Do you have one of those restaurants hanging out in the back of your mind you will never forget?
You know, the one where you remember precisely what you had, and when you think back to it, your mouth waters a little and your heart aches to return.
For me, it's a tiny Italian restaurant in Boston I went to more than five years ago. I had gnocchi in a champagne sauce and I distinctly recall wanting to lick my plate clean, despite the people surrounding me.
Ever since, I have been on a search for another Italian restaurant right here in Savannah that gives me those same feelings - with phenomenal food, above-par service and an intimate ambiance. There are definitely some runners up, but I just haven't found "THE ONE" yet.
So when I heard Oliva was opening, I was thrilled in hopes that this would be it.
Oliva Restaurant and Bar opened its doors about two months ago, a picturesque, historic Savannah-style restaurant right off Bay Street. The owners, however, are not new to the Savannah restaurant scene.
They started small, with an underground Cuban restaurant off Posey Street, near the Oglethorpe Mall. The hubby and I used to sneak off, not inviting other couples because we didn't want anyone to know about our secret little spot. Word got out, though, because you can't hide a tasty Cuban sandwich.
The Venezuelan owners set up a bigger and better version of the original Cuban spot, Rancho Alegre, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
After a few years of success, the same owners decided to try their hand at Italian cuisine, and that's where Oliva comes in.
I actually have been a guest at Oliva twice. The first time I visited was only three weeks after its opening. My girlfriends and I arrived on a bustling weeknight and were warmly greeted by the host. I was thrilled to get a peek at the open kitchen as we were taken to our table upstairs. I made the girls promise that we would all order something different so I could selfishly taste everything.
I had been eyeing the menu online and the Spanish/Italian fusion mesmerized me. I wanted everything, but because of memories of great gnocchi, I ordered the Gnocchi with Italian Sausage and Vodka Sauce.
In the meantime, I enjoyed a fantastic glass of the 2010 Luigi Bosca Malbec and shared fresh bread dipped in olive oil, parmesan and black pepper. We all agreed the oil mixture could use something else, yet we devoured it just because it was there.
After a reasonable wait, our perfectly portioned dishes arrived. I'm sad to admit, I was disappointed with my gnocchi.
I was looking forward to a delectable, creamy, rosy vodka sauce.
However, the sauce on this gnocchi resembled nothing of the sort. In fact, it was identical to the bolognese sauce that one of my girlfriends ordered on her fettuccine. Both pastas with this sauce were fair, at best.
The good news is my other girlfriend ordered the Shrimp Ravioli al Peppe Rosso and Tarragon. The ravioli was cooked to a perfect al dente, allowing the shrimp to stand on its own instead of melting into the pasta.
The sauce was creamy and flavorful, complimenting the ravioli beautifully. If she wasn't pregnant, I might have considered stealing it from her. I definitely was jealous.
We finished our meal by sharing a piece of their Ricotta Cake, which is a much lighter take on a traditionally heavy cheesecake. It was inviting with its Nutella drizzle. Needless to say, this was my favorite part. It seems that has been my trend with Savannah Italian restaurants: I like the wine and dessert.
With the exception of the ravioli, we deemed everything as marginal - the bread, the dishes, the prices and the service. I left a bit sad, but at the same time, I still wanted to go back. There are so many tasty things on the menu that I just wanted to try more, and to possibly give the restaurant a few more weeks to get their recipes nailed down and to allow the wait staff to become more comfortable.
So I returned a few weeks later, secretly crossing my fingers that this time would be better. My palate was set and I knew I wanted to try the Mushroom Lasagna, especially since lasagnas are Oliva's self-proclaimed speciality and because I have a love affair with mushrooms and bÃ©chamel.
I brought a different girlfriend this time, leaving the hubby at home again. We arrived early on a weeknight, beating all of the crowds.
We agreed to try the Bruschetta.
A delicious mix piled high on toasted baguettes, this bruschetta danced on my taste buds. The ripe tomatoes tossed with fresh basil and parmesan cheese was drizzled with a thick and rich balsamic glaze. I'm pretty sure we devoured every crumb on that plate!
I could eat that bruschetta on anything! A smile spread across my face because already this trip was becoming better than my first.
Our meals arrived shortly after we had scraped the remains of the bruschetta off our plates. I received the Mushroom Lasagna. Great choice! A generous slice of lasagna sat covered in bÃ©chamel and a blend of cheeses.
The first bite, and every bite thereafter, melted in my mouth. The lasagna noodles were fresh and al dente, and the mushrooms were complemented exquisitely with a blend of fresh thyme and oregano. It was rich and decadent - and had me thinking about it and craving more by the following day!
My friend chose the PÃ¢tÃ© Ravioli, and what a delicious choice that was. Again, the ravioli was cooked al dente and the pÃ¢tÃ© stood out on its own from the inside. Each ravioli bite was balanced by a flawless sage butter sauce. The sage was a crowning finish to the dish.
Both dishes were excellent in savor and portion. They were memorable and within a day or so, I was already wanting to return to Oliva.
The restaurant just needed a few more weeks to perfect everything, I suppose. I have heard great things, as well, about their homemade basil gelato, which unfortunately I missed out on, as they change their gelato flavor daily.
The hubby will need to experience this, so I have another excuse to go and hopefully try that basil gelato.
Oliva, I do have two recommendations for you: 1. Please work on that so-called vodka sauce for your gnocchi dish (I hear it hasn't changed since my first visit) and 2. Make sure your servers have tried everything as they are still a little rusty on some of the menu items. Other than that, keep making memorable food, and I wish you the best of luck in the cutthroat downtown food arena.
Go try Oliva's Italian fusion for yourself. You won't be dissatisfied, and it may even be that unforgettable restaurant for you, just as I have my own memories of great Italian food.
I'm not 100 percent sure this is "THE ONE" yet, but I am getting much closer!
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OLIVA RESTAURANT AND BAR
Where: 10 Whitaker St., just off Bay Street
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday