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Restaurant Porn, Italian Style

Olivetto Cafe and Wine Bar

860 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills




Olivetto is no relation to the fabled Oliveto up north in the Rockridge District of Oakland — there’s no Paul Bertolli in the kitchen, creating legendary handmade salumi from scratch. But, with that out of the way, I still like our Olivetto very much. It has all the virtues of a “neighborhood Italian joint” — warmth, spirit, informality, prices not too bad — but the food is better than most, and the wine list is downright lovable. It may not be the best Italian food you’ve ever eaten, except maybe for the gnocchi. And the ravioli di peri. Those two dishes are some serious contenders.

The space has that Italian-neighborhood look, but smartened up, with a bar along one side and a red-brick wall opposite. The owner is Johnny Ivanov, from Croatia, a region with strong culinary ties to nearby Italy. (Its peninsular region of Istria, ceded from Italy to the former Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, was the birthplace of New York’s famed Italian chef/cookbook writer Lidia Bastianich. Many other Istrians, despite Slavic surnames, are also of Italian ancestry.) On a Friday, Olivetto was jam-packed with crowds that included several large, Italian-looking families occupying long banks of tables. Happily, Ivanov has installed sound baffling, so even though it’s far from quiet, the unbearable, brain-mangling “wall of sound” of the early days is no more.

Hmm…when shall I tell you about the delicious waiter? When will the restaurant porn begin? I think I’ll tease you a bit first with the appetizers…can’t have that “cute meet” without a few establishing shots first.

The chef is Giuseppe D’Mato, from Sicily, a veteran of Busalacchi’s. We began with a savory artisan cheese and salumi plate, including fine imported prosciutto, salami, and three distinct, rich Italian cheeses, plus a delicious tomato bruschetta, succulent eggplant caponata, roasted red Bell peppers, rather bland marinated artichoke hearts, and a few pucker-mouth green olives. This plate admirably serves the purpose of awakening the appetite.

Melanzane ripieno are baby eggplants stuffed with spinach and ricotta, topped with melted fresh mozzarella and a fresh tomato sauce. This is one of the better versions around town, gooey and lush, Italian sensuality unbridled.

Truffle Parmesan fries didn’t live up to their name. Got truffles? Got Parmesan? How about salt? Big nada here — just underseasoned regular fries. Maybe a line-cook forgot the garnishes in the Friday-night rush. An arugula panzanella salad was also disappointing — nothing much happening except rabbit food and croutons, with no love-match between them. In a great classic panzanella (bread salad), day-old Italian bread drinks up the dressing and makes love to the greenery. Here, the croutons remained hard and aloof, and the underripe tomato slices were sworn to celibacy.

Now that we’re on the subject of the love-life of rabbit food, let’s take a break to talk about that waiter. It’s a wicked thing to do, because I know that women usually decide where couples will eat out and may perhaps be ever so slightly influenced by the possibility of encountering so attractive a server. (Of course, he’s not the only waiter there — the others looked equally competent, just not as dazzling.) After all, a restaurant is not only a food purveyor; it’s also a social space, each one unique in the interactions among diners, neighboring tables, staff, etc. And forgive me, I minored in anthropology and maintain an interest in human behaviors and feel it my scientific duty to report on those that I observe at restaurants from time to time. (Just writing “And then I ate…” week after week gets boring.)

Our waiter was what the French might call a beau laid (if they masculinized the feminine descriptive, belle laide, “beautiful-ugly”), with a crenellated, craggy, somewhat pushed-in face like that of the young Jean-Paul Belmondo. He doesn’t merely win this year’s Oscar for sexiest waiter, but perhaps a Lifetime Achievement Award for the art of Italian flirtation, embodying his homeland’s world-famous charm — the charm that made an average-looking dude named Casanova a legend for his seductiveness. No cold-hearted, female-hating Don Juan, the real Casanova genuinely loved women: “The pleasure I give is four-fifths of my pleasure,” he wrote in his memoirs. That’s the ticket.

