Having had a series of disappointing experiences upstairs in Olivetto's main dining room, I have long been on a personal boycott, but had recently been somewhat buoyed by their less formal downstairs cafe. Now one of my principal complaints was that the service upstairs was consistently not up to par. Additionally, I've found the tables to be overcrowded at times, with neighboring diners and waitstaff too close for comfort. Curiously, both of these negatives have seemingly been overcome downstairs. My first return visit was a simple lunch in October for my brother's birthday. It was a satisfying, if somewhat simple lunch of a pizza and panini. Though I am well aware that there are many who could botch this sort of meal, Olivetto's cafe gave me reason to hope.
Fast forward to last weekend, when I had the pleasure of entertaining a dear friend of mine from out of town. During the course of our unstructured visit, I had intended to take her to Pearl for a small bite before we headed off to the city for a film festival. However, as we were caught in that netherworld between lunch and dinner (during which I consistently find myself craving a bite), neither Pearl nor A Cote were open. Remembering the positive experience I had enjoyed with my brother some months ago, I decided to revisit Olivetto's cafe. We were warmly greeted and given a lovely table with a view of College Avenue. Again, the service was attentive and helpful.
After perusing the dinner menu which was a pleasant surprise from the very simple lunch menu, my friend opted to start with a shaved fennel salad with an orange-oregano vinaigrette with crush pistachios. Meanwhile, I chose the minestrone as cool weather dicated. These dishes were lovely in both the freshness of their ingredients and the intensity of their flavors. The vinaigrette was delicious and fullbodied with the crushed pistachios actually holding the emulsion rather than being sprinkled on top as I would have expected. The sweet anise flavors of the fennel were well complimented by the fruitiness of the olive oil, the orange zest and the oregano. Similarly satisfying was my steaming bowl of minestrone which was replete with the same white corona beans that I had previously enjoyed so much in Cafe Rouge's excellent Cassoulet. The broth was rich and tasted of fresh vegetables and delicious mushrooms punctuated with a robust extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top just before serving. This was so far removed from the cups of red vegetable soup with mushy macaroni ladled out at most Italian restaurants, that I am simply at a loss to adequately detail the elegance, subtlety and soulfullness of this version. Truly, if the meal had simply stopped at this point, my opinion of Olivetto's would have been substantially reversed.
As we continued on, so too did the healing. My friend selected the housemade cannelloni with fresh ricotta. A simple dish, but again one so badly bastardized by decades of thick oversized extruded rigatoni passed off as cannelloni and drenched in pools of mediocre marinara sauce, that it seldom caught my eye on any menu. For myself, in accordance with my love of all things braised, I ordered the Brassato del Giorno, which was a spezzatino of Sonoma Lamb with artichoke hearts. First, let me just say that the cannelloni was superb. I was initially so fixated and entranced by the aroma of my brassato that I completely blocked out what was merely across the table from me. It was not until I saw the warm expression of bliss cross the face of my dining companion that I even began to suspect the quality of Olivetto's execution of this dish. When she selflessly offered me a taste, I immediately reached across with little regard for decorum or etiquette, as is the luxury with true friends :) I could tell by the ease of which my fork sliced through the delicate pasta that this was far better than expected. It seemingly floated atop what had appeared to be a heavier white sauce. The freshness of the ricotta was wholly preserved and yet warmed throughout. The creamy sauce was light and punctuated with fresh herbs and a slight citrus note. While I cannot say that my attitude towards this ubiquitous dish has totally changed, I can say in all seriousness that if it should appear again on the menu at Olivetto's cafe, I will give it its proper respect and consideration.
There are two general maxims of cooking that I have seen proven everywhere from San Francisco to New York, from Paris to Hong Kong, and many places in between. The first is...you can deep fry just about anything. The second is...low and slow wins the race. Specifically as to the latter, low heat and slow cooking is a pretty universally accepted cooking technique all the world over. I suspect it is for the simple reason that in early times, i.e. well before the advent of the broiler, pressure cooker, and microwave oven, this was simply the only way to cook. Thus, my affinity with braising is shared by my fellow Chowhounds everywhere. Still, in the modern world where fastfood and shortorder cooks are in high demand, the notion of cooking something for hours seems antiquated. Be that as it may, the fact that I have only just discovered that there is a cafe right in my own backyard that offers a daily braise, pains me to my very core and shows me the cost of holding a grudge for so long.
Still, if the olive branch has worn out its welcome as the international symbol of peace, I might humbly suggest that Olivetto's braised Sonoma shoulder of lamb with artichokes might be a worthy successor. Seriously, my generous bowl of lamb and artichokes couldn't have looked or smelled any more inviting, but the taste is what did me in. Intense, earthy, delicious. The lamb was fork tender but still redolent with flavor. The artichokes were no mere accompanyment but could've been a dish unto themselves. The leaves were tender enough to cut with a fork and the hearts were toothsome and wonderful. However, it was and has always been the sauce that justifies the investment of time required by braising and this was a perfect example. Just as time and heat can transform coal to diamonds, animals to fossils, etc., so too did the braising liquid marry with the ingredients of this dish in a feat just short of alchemy. The rich collagen melted and enriched the sauce in a way that no mere starch could ever accomplish. I immediately asked for more bread, scarcely before I had taken a bite.
For dessert, though we were fully satisfied and well aware of the excess even looking at the dessert menu represented, still we managed to split the one dish that caught our eye, a chocolate zuccotto with an orange caramel sauce. It was delicate, the cake was soft and moist, surrounding a light chocolate ganache. Though not the strongest part of the meal, it was nonetheless satisfying and welcome, much as a decrescendo that gently segues into a soothing adagio.
Now, if one were to read this, my obviously glowing report on Olivetto's cafe, it might appear as though I were a longtime fan. Yet, those familiar with my earlier remarks and experiences will no doubt be surprised at my seeming complete turnaround. To that audience, I will readily admit that I have been effectively swayed by this wholly positive experience. However, I will continue to stubbornly reserver judgement as to the upstairs dining room until such time as I am fairly confident that, like Chez Panisse, the quality runs equally between the two dining rooms. Some things cannot be forgiven so easily with a single meal, no matter how superlative ;)
Well, if you've read this far, then you definitely have a patience that I am grateful for, but in my writings as in my dining, I'll always feel it's worthwhile to take as much time as is necessary.