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One almost regrets devouring the steaming hot pizzas that emerge from the oven at Otto in Chester. Crafted with care, with careful consideration for each ingredient's role, they are edible works of art.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you say; fine, but spectacular flavor and texture is not, and that's what's happening at Otto.
And no wonder: the culinary creatives behind Chester's well-loved River Tavern are the architects of Otto, "a stylish, family friendly pizzeria" (per its website) that opened in December.
The bulk of Otto's menu is pizza, offering perhaps a shorter list of items than some other pizza destinations in the state, but when one's options include a pie topped with egg, pancetta, potato, ricotta and thyme ($15); or another with house-made pork ragu with Melinda mae cheese (a soft cow's milk cheese made by the Mystic Cheese Company) and kale ($16), one hardly feels at a loss for good options.
Plus, those options change frequently, likely with what's in season, so be aware when consulting the online menus (several iterations of various days' offerings are posted to Otto's Facebook page) that more options might await in-house, or, indeed, something you saw online might not be on the evening's menu. The menu also tends to include something under the rubric of "gluten-free/not pizza"; on recent menus, that item was eggplant Parmesan.
Back to that egg-pancetta pizza (which seems a frequent flier in the menu rotation): it is an intriguing mixture and a hearty one at that. We loved the interplay of egg on potato on flavorful, soft crust, but the pancetta threw us off, just a bit. Instead of the delicate slices we anticipated after reading the menu online, this pie was topped with jiggly cubes of the Italian bacon. Now, we did grab this pie as a take-out item, and perhaps the pancetta wasn't meant to travel; we intend to try this pie again in-house because it has so much else going for it. In any case, the pancetta did not stop us from devouring the whole pizza.
In the same trip we also picked up a margherita pizza, which features liuzzi mozzarella, stracciatella (more cheese) and basil. The menu DID note that this pie is not a great traveler (which we failed to notice on our mobile-phone version of the menu), but in the end, we still enjoyed it - despite a slightly overdone crust - thanks to all that toothy cheese. Quality ingredients make all the difference sometimes.
And yes, we plan to try this pizza in-house ASAP, because the two pizzas we destroyed counter-side at Otto were mind-blowingly wonderful; indeed, even the hardly fancy pepperoni pizza ($15; also topped with cherry peppers, rosemary and garlic). Well-selected pepperoni blended beautifully with the peppers (chopped to just the right size for pizza-eating purposes), leaving just a trail of heat at the end of each mouthful. This time, the crust was perfection: crisp, a little chewy, with a bit more heft than some pizzas.
As for pizza number 2, we went a little wilder and selected a white pizza topped with spring onions, chili oil, ricotta, and piles of `nduja, a fiery, chili-laden pork paste ($16). Long after my last slice of this pie, my lips hummed with the heat of its exotic toppings - in a good way. The sweet, green onions functioned to tone down the fire in what was, for me, a unique savory experience - also in a good way. Once again, the crust was delightful, but that's what happens when a hot pie comes out of the oven and onto your plate in a matter of moments.
Freshness aside, another reason to dine in at Otto is to watch the chefs in action. During a recent visit, we sat at the counter (tables also available) and peppered the chef closest to us with questions about various ingredients and Otto's dough-making technique. He was entirely gracious and very well-versed in his craft, making the conversation an added bonus to our trip into Chester center.
That same chef also mixes a wonderful salad. We watched him create our salad of local greens, shaved fennel, lemon and parmesan ($9) moments before he handed it over to us in separate bowls (wait-staff are wise enough to ask if co-diners would like to split their salads). On the menu, this salad also comes with walnuts, but an allergy prevented their inclusion for us - a request taken quite seriously and kindly by our waitress, who made a note of it on our guest check and asked the chef to use a nut-free bowl for the salad's prep. Still, we hardly missed the walnuts at all, and ate every last leaf of this zesty, refreshing mix in which fennel and lemon combine to offer nuanced bite, offset by the tender greens. Highly recommended.
We also thoroughly enjoyed the Greek salad ($9; seems a menu staple), which combines greens, red onion, cucumber, roasted peppers, olives, mint and feta cheese. We think some lemon amped up the flavor of the other ingredients (not that they needed it) in this mix as well.
Another reason to dine in? A great wine and beer list, with a handful of wines available by the glass (an option not abundantly clear on the physical menu, which also cites the wines' bin numbers; don't hesitate to ask your server for directions).
Otto won't remain a local secret for long, and it stands to gain as much celebrity as its sibling, The River Tavern, so we advise you check it our soon and settle in for a while.
69 Main St., Chester
Cuisine: Pizza extraordinaire
Atmosphere: Upscale casual and cozy in a former art gallery space
Prices: Pricey for pizza, but diners are assured of quality ingredients
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m.; Friday, 4:30-10 p.m.; Saturday, 4-10 p.m.; and Sunday, 4-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Handicapped access: Two stairs from a sidewalk lead to the door; close quarters inside