“Oooh, I’m in love,” I murmured once he’d moved well away. “You’re in lust,” said cynical Ben, who seemed touched by a soupçon of lust himself. “No, it’s a little more personal than that,” I said. At the waiter’s return, the dance of mutual flattery truly began, transforming us into Fred and Ginger swirling giddily around the fabulous Deco ballroom of the mind. I suspect it’s about some visceral recognition of each other’s life-force. Decades younger than I am, he nonetheless made me feel like Anna Magnani, sexy unto death (for you young whippersnappers, she was the Sophia Loren of her day, but earthier). And does the tender pear ravioli taste any sweeter when a beguiling young man lightly strokes your hair and murmurs, “Ahh, so beautiful, so silky!”? Well — all senses engaged, soaking up pleasures! (The last cute male to play with my hair and coo over it during dinner was Limpio, Samurai Jim’s parrot, who has a serious jones for brunettes.) Did he do it for a better tip? Possibly, but perhaps he simply enjoys practicing and perfecting his personal art form. Some of us write or paint, this guy enchants.

Back to the dinner plate. The gnocchi: gnocchi aren’t pasta, they’re dumplings (in this case, potato dumplings), and they’re prone to horrendous ills summarized by the descriptive phrase “cannonballs,” but here, they’re light as marshmallows, little poufs anchored to earth by fresh-tasting tomato sauce and gooey, sexy, fresh-melted mozzarella. The only other gnocchi this light around town are when Mary Ann Vitale at La Taverna in La Jolla makes them as a special. Bravo!

Then there are those ravioli de pere. I loved the dish at Venice a few weeks ago, but this version is even better. Think of beautiful little Della Robbia winged cherubs hovering over your plate. Chopped puréed pears are tucked into silk-skinned house-made rectangular pasta sheets, and the pockets are swathed in reduced cream and sliced pears and walnuts. Is there a faint waft of cinnamon over all? Whatever. Swoon-time.

If you’re looking for a moderately priced dinner, you could really stop here at the pastas, all under $20, and with so many more to explore than we tried. Our protein-based entrées were pricier, but the two we tasted didn’t please as much as the pastas. The better one was pollo fiorentina, a variation of chicken Cordon Bleu, with a thick rectangle of boneless breast rolled around a stuffing of prosciutto, mozzarella, spinach, and mushrooms. It looks like a cube-shaped blimp, the Graf Zeppelin with breading and like early experiments in aviation aims to be lighter than air but doesn’t quite succeed. It’s a bit of a lead zeppelin, actually, but tastes nice anyway.

Veal scallops with mushrooms have one insuperable problem — that godawful white Provimi veal that tastes like Simulac, from confined, chained-up calves fed on formula. Despite the delicious wild mushroom sauce, with its deep, woodsy flavors, all four of us rejected the meat — this isn’t what good veal tastes like, so the hell with it! Really, it’s time for everyone with a palate and a heart to rebel against this cruelty to calves and to eaters. When you taste veal that’s fed on its mom’s milk and then given a few weeks on grass, the difference is hugely better for both ends of the food chain. (Of course, it’s even more expensive than Provimi. In the olden days, when I was young, real milk-fed was all there was, and it cost relatively the same as today’s industrial calf. But given a choice of industrial or exorbitant, maybe veal ought to be a luxury meat rather than a staple.)

The wine list is loaded with affordable bottles and fun adventures. If you order by the glass, you’ll receive a small, science-lab beaker with a generous pour. What caught my eye for the first course was a Viognier-Chardonnay blend called Arrogant Frog, a French meritage with a screw-cap, indicating it doesn’t expect aging. It was bright and lively. I wanted to explore this unknown further, and for the second course chose the same brand’s Cabernet-Merlot blend (“Ribet Red,” it’s called). It was okay, but for the same price we could have chosen an Antico Toscano that might have been mellower. For another ten bucks, the obvious choice would be Antinori Toscano, a known and proven quaff.

