Olmo is the reincarnation of a restaurant that didn’t need to die.
“There was no need for Caseus to close,” says Craig Hutchinson, part owner of Olmo along with fellow former Caseus chef Alex Lishchynsky. “Still one of the hottest restaurants, it was booked every week, tons of catering. I mean, the business was booming.” Yet Caseus owner Jason Sobocinski was ready and willing to take a step back when the duo shared their vision for Olmo. Sobocinski was able to see it too.
“It was like this perfect fit of someone who was looking to ride a great restaurant off into the sunset, and two young guys who are inspired to do something new,” Hutchinson says. “A high-profile restaurant closing turned into a high-profile restaurant opening.”
The gumption of two first-time owners willing to operate within a shadow they for years helped cast over the corner of Whitney Avenue and Trumbull Street in New Haven cannot be understated. While joking that they haven’t slept since November 2017 — the moment Olmo metamorphosed from thought to plan — one gets the feeling the exaggeration is minimal. A theme the two kept returning to was that they have a voice, and it’s time for that voice to be heard. “We’ve really started to find out what our voice has the potential to be,” Hutchinson says, “but Olmo is our first microphone on a stage to be able to sing loudly.”
That stage needed a new set design, a renovation more accurately described as a gutting. An open kitchen operates behind the bar, providing an instant feeling of community as soon as you walk through the curtain. Owners, employees and customers (“guests, not customers,” Hutchinson says) mingle during a recent lunch service, one member of the staff singing along with the PA to “Son of a Preacher Man” as I wait for a take-out order.
The downstairs dining area will be a little more familiar to Caseus regulars, but the fromagerie has been repurposed into a bakery and sandwich shop that opens at 7:30 a.m. seven days a week and provides plenty of grab-and-go options. Hutchinson says you can’t call yourself a community-driven restaurant and not be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also provide catering.
Making wholesale changes to a beloved institution like Caseus invites criticism, but the owners say the backlash has been tame in comparison to what they expected. “People are upset that they can’t get a mac and cheese and a grilled cheese anymore,” Lishchynsky says. “But when you look at the rest of the Caseus menu, that’s still mine and Craig’s. … The identity of Caseus is still here, and the love is still here. We’re just like, it’s less cheese.”
Broken down into small plates, pastas and shareable entrées, the menu’s focus is on housemade pasta and locally sourced vegetables. “You can’t just call up a warehouse and expect to have great food show up in the alley,” Hutchinson says. “You’ve got to create relationships with great farmers and have great food be brought to you.”
In the city for dinner on a Saturday night in January, our group of four orders one small plate, three pastas (half-portions) and two entrées. But at our server’s suggestion, we start the night off right with the bone marrow special, a dual-threat delicacy of an appetizer. Smoky bone marrow pairs beautifully with a sweet, preserved blueberry salad, herbs, radishes and housemade sourdough. After you get what you can with a spoon, the bone becomes a luge. Bottoms up! White dandelion vermouth washes down the fat and juice of the blueberries, adding an experiential facet to an already-delicious dish.
Other than the bone marrow and vermouth, there are no cocktails — “If it doesn’t work with the food, then we don’t want to serve it,” Lishchynski says — but general manager Tessa Cooney has curated a top-notch beer list and the servers are more than capable of recommending the best wine or sake to accompany your meal.
Labneh, the small plate, is served with romesco, almonds, bagna càuda and focaccia on a cheese board made from fallen elms from the Elm City that came down during last May’s storm. It’s ideal for sharing and consists of an array of fantastic flavors and textures.
The three pasta dishes keep the positive momentum going. Olmo’s gemelli with Bolognese bianco was the standout, but that in no way puts down the other two. The fusilli, with three kinds of mushrooms, is their No. 1 seller and the mafalde and meatball made with Lishchynski’s “nanny’s sauce” is quintessential comfort food. Everything stems from a classic dish, “but then we kind of flip it on its head,” Lishchynski says.
Part of the renovation included the addition of a rotisserie, which is used to prepare a tasty, tender, juicy bird (half or whole) that is accompanied by one of the finest side dishes I’ve ever tasted — Brussels sprouts with cider syrup, pickled cumin seeds and kale-kraut. “That chicken dish was all an accident,” Lishchynski says of a recipe born one hour before the service on “friends and family night.” The sprouts were supposed to be a cassoulet but Olmo’s supplier sent the wrong beans. Cumin seeds were supposed to be mustard seeds, but they came out too bitter. “That was me cooking out of spite because I was pissed at our purveyor for sending the wrong product.” Spite never tasted so good.
Our second entrée is porchetta, which also embodies the Olmo mantra of “simple food done right.” Nothing fancy or intimidating, just quality ingredients prepared by the same people who helped make Caseus a 10-year success story. The dessert menu is just one item, a chocolate pot de crème, on the night of our visit (Hutchinson says a second option has been added). Light, sweet and refreshing, it capped off a truly enjoyable evening. Even the most ardent Caseus lifers and Olmo doubters will come away impressed.
“It’s very easy to point your finger at Alex and I and call us the bad guys,” says Hutchinson, channeling his inner Tony Montana. “But we cooked all the food that made you fall in love with Caseus for the past three years.” Still not satisfied? “Come in and buy some bread that we made, and come buy some cheese that we sourced, and we’ll tell you exactly how we used to cook the grilled cheese.”