Restaurant Review: OLIVETTO
By David Nelson
Taste the focaccia served at Olivetto, look at the textures of both the crumb and the crust, and weigh whether any other Italian restaurant’s home-style “hearth bread” appeals to the tongue and eye in quite the same way. Keep in mind that Italian culinary exuberance discourages uniformity.
Until willful young chefs commenced bending the rules a couple of decades ago, formal preparations in France – sauce béarnaise would be one familiar example – tasted and looked precisely the same from the far Northwest corner of the country to the shores of the Mediterranean. It’s a different story in Italy, where everybody has his own opinion about how a dish should taste, often based on how Mama did it. The new wave of Italian restaurateurs, who in the 1990s started pulling San Diego from its spaghetti-and-meatballs quagmire (OK, we all crave this dish on occasion), follow the traditions of their homeland. They’re rugged individualists, and while most of their menus include local favorites like calamari fritti and pasta in sauce Bolognese, these dishes never look or taste quite the same from one eatery to the next.
This is true at Olivetto, a restaurant on the Mission Hills stretch of University Avenue that makes its first impression with a dressed-up but casual atmosphere. This is a neighborhood eatery with style, and the good looks aren’t reserved for the décor, since the kitchen takes care to present dishes in a way that makes guests want to dive in immediately. An appealing freebie fills a basket with warm, appetizing slices of the house focaccia. This quickly made, freshly baked bread hides “focus,” the Latin word for hearth, inside its name. Meant to be eaten shortly after it leaves the oven, focaccia is very much a home-style loaf, and at Olivetto, the texture and fragrance are especially appealing. It’s frankly a pleasure to eat, either torn into tender mouthfuls or dipped into a saucer of green extra-virgin olive oil beaded with mellow balsamic vinegar.
The menu opens with a list of appetizers labeled “Small Plates,” although they defy the American definition of “small.” The lightly floured, delicately fried calamari ($10.95) arrive piled on a long, rectangular platter, and two hungry guests failed to demolish the mound of tiny squid. A squeeze of lemon pre-seasoned the squid for final dips in little pots of marinara sauce and suave, velvet-textured aioli. At its simplest, the appetizer list offers a dish of sizzling french fries seasoned with Parmesan and truffle oil ($6.50), but the kitchen seems particularly fond of shellfish starters, including the shrimp imperiale ($11.95), a regal preparation that coddles fresh shrimp with a spicy tomato sauce brightened with pesto. The cozze in umido ($10.95) steams mussels from Canada’s Prince Edward Island in garlic-sharpened white wine; the same mussels join Manila clams, shrimp and piquant tomato sauce in brodetto di mare ($14.95), a lovely evocation of the sea.
Olivetto proprietors Djani and Sandra Ivanov clearly believe that variety spices life, since even the salad list runs to some length. There are seven possibilities, from an insalada mixta ($6.95) of organic greens and tomato in lemon-herb vinaigrette (it sounds the right preface to a big bowl of pasta), to an elaborate presentation of creamy goat cheese paired with beets, greens and caramelized onions ($8.50).
Among the pastas, the ravioli di pere ($17.95) seems fairly unusual for San Diego, and especially sophisticated in this cozy Mission Hills setting. Square-cut, pear-filled ravioli overlap under delicate, mascarpone cheese-enriched cream sauce and a sprinkling of candied walnuts and cubed crisp pear. It’s a soft, smooth dish for an evening when something indulgent but evanescent suggests itself.
There is no shortage of pasta possibilities. The list includes tasty gnocchi (potato dumplings; $14.95) served Sorrento-style under a covering of light tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, and savory veal-ricotta ravioli with mushrooms and a tart-sweet Roma tomato sauce ($17.50). The substantial penne Siciliana ($16.95) presents a pleasing range of flavors in a tumble of macaroni and baby eggplant with mozzarella, well-seasoned marinara sauce and plenty of garlic.
The formal entrée list opens thoughtfully with a layered vegetable “napoleon” ($16.95), made substantial by the addition of risotto and heightened in flavor with a sauce of roasted tomatoes. Oven-roasted chicken breast is served with mashed potatoes, vegetables and an unusual sauce of Marsala and sun-dried fruit ($16.95), and mashed potatoes also accompany both the Roman-style veal scaloppine with prosciutto, mozzarella and an appealing white wine-tomato sauce ($20.95), and a New York strip steak in an elegant sauce perfumed with Port ($22.95). Following any of these with the house cheesecake, an unusually rich version topped with a layer of sour cream, trickles of caramel sauce and a dusting of powdered sugar, turns a dinner out into a memorable occasion.
Olivetto Café & Wine Bar
860 W. Washington St.
David Nelson has written about dining in San Diego since 1980 for a comprehensive list of Southern California publications.