Consistency hangs in the balance
Balance is a thing worth striving for, in food as in life. We want salty to offset sweet, bright flavors to serve as counterpoint to earthy ones. But one kind of balance makes the heart sink: when a menu is evenly divided between good and disappointing dishes. It happens with some frequency, and it makes a diner wonder how a kitchen can get some things right and others just wrong. Unfortunately for the good dishes, this kind of balance averages out to . . . average.
This is what seems to have happened at Olivadi Restaurant & Bar, a restaurant that opened with great promise in October. The opening chef was Daniele Baliani, formerly of Le Cirque in New York and Pignoli in Boston (he has since left). The front of the house is manned by Bruno Marini, who was the general manager and wine director at the Federalist (where the wine list offered more than 1,300 selections - Olivadi's is still strong, but considerably easier to wrap your mind around at a mere 280-plus). Their credentials combined to create a pleasant local restaurant with a thriving bar scene, never a bad thing. But given its parentage, one would hope for more, namely consistency in the kitchen.
Olivadi's menu aims at a point between comfort and elegance: This food is business casual. (Decor, too. It marries Northern California lodge and hotel lobby, dressing them in earth tones for the occasion.) There are dishes such as sausage pizza and Nonna's roast chicken, and then the likes of salmon with a pistachio-horseradish crust and seared scallops with lemon aioli. Service is friendly, and Marini keeps a hawk eye on things from a distance, socking away details so he can commit future acts of random hospitality: a warm greeting for repeat customers here, a free dessert for a couple of regulars there. He now also oversees the kitchen.
Some dishes capture the fresh, full flavors of Italy. Parmesan and pancetta risotto looks simple, a bowl of creamy white rice. The taste, however, is deep - the cheese and the cured pork creating layers of richness in the mouth. It's served simply, with sage leaves, a few grape tomatoes, and crisped pieces of pancetta.
Tagliatelle alla Bolognese is like milk and cookies, bacon and eggs, Bert and Ernie. You could separate the tagliatelle and the meat ragu, but they belong together. Olivadi's version is pure, classic deliciousness. Like the risotto, it wins you over bite after bite with perfect texture and savory harmony.
Veal "lasagna" means its quotation marks - this isn't the random, reasonless punctuation of many restaurant menus. There is no pasta in this dish. Instead, veal scaloppini is layered with tomatoes and melted fresh mozzarella, a cleaner take on veal parm. Also on the plate: Swiss chard and excellent little roasted potatoes, adding up to a fully realized meal.
Several dishes at Olivadi are elevated by a sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, and not much more. It appears as a dipping sauce (theoretically arrabiata but not at all spicy) with an appetizer of perfectly fried calamari, so light and tender the baby squid practically float into your mouth. There's also a nicely balanced lemon-garlic aioli for dunking.
Bruschetta is a basic but satisfying appetizer, appealingly colorful on the plate. The toasts come topped with strong, vibrant flavors: Taleggio, tapenade, and the like. Like several other dishes at Olivadi, they're served with greens, a welcome addition - no need to order a salad with your chicken parmigiana; it comes with one. (This chicken, on the bar menu, is billed as Simply the Best! That's a real overstatement, but hey, it does come with more of that lovely tomato sauce.)
Another appetizer features strong, vibrant flavors in all the wrong places. Maine crab and risotto cakes taste nothing like crab or risotto, and everything like Stove Top stuffing. The description sounds like such an appealing variant of boring, omnipresent crab cakes that the dish is doubly disappointing.
So is pizza, given the promise of the leaping flames in the open kitchen's oven. There are several pies available on the bar menu; the restaurant menu offers just the signature Pizza Olivadi, topped with prosciutto, roasted peppers, goat cheese, and "spicy" sausage (the quotes are mine this time; again, not spicy). The crust is too thick and somewhat cardboard-like once it's cooled, and the meat tastes slightly funky.
Frutti di mare also promises spice, in the tomato sauce, and doesn't deliver it. The dish of spaghetti and shellfish has a bigger problem, however - the sauce tastes strongly fishy. The seafood itself is impeccably fresh and delicious, so this is a real shame. House-made gnocchi are very heavy, though they're served appealingly with butternut squash, brown butter, and sage.
Heaviness is also a hallmark of some of the meatier entrees. Lamb ossobuco features a shank with the bone sticking out the end, rather than sliced horizontally so you can easily get at the marrow. The meat lacks the tenderness and fullness of flavor one expects from this dish. It's served with polenta and "Tuscan vegetables," which seem a lot like New England vegetables - mushrooms, chard, pearl onions, and so on. A stuffed pork chop Milanese is a giant piece of breaded meat with prosciutto and fontina. It offers more in the way of heft than flavor.
For dessert, there's lemon panna cotta topped with shards of biscotti, served with a little cup of limoncello. The flavors are good, but the panna cotta keeps a stiff upper lip - not even a tiny wobble here. Another dessert features "seasonal berries" (well, they're in season somewhere) with lemon sorbet; they arrive in a bowl with a little pot of sambuca syrup the server pours over the top. This would be the perfect summer dessert when berries actually are in season - the sambuca balances out the sugar in the liquid, and the whole thing is cooling and light. It's unusual and delightful. Unfortunately, the lemon sorbet seems chopped off some cryogenically frozen block with a pick. It's an icy, jagged corner that no spoon can penetrate: bush league. Baliani's absence is felt in the kitchen.
The promise of seasonal berries in Norwood in March is clearly one Olivadi can't keep. Consistency in the kitchen is a promise it can - with more training for the staff. Hopefully the restaurant will make better-than-good on it.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.