Pizzeria Orso's new executive chef Will Artley has been with the Falls Church restaurant for only a few months, but he knows he's in the right place.
"For the first time in my career, I was like, 'This is where I want to be,'" Artley says about when he started getting to know the pizzeria earlier this year. "I haven't even eaten at that restaurant yet. I was already like, 'I want this job.'"
The 35-year-old New York native recently departed his six-year tenure as executive chef at Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood on October 24, 2011, a date he'll always remember. After taking a month-long break from cooking, he started a food consulting business, interviewed with several restaurants for his next full-time gig and hosted a pop-up restaurant called Project 2312 at Pork Barrel BBQ that ran from January 30 through February 6.
He was introduced to Orso's upper management team by friend and fellow chef Barry Koslow when they visited his latest venture. He remembers everything he heard about the neighborhood eatery from them was "perfect" and wanted to know more. He later dined at Orso at least five times, met the staff, got to know the Falls Church area and the rest was amore.
Artley's enthusiasm and his ability to connect with a community he's worked in for years helped him get the job, but not his Neapolitan pizza-making skills. His only pizzeria experience was after high school in Upstate New York. He has a background in artisan bread-making, but he's mostly been preparing what he describes as "local American food" when he helmed Evening Star's kitchen.
So he was sent to Marina del Ray, Calif. for a weeklong training at VPN Americas, an organization established by the Italian government to cultivate the craft of authentic Neapolitan pizza-making in the U.S. and Canada. Under the tutelage of at least two pizzaioli (pizza makers) for each session, he learned the history of pizza, the ingredients of a denomination of control (D.O.C.) pie and the detailed techniques to create the perfect dish. He and another chef each also churned two to four hundred pizzas a day.
"They basically critique you in every way — how you stirred, how you washed everything, the temperature you had your oven at," he says. "They basically rubbed you down and put you back together."
It was a grueling experience for Artley, who wasn't used to such criticism. But he knew he had to be open to learning all he can about the specific Neapolitan pie-making process.
"When you're the executive chef of a restaurant, you're the alpha male. You lead everybody. Everyone asks you questions," he says. "Then you're going back to that feeling: I'm the guy who doesn't know anything. Anything I know is going out the window because they're teaching me the right way."
So when he first made a pie that wasn't critiqued, Artley was thrilled and realized that being a pizzaiolo is going to be his "thing."
"Oh shit! I did it right," he says.
Every day is now a pizza day for the chef, but the pie he's highlighting this week is called The Dude. Named after Jeff Bridges' character in the movie "The Big Lebowski," the dish, topped with blue cheese, mozzarella and Richmond ham, is his first contribution to the Orso pizza menu.