'Electric Italian' In Elm City's Olives And Oil

The owners of Olives and Oil, the 6-week-old sibling to New Haven's Elm City Social, want their new restaurant's concept to be known as "electric Italian."

That's not a typo for "eclectic," says co-owner Matt Bailey. "We want to bring old-school Italian, the flavors of that Italian peasant food, with a really modern twist."

Bailey and his partners in Fork Hospitality, John Brennan and Erick Williams, opened Olives and Oil in December, taking over the Temple Street space that previously housed Tavern New Haven and before that, Black Bear Saloon.

The group made a successful entry into the Elm City in the summer 2015 with its trendy, energetic College Street cocktail bar, and when the Tavern became available, they expressed interest for a new concept — particularly because of its attractive pizza oven, Bailey says.

"As much Italian as there is in New Haven, we felt there was a way to make it somewhat modern," he says. "We wanted to take that traditional red sauce, checkered tablecloth vibe and turn it on its head a little bit."

The 150-seat restaurant with an open flow is old school-meets-new-school, with contemporary metal furniture, red leather booths and graffiti-painted exposed brick walls. A wall of framed vintage-style advertisements overlooks the end of the bar, and a 1950s-era Vespa scooter is mounted on a platform above the door. "We wanted to have a little bit of fun with it," Bailey says.

Brennan, the executive chef for both restaurants, grew up in an Italian/Sicilian household and says the cuisine is largely inspired by recipes from his mother and grandmother. The scratch-made menu is expansive, starting with a variety of cicchetti, or small plates ($8 to $16) featuring everything from arancini to warm ricotta to veal spiedini. Bone marrow oreganata with giardiniera and balsamic onion jam is a big seller, along with vegetarian options like wood-roasted cauliflower and eggplant rollatini.

A raw bar features daily oysters, clams and jumbo shrimp cocktail, along with assorted crudo: hamachi with arugula macadamia pesto and lemon; tuna with peppercorn crust, capers and caponata; scallop with lemon, grapefruit, jalapeño, smoked olive oil and truffle honey. All are market-priced.

Guests also enjoy fresh mozzarella, hand-pulled in house and available as small balls of marinated bocconcini, smoked with fig jam and mostarda, or creamy burrata with basil pesto and tomato jam ($9 and $10). A mozzarella tasting ($25) features all of these, with crostini and chef's accompaniments.

Meatballs also get the tasting treatment, with a $20 plate encompassing all four varieties: "old school" with beef, veal, pork and marinara; "just beef" with house ricotta and basil, and two creative twists: a turkey pesto with Alfredo sauce and balsamic, and the "new school" jam-packed with ground bacon, beef, veal, onion jam and aged Gouda. Individual portions are $10, served over polenta.

Pastas ($16 to $20) are made fresh daily: linguine and squid ink pasta loaded with clams, garlic and lemon; carbonara with pancetta, Parmesan and 60-minute poached egg; ricotta cavatelli with broccolini, garlic and Gorgonzola; gnocchi with peas, pancetta and lobster butter.

The pizza oven that originally caught the partners' eye turns out small thin-crust pies with unique flavor profiles: the "All Praise The Pig" with pineapple marmalade and 16-hour pork belly; the NY City Bagel with poached egg and everything bagel spice; the "Day Trippin" with mixed mushrooms, caramelized shallots, truffle oil, fig and balsamic; and the Sweet Sausage, with red wine-marinated "drunken" goat cheese. Pizzas are $15 to $18.

"We didn't want to compete with Pepe's and Sally's," Bailey says. "We're not a pizza place by any means, but they've absolutely been a hit."

At lunch, Olives and Oil offers salads ($11 to $16) including the distinctive "polipo" with slow-braised Portuguese octopus, blistered fennel and farro, and panini with meatball, eggplant, porchetta and sausage ($15, with choice of pastina soup or organic greens.) In the evening, "per la famiglia," or family-style, dishes present shareable portions of pasta fagioli, oven-roasted rabbit, osso bucco and whole fish ($20 to $29 per person).

Desserts ($9 and $10) are simple, keeping with the classic Italian vibe: freshly made daily cannoli (often gilded with candy, like Snickers or M&Ms), along with rainbow cookies, biscotti and cheese.

Where Elm City Social has carved its place into the New Haven scene as a craft cocktail destination, Olives and Oil spotlights wine, with 16 red, white and sparkling options on draft and dozens more by the bottle. Cocktails are built around selections of Italian amaro, or bitter herbal liqueurs; one, Fernet Branca, with a strong cult following among restaurant industry types, is even available on tap.

A Valentine's Day menu, available on Feb. 14, features special entrees like lobster ravioli ($29), shrimp scampi with squid ink fettuccine ($26); spaghetti amore with pancetta, sweet sausage and pink cognac sauce ($20) and tomahawk steak for two ($69). Weekend brunch will begin in a few weeks.

OLIVES AND OIL, 124 Temple St., New Haven, is open Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The bar is open until last call. 203-891-5870, olivesandoil.com.

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
53°