Dessert choices are tiramisu and cannoli (both made in-house) and ice creams. The cannoli were better than most local versions: the shells were crisp and fresh, and the thick, gooey ricotta-custard filling was decent (although, ever nostalgic for the Sicilian bakery across the street from where I lived in New York, I felt it could have used some bittersweet chocolate chips, orange rind, and perhaps something to lighten the texture). The tiramisu was coated with too much cocoa powder for my taste but was a light and reasonably good rendition. I wish the kitchen would add a few more interesting, genuinely Italian pastries — something like a torta della nonna, the luscious, nutty “grandma’s cake.”

Mark and Ben didn’t like their coffee. I was fine with my espresso — delivered, as requested, along with the sweets. I do like a waiter who actually pays attention to my requests, and if he flirts too, well, it’s la dolce vita — set in an Italian restaurant and directed by Federico Fedellini.

God/Goddess/Tao has handed humankind a plateful of woes: disease, poverty, old age, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, famines, droughts, plus our own monkey-self greed, xenophobia, violence, and the planetary pollution we’ve created — and above all, the tragic, conscious knowledge that each of us will die. But it also gave us some sweeteners: The pleasures of the senses and of exercising the intellect, the ability to laugh, to love, and to take pleasure in each other’s company. Delicious dish? Seductive waiter? Surrender wholly to a moment’s joy! As that wise man, Ray Charles, used to sing, “Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun!/ You only live but once and when you’re dead you’re done/ So let the good times roll…/ I don’t care if you’re young or old/ You oughta get together and let the good times roll!”

“Do you think I can get them to pack our waiter into a doggie bag?” I asked my friends, chuffing like a contented cougar. “He’d be the perfect mint on my pillow.”

Olivetto Cafe and Wine Bar
****
(Very Good to Excellent)
860 West Washington Street, Mission Hills, 619-220-8222.
HOURS: Open seven days, 11 a.m.–11 p.m., including breakfast Fridays and Saturdays and brunch on Sundays.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, $6.50–$15; Salads, $7–$8.50; Pastas, $14.50–$20; Entrées, $17.50–$25; Desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Multiregional Italian trattoria cuisine. International wine list with plenty by the glass, plenty of affordable choices, fun to explore.
PICK HITS: Artisan cheese and salumi plate; stuffed eggplant; gnocchi sorrentina; ravioli de pere; pollo fiorentina.
NEED TO KNOW: Informal, neighborly feeling, rather loud but much improved since opening. Six lacto-vegetarian pastas and entrées, two of them vegan. Reservations strongly recommended, especially for weekend dinners.

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Comments

The restaurant sounds good.

Positive comments about the waiter are definitionally positive.

I'm not thrilled about judging and superficialities.

To judge is to control is to enslave.

It's the basis of demonizing.

Demonizing knows no bounds when there's division and then there's endless divisions.

The point is to float false ideologies, such as by a tyrant, or a monopolist, say that's something like, oh, say, capitalism, and then say anyone who doesn't agree is, say, a witch, a communist, a gay person, etc.

In other words, the license to judge comes from the license to go on a witch-hunt.

The first was making straight guys afraid of being wrongly ferreted out as gay because witch-hunts are all about making people afraid of being WRONGLY burned at the stake.

My ideas are thoroughly pro-traditional morality.

That's because they prove it, so long as one deletes the judging, which acts like Gray's Sports Almanac displaced in time by Biff Tannin, while the East, upon closer inspection, is actually, after a key point, morally identical to the West, with many gradients of proof in between.

What makes one telling witch-hunt special is it propagated actual hypocritical bad guys.

It's why all the assumptions based on judging will continue to produce hypocritical bad guys, monopoly masquerading as capitalism, and leave us with a world where it's O.K. to say go ahead, keep destroying our planet at our expense, for your benefit. We'll just put up solar mirrors in space.

http://goo.gl/sQjDy

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