It’s a big thing to make a call on. Is your favourite restaurant the fancy one that you always look forward to going to or the one that you go to most often? Well luckily for me, they are one and the same, making Oro 1889 hands down my favourite place to eat out in Colombo. Casual enough to not have to dress up but cool enough to feel like a night out, Oro ticks a lot of boxes. Add to that no corkage for bringing your own wine and you’ve got a great night out for two people for under LKR 5,000 (approx AU$50).
Set on the second floor of the somewhat dodgy looking Liberty Arcade, above Poppy Hana and under Raja Bojun, you’re unlikely to stumble upon Oro if you didn’t know it was there. Ignore the weird smell as you come out of the elevators, that’s pretty much the only negative. To the left and through the open corridor is the restaurant with it’s big glass panels and mini pizza paddles as door handles.
With the exception of the wood-fired oven that was built by a craftsman from Naples, almost everything in here was designed and finished by the owners. From the hand-stained doors to the railway sleeper benches, it’s clear that it’s been a labour of love for the husband-wife couple that own and run the restaurant.
The menu consists of a selection of entrees, pizzas and desserts. The focus here is on traditional Neapolitan pizza – thin crust, 30-hour risen dough and a reasonable amount of toppings. I say reasonable because one of my pet peeves is too many toppings, too much stuff on my pizza, the dough collapsing under the weight of all the ingredients and the flavours all competing with each other.
You are greeted or at the very least, acknowledged when you walk in here. Usually it’s Thilini with her beaming smile and trademark red lipstick. She’s warm and effortlessly front of house, the kind of person that knows what everyone’s usual is even if you’ve only been there once. Our first time there, I told her that we were new to town and she brought out some delicious nutella vodka shot things on the house and gave me a list of other restaurants to try in Colombo.
A good restaurant is one that delivers consistently food and service that doesn’t disappoint – which is, in all honesty, a really big hurdle for international restaurants in Colombo. Imported ingredients can disappear from the supply for months at a time, and chefs come and go on a regular basis. What that means for the average diner is that food at the same restaurant can vary from good to terrible anytime in the same week. You’ll hear it whispered that it’s a bad day to go to so-and-so restaurant because the head chef is off.
There’s none of that with Oro. The head chef is the same any and every day. As is the front of house – though that might change soon seeing as she’s six months pregnant. That’s the real magic of Oro 1889, the husband-wife team that have it down pat. Nishan looks after the food and Thilini looks after the people. But it’s not quite that simple, as I suspect many competitors have come to see what makes Oro great. Some think it’s the wood fired oven, but wood fired pizza ovens are all over Colombo these days. Some think it’s the specific recipes. But in my mind, there are only three things that make great restaurants. Good produce in the hands of a skilled chef and service that makes you feel special. Oro has all three.
The pizza is so good because the half-Italian half-Sri Lankan chef, Nishan knows his stuff. In a proper wood-fired oven a pizza cooks in 90 seconds flat and it’s not easy feat being able to juggle five different pizzas in there. There are no dials to tell you if your oven is running hot or cold. On average it runs at around 400C and it takes a skilled pizzaiolo to know how to use to get perfectly cooked pizza from the slightly chewy outer crust to the thin centre. The dough is standout – soft with a bit of resistance, foldable (so you never need to use cutlery) but strong enough to support the the toppings, complex in flavour and slightly sweet. The crust is so good that I never leave any behind.
There are no short cuts here, no cutting corners. The dough is risen for 30 hours and made with flour that’s imported from Italy. Some might think why bother importing flour? It’s because the low-protein content here means that flour isn’t strong enough to rise for an extended period of time. Even the tinned tomatoes are imported – and it may seem strange but lots of high end pizza places do it, like Melbourne’s DOC. Obviously, the prosciutto and salami are Italian imported too. All in all, that means pizza that’s as close as you’re going to get to true Neapolitan pizza. I dare say, in my opinion it’s better than DOC’s pizza.
Nick and I come for the pizza, but don’t overlook the starters or ice cream cake for dessert. The zuccotto (LKR 600) is a must have – two layers of semifreddo and a generous amount of rum held together with a layer of light sponge.
Nishan is more than just a pizzaiolo though. Once a month, these guys put on an Italian feast like no other. It’s called La Tavolata meaning a group of people feasting at the same table, and it’s a chance for the chef to showcase his heritage and expertise. There’s no menu, but they’ll accommodate dietary requirements with notice. For LKR6,500 you get four courses and more food than one person can comfortably eat with matching sparkling, white and red wine thrown in. These dinners are notoriously difficult to get a seat at and can book out months in advance, so get in early. Check with Thilini when you’re next at the restaurant – she’ll keep you in the loop.
There was a time where we didn’t eat out anywhere else in Colombo for over a month. So, that time that they went to Italy (twice – once for nine days and once for two weeks, but who’s counting) was rough. Even now, we’re there at least once a week and judging by the familiar faces we always see, we’re not their only regulars.
Even I’m surprised that I’m not sick of pizza yet. But it’s so damn good that I still look forward to our pizza days every week. There are lots of things that make a great restaurant but for me, it’s leaving with that feeling that I can’t wait to go back again.
Oro 1889 is good. Really good. It would hold it’s own in any major world city. I think the prices are fair for what you get, bearing in mind they import a lot of their ingredients plus there’s the bonus of being able to bring your own wine and beer with no corkage charge. I’ve seen Harpo’s and Pizza Hut sell pizzas for the same price. If you haven’t been to Oro already, you should go. Call to book a table before you show up – it’s not just good manners, this way you’re guaranteed a table when you get there; they do get busy and are occasionally closed for La Tavolata and other private events.
*This is not a sponsored post but I have to disclose that I have grown to become friends with the owners because we go there so damn often.