When you want comfort food, sometimes the only thing that will help is Italian. And if you don’t already have a hometown Italian joint, this could be a great place for you to pick out a favorite table.
As customers walk in to Ristorante Olivio, the owner, Angelo Bernardo DiGirolamo, comes over to warmly greet his many regulars. On the two nights I was there, there were a parade of them. Most of them got a handshake, a bro-hug, even a real Italian full-hug and kiss from Uncle Ang, as he is known.
Most of them commented on the changes he made during a week-long recent shutdown. The back of the restaurant has a new window that opens up the dining room, as does the the kitchen, which you can now peer into. On a separating wall balanced a huge vase of wine corks, next to a dozen cookbooks. The tin ceiling is now black, which along with the new lamps and creamy walls, warms up the place considerably. The tablecloths are gone, except for the function room behind a red velvet curtain. The place has a slightly hushed atmosphere, easy for conversation.
Alongside plates written with customer messages celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, home-buying, and school graduations, Angelo also hung photos of family and scenes depicting his roots. In the restaurant business since he was 9, when he sold pastries and ice cream at Café Roma in Marsala, Sicily, Angelo came to America two years later, in 1958, and started as a busboy at the famous Stella Restaurant in the North End; at 15 he was in the kitchen and cooking alongside chef Anthony ‘Smokey’ Cognata. Angelo recalls serving Jackie Kennedy a month after the assassination. In 1979 Angelo opened Bernardo`s Ristorante; after 19 years there, he worked at Chianti`s of Beverly and Davide of the North End.
“There were too many restaurants in the North End,” he said; he started looking around. He was going to a movie in Arlington, and wandered into Cafe Barada, across the street; he asked if there were any restaurants in the area for sale. The owner at the time said that he was considering selling. Angelo named his new restaurant after his uncle in Italy: "He was like a father to me."
For a Monday night in the summer, the spot had a good stream of customers coming in; Most were ordering fish and pasta. We wanted the pizza special.
We started with an arugula salad with goat cheese salad, olives, roasted peppers & toasted pecans ($9.50), which was delicious. Then we took advantage of the Monday night special: two gourmet pizzas and two beers for $20. Not just any beers: we had a Moretti red and a Duvel. And the thin-crust pizzas? One was a prosciutto and mushroom atop a chunky rich sauce and a drizzle of olive oil and basil on mozzarella, which was good, but even better was the one topped with speck, a Northern Italy version of prosciutto, smoky and sweet, which matched well with the peppery arugula and olives. It was a combo that Angelo recommended, and he was right.
Angelo introduced a brick oven about a year ago, when he wanted to start making his own Neapolitan bread. Each dinner comes with warm crusty slices with a pillowy center, lined up in a basket ready to be dipped in a side of olive oil, but make sure you ask for a side of the fresh basil tomato sauce for dipping.
It is great bread, so the pizzas were a natural followup. “I love pizza,” said Angelo. “I could eat it every day.” Couldn’t we all?
We finished with a few desserts, paired with perfect cappuccino. First, a martini glass of tiramisu, which was creamy and sweet and topped with a pizzelle, with the alcoholic cake through the center and surrounded by mascarapone. The lemon cake, made by the owner himself, was not too sweet; it was a light treat, and actually a really good way to end a meal, with that clean lemony taste. But it was the chocolate panna cotta with hazelnuts that was our fave: not too cloying, with bits of dark chocolate, and a creamy texture.
Another night, I started with an appetizer, the baked eggplant Torta ($12). The delicate layers of breaded eggplant were topped with tiny tender dice of buffalo mozzarella and fresh tomato and ribbons of basil. I was perfectly happy to just have this, with the bread and a glass of Montepulciano. In fact, this may be my next pre-movie meal. It was quick out of the kitchen, and melted in my mouth. We paired it with a simple Caesar (my son wanted a garden salad with Ranch, but they don’t have Ranch, which my kid considered a major no-no.)
Other appetizers that looked interesting: the "Pig Platter": Parma prosciutto, salami, mortadella, speck, sopressata, capicollo & pancetta; aranchini: Sicilian risotto cakes, beef, peas & mozzarella, on a bed of tomato sauce ($9); Cozze: PEI mussels, pancetta, cherry tomatoes, lemon, bread, garlic & white wine ($12); Caprese, imported buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, basil and olive oil ($13); and Shrimp Fritto, panko breaded, crispy fried, drizzled with garlic, parsley, lemon aioli ($12).
I ordered one of the more popular meals, a half-portion of the the pappardelle Bolognese ($11), a decadently rich cream sauce with ground veal, beef and pork, formaggio, salt and pepper. I appreciated that the meat was more plentiful than the fresh al dente pasta. Real comfort food. My kid got the half-portion of tender gnocchi alla Sorrentino ($11), tender knobs of potato pasta with tomato and mozzarella. My son’s pronouncement: “pretty good.”
I think next time I come I may try the Roasted Salmone ($24), with leeks, tomatoes, capers, garlic & lemon, served over angel hair, or Risotto ($23) with shrimp, cherry tomatoes, peas, lemon zest, grated grana padano.
Our waitress, Susan, said other popular items are the chicken boca, veal Bernardo, butternut squash ravioli in a sage, butter and toasted walnut sauce, and a eggplant dinner “to die for.” At Olivio’s for 10 years, she said that Angelo is an exacting but good boss. “He taught me how to pronounce brus-ket-a,” she said. “And how to open wine the right way. He’s all about presentation.”
For dessert, the kid tried the spumoni — the only dessert not made in-house, and it tasted that way. Artificially flavored cherry, pistachio and chocolate, although it was saved by Olivio’s own claret sauce, which was sweet but not too sweet, to add a “grown-up” touch. We can’t wait for them to bring back the homemade gelato. We both preferred the peanut butter cream-filled cannoli, a decent size sprinkled with chocolate shavings; like a peanut butter pie, only fluffier. It was quickly gone.
Both meals were low fuss, comfortable, and delicious. Angelo just wants his customers to be happy. He succeeded as far as I was concerned.
PS: In August, Olivio’s is also introducing new Dinner & a Date Night special. Every Friday night couples can order any 2 appetizers, any 2 entrees and any 1 dessert for only $40 (plus beverage, tax and gratuity).
201 Mass Ave
Arlington, MA 02474