Epicurious Eating: Olivetto Café & Wine Bar
Olivetto brings a taste of Italy to Mission Hills
Published Thursday, 09-Oct-2008 in issue 1085
Sans a culinary reinvention of the wheel, some sturdy Italian cooking rules the kitchen at Olivetto Café & Wine Bar.
A mere café this isn’t. Nor does it feel like an exclusive wine hangout that serves only cheese and olives. The establishment, opened this summer by Croatian native Johnny Ivanov, instead presents itself as a full-fledged ristorante cramming in copious tables within a double storefront that was once the Mission Hills Café.
Ivanov’s wife has executed a smart, handsome design marked by stained concrete flooring, executive-style wine shelving and vibrant wall colors. And yes, there’s a quaint bar for winos to perch, but most will eventually belly up to tables as waiters whiz past toting aromatic meals like veal ravioli, seafood linguini, pesto penne and the like.
Visiting on a Saturday night, the restaurant’s teeming occupancy was a sight for sore eyes in this ailing economy. The noise level, however, became obtrusive at times, although we were assured that sound proofing will be installed by next week.
Olivetto’s chef is Sicilian-born Giuseppe D’Mato, whose resume includes a long stint at Busalacchi’s. His meals are clean and uncomplicated — void of any surprises, yet cheerfully engaging with rustic nuances.
Manager Page Rutherford, formerly of Trattoria Acqua in La Jolla, oversees the wine program. Her bottle list contains about 100 labels from global regions, with a promise of more Italian varietals and some obscure Croatian brands still to come. From a somewhat limited glass selection, the vinos are served in small beakers similar to what you’d find in chemistry labs. They’re a nice amenity that yields a few extra ounces compared to standard pours.
My companion took a crapshoot in pairing up Tormaresca chardonnay from Italy’s Puglia region to blue crab cakes with spicy remoulade. Available by the glass, the wine’s faint apple-honey notes helped quell the fishiness of the cakes, which became the only item that left us disappointed. Even had they been sweet and not so spongy, they strike me as too un-Italian for this menu.
Visions of Tuscany (and Napa) descended upon us with a wonderful artisan cheese and meat plate that sang arias to an equally thrilling Italian white wine named after its grape, Falanghina. Sold only by the bottle at $25 a pop, the varietal portrays bright acidity and an ethereal essence of banana. Its unique characteristics complimented everything on the platter – thick slices of salami, a swirl of good-quality proscuitto, lightly brined olives, spicy roasted red peppers, caponata (eggplant relish) and four cheeses ranging from mild to robust.
The Falanghina extended a warm greeting to our salads as well, one made of beets and goat cheese and the other mixing organic greens, fennel, carrots and tomatoes with those aforementioned fabulous spicy roasted peppers on the picnic platter.
Gnocchi and sheet pasta used for ravioli are made from scratch. We tried the former, both agreeing that these little potato-flour dumplings took the high road from their lead-weight counterparts seen often at other Italian restaurants. They were light and delicate and covered judiciously in bright tomato sauce and fresh whole-milk mozzarella. Another pasta dish, fusilli con pollo involved corkscrew pasta tossed with wild mushrooms, free-range chicken, tomatoes and a touch-o cream. Though basic, it was pleasing enough to warrant an encore the following day in the form of leftovers.
The winning dish of the evening was veal scaloppini, which took my companion all but five minutes to make disappear after I seized my allotment. Constructed a limone style, the chef eliminates the cream, or most of it, while carefully balancing citrus, olive oil and a fruity pinot grigio to blanket the thin filet. The untamed flavor from wild mushrooms is allowed into the equation, granting the meat a perfect degree of earthiness.
Aside from several other carby dishes on the menu such as risotto del giorno, farfalle with salmon and linguini with seafood, the menu yields to a few protein entrees like herb chicken breast, seared yellow fin tuna and New York steak with cognac and green peppercorn sauce.
Desserts were predictable: cannoli and a nice version of tiramisu soaked in coffee and liquor that was creamy enough to coat over any existing food flavors left on the tongue. It isn’t something that I necessarily seek after eating a good meal, but oh well, this is how eating Italian in America habitually concludes.