A 1904 New York Tribune article about Italian immigration to New Haven carried the fevered headline “ITALIANS ARE FLOODING CONNECTICUT.” The article quotes the Rev. Joel Ives of the Missionary Society of Connecticut, who worries that the Italians coming into the state are “poor, superstitious, ignorant, and indifferent.”
Well, the Rev. Ives has departed us and we are all very glad the Italians did come to New Haven. As Italian immigrants spread out from the ports and the nearby Wooster Square neighborhood into the city at large, their food and customs became an indelible part of the life and character of the city. Simply put, New Haven wouldn’t be New Haven without apizza, without its Italian immigrants. New Haven has also ranked among the best nightlife scenes in the state, and Olives and Oil, which opened in December, attempts to bridge that gap between the old and the new, between a proud Italian culinary legacy and a buzzing nightlife.
Olives and Oil
124 Temple St., New Haven
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-10 p. m. The bar is open till last call.
Price range: Cicchetti: $8-$16 (arancini $10, bruschetta $8, bone marrow $15); pastas: $16-$20 (spaghetti carbonara $20); per la famiglia dishes for two: $20-$29 per person; dessert: $9.
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible through a side entrance.
Ambiance The huge space is divided into a bar section and a more traditional dining area with booths. The high ceilings and open space evoke the “great room” dining of a different era. The clientele was a mixture of young people in large parties and Yale parents taking a child out for a start-of-term meal. The music and its volume certainly suited a younger crowd, but not deafeningly so.
Service Stellar. Our server, Manny, was funny, friendly and impressively knowledgeable about what is a beast of a menu.
Food Executive chef John Brennan’s term, “electric Italian,” is apt. Recognizable and familiar dishes are done in adventurous ways that sometimes overstep, but are mostly exciting and well executed.
Located in a space at the corner of Temple and Crown streets, in the heart of New Haven’s club district, Olives and Oil enters a physical location that has seen a number of bars and restaurants come and go over the years. Executive chef and co-owner John Brennan (of Elm City Social Club fame) describes it as a “vintage Italian gastro bar, and I describe the cuisine as electric Italian.” Vintage and electric. The classic look of the old Italian advertisements in the menu and on the walls contrasts with massive multicolor graffiti frescoes of a pig’s head and an octopus. Like the rest of the restaurant, it’s a curious combination, and it mostly works.
Upon sitting down, it takes a few minutes to orient oneself to the menu, which is designed in the manner of an old Italian fashion magazine. My dining party was expertly assisted through the menu by our waiter, however, who explained the various parts with ease.
The menu is something to behold, and a single visit to Olives and Oil is not enough to sample everything. Nevertheless, we shall try. The cocktail menu is festooned with more Italian liqueurs than a beer drinker like myself ever knew existed, and there are 16 rotating wines on tap, with flights available. For the true wine drinker, the list of wines by the bottle continues for another two pages. Because of the menu design, complete with some 15 vintage advertisements, it is a full five pages before the first food selections make themselves known. A selection of different mozzarella plates, a raw bar (known by its Italian name crudo), and small sharing plates called cicchetti open the food portion.
Hoping to sample as much as possible, we opted for two cicchetti dishes — which Brennan says resemble Spanish tapasin spirit — and the burrata soft cheese from the mozzarella menu. From the cicchetti menu — which, along with the per la famiglia entrees for two, is where Brennan’s vision of electric Italian really takes flight — I sampled the bone marrow and the arancini with Parmesan, fontina and vodka sauce. The bone marrow was intensely flavorful without being overwhelming, the smoothness of the arancini acting as a lovely counterpoint. The arancini was one of the highlights of the meal, as the crispness of the fried exterior played well against the creamy texture of the rice filling. While decorum kept me from mopping the vodka sauce up with the spoon, I could hardly blame anyone who would.
The burrata, from a rather impressive selection of fresh mozzarella plates, was also quite memorable, with a pesto jam and truffle salt. The bruschetta was a fairly standard, but delicious, version of the Italian staple.
Despite Brennan’s red hair and Irish last name, the chef grew up in an Italian household in New Jersey, with family recipes that reach straight back to Sicily. In some cases, Brennan says, the recipes are exact replications of the ones he learned from his grandmother. This is Brennan’s second effort in New Haven, after having opened the nearby Elm City Social Club in 2015 on College Street. Olives and Oil appears to desire the same crowd, but with more extensive food offerings than the cocktail and drinks-oriented Elm City. Brennan says he was not scared that the location has seen a number of other places fail, saying he doesn’t believe in curses.
Rather, the building itself drew him in. “I have a soft spot for old architecture and I saw it was available and the building was gorgeous,” he says. “I was like, you know, why don’t we open another restaurant in New Haven? I think there’s certainly room for additional concepts, and people are moving in. ... The city is bustling. People really love us and know us down there.”
The spaghetti carbonara came with an unmixed egg which, once mixed in with the pasta, created a hearty and supremely filling dish. The “New School” meatball dish, with its ground bacon, beef, veal, onion jam and aged gouda, missed the mark, to my taste, and felt like a melding of too many different flavors. My party briefly contemplated ordering the most intimidating and intriguing dish on the menu: an entire rabbit prepared for two people at $58. The rest of the menu had defeated us, however. Next time. Olives and Oil also offers an extensive selection of small pizzas, cooked in the in-house brick oven.
The dessert menu features a rotating cannoli option. Our visit was on peanut butter and chocolate day and the cannoli was an ample bow on what had been a massive and filling meal.