What a fun and exciting meal! Run don't walk to dinner there tomorrow because that's the second and final night.
The menu is very confusing, but in an engaging way. Three columns of mixed starters and mains, organized by the age of the balsamico the dishes are cooked with or should have drizzled on them. Then a separate menu of vinegars, available in 3ml and 5ml portions. Saba is just a buck for a tiny glass. They had vinegar with starter from 1855! From 1650!!! Yikes! We just wanted to taste everything.
We got two vinegars and the nice lady comped us one, and we got saba. The 1950 was so smooth and haunting, it tasted like being in the room Brando was sitting in during the opening scenes of "The Godfather." I'd never had saba before; it was like a new door opening. It was everything I'd ever wanted in a dessert wine, without the alcohol, or everything you'd want to pour on vanilla ice cream without the excessive sweetness. Two of us ended up having tiny glasses of it for dessert.
For starters, we had: Minestra of oxtails, farro and beets--italian borscht, deep and majestic with the balsamico. Farm egg in carrozza with cardoons, celery, walnuts and prosciutto--what, a deep-fried breaded egg! Flowy yolk, crunchy dice on the plate, crispy coating, and the vinegar adds the bass notes to the jangly charm. Tortelloni of Guinea hen and morels--forgettable. Lobster, shrimp and scallop sausage--unforgettable. Flavors clear as bells. Uh-Art called it "low tide in a mouthful."
Mains: My duck leg braised with cherries roasted in saba was the best duck dish I have ever had. The meat was fork-tender and silky, with an insanely complex richness, the sauce barely sweet yet dusky and earthy--a very grownup, downright sexy take on the perennial meat-and-fruit thing. Wow wow wow. The pork belly braised in saba was also a winner, and talk about rich, it was sliced in ribbons like bacon. I didn't like my bite of the halibut at all, I found it very fishy, but Sheri loved the sauce. And the rabbit and leeks braised in bianco with olives was not too special.
I forgot to take home the night's wine list, but we especially enjoyed a quarto of some 2003 white from Avellino. We also got a quarto of pinot noir rose, and a barbera d'asti. We're usually bigger drinkers but somehow the vinegar played the role wine often does, that extra palate challenger and combination-maker and in this case intense conversation piece.
Desserts were a disappointment, as they too often are at Oliveto. Crepes with fior de latte ice cream and those saba cherries, terrific especially with our "dessert" saba poured on top. The nectarine tart was tasty, but was served heated to 200 degrees and scalded all our mouths. Lemon verbena panna cotta drew mixed reviews--Sheri and Dan devoured it, while Uh-Art likened it to a urinal cake. (He really should post more...) Frozen balsamic mousse was just plain weird. And the best dessert of all, at $3, was a plate of three gingersnaps glazed with balsamico.
When I called for a table on Monday, they were wide open, but the place was packed tonight, and people seemed genuinely excited. Each of my party left with a vinegar stain on our shirts, but full and stimulated. I am going to try to get to as many of Oliveto's theme dinners as I can, because they really throw their hearts into it.