizza-making and assuming the top post at Orso in 2012. He has since revamped some of the offerings and added a brunch course to the menu. But pizza is still the big draw here. In keeping with Neapolitan tradition, Orso uses dough “made from Caputo 00 flour, naturally leavened with sour starter and never refrigerated or frozen,” according to its menu. This ultra-fine flour is imported from Italy, as are the San Marzano tomatoes, fresh burrata cheese and Parma ham that top many of its gourmet pies.

Aside from those key imports, Artley prefers to source his ingredients closer to home, using suppliers such as Fells Point Wholesale Meats in Baltimore, which partners with farms across the region to provide everything from Maryland-raised duck eggs, pork, beef and rabbit, to Pennsylvania lamb and bacon. He also relies on a local forager for seasonal goodies such as ramps, Chanterelles and morels.

Stop in for a bite to eat—either indoors in the golden-hued dining room, or outside on the patio—and you’ll find pizzas dotting almost every table. (They are small enough to qualify as single-servings, though it’s nicer to share.) A swipe of tomato, topped with mozzarella, basil, arugula, prosciutto and a sprinkle of salty grana padano, make the minimalist Crudo a star.

The brunch menu brings its addictive polar opposite, a decadent pie known as Big Country, which layers the chewy crust with two types of cheese, a bonanza of meats, fresh cream and a runny egg, topped off with maple syrup. Also in the delicious-but-messy-meat-fest category is the Fellows Burger on house-made foccacia, which piles shaved ham, bacon and a fried egg on top of a burger patty made with ground beef, sausage, chili flakes and maple syrup.

A non-carnivorous brunch option is the sourdough twist on French toast, which stands up well to a generous caramel drizzle. Ours came with a bowl of bite-size summer fruit for my toddler son—a welcome touch.

Not everything on the menu is over-the-top. If you like fried calamari, you’ll get the same savory, crispy pleasure from Brussels Chips—a small plate of sprout leaves that are shocked in an ice bath, flash-fried and dusted with grana. I can also recommend the tender grilled octopus, which is served with garlicky artichokes, white beans and a spray of roasted vegetables.  

During another visit, my table fought over the last bite of seared scallops, served with a creamy couscous risotto and tangy pesto aioli. A cool butternut-squash-and-lentil salad, elegantly plated with a green peppercorn dressing, also got the thumbs-up. Grilling drew out the gourd’s natural sweetness.

Given its culinary range, it’s perhaps no surprise that Orso was nominated for two Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington RAMMY awards this year, in the categories of “Everyday Casual Restaurant” and “Everyday Casual Brunch.” But the emphasis on casual also seems to define the service.

During one solo weekday visit, my order of a few small plates stretched into an unwelcome hour-and-a-half at the table, with no silverware for the first 15 minutes. The staff appear to be aware of this shortcoming; I received apologies during two separate occasions for slow service and other miscues.


Also less than stellar: the sandwiches. Though they are served on chewy, house-baked breads, the wrapper was the best part of an onion-heavy, deli-style tuna that came with cold fries. The same was true of an unevenly seasoned meatball grinder.  

One of the benefits of sharing the same ownership with 2941 is the ability to tap its dessert talent. I’m referring to Caitlin Dysart, who was recently crowned “Pastry Chef of the Year” at the 2014 RAMMYs. The carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting that Dysart bakes for Orso is to die for.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for other sweets on the menu that are made in-house. I wanted to like the fluffy, lemon-glazed donut with Nutella mousse, but the citrus and hazelnut flavors just didn’t mesh.

Equally disappointing was the brunch menu’s bacon sticky bun, which arrived as an undercooked, smoky brick of dough and meat. Proof, perhaps, that bacon does not go with everything.

When in doubt, keep it simple with a plate of antipasti and a pizza to share, paired with a microbrew or one of the vinos on the tidy wine list—none of which tops $40 per bottle. (Some 15 wines are also offered by the glass.) It’s also hard to resist the year-round selection of frozen fruit slushies, available in both virgin flavors for kids (think cherry and frozen lemonade) and boozed-up versions for adults, such as cherry bourbon and screwdriver.

If you’ve got restless little ones who need a diversion while waiting for their food, you can always tour the cheerful dining room and count the bears. As befits its name (orso is Italian for bear), the restaurant features a captivating array of ursine artwork, starting with the memorable greeter at the hostess stand—a chainsaw-carved bear statue, crafted by West Virginia artist David Ferguson.

Jessica Strelitz is a food, wine and spirits writer based in Falls Church.

Pizzeria Orso, 400 South Maple Ave., Falls Church, 703-226-3460,

Lunch and dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m.
Brunch: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Appetizers, salads and sandwiches $6 to $12; pizza $9 to $17; entrées $12-24; desserts $3 to $6

Not required, but helpful on weekends

An extensive domestic beer list, a full bar and a limited selection of wines by the glass and bottle.

Free parking is available on the street, and in a covered lot with spaces that are reserved for restaurant patrons.

Categories: Food & Drink