934 Hope St., Stamford, (203) 817-0303, oliostamford.com
Ever since I tried Olio's seared scallops with cauliflower fondue and sweet-and-sour raisins I've been wanting to get to this restaurant in Stamford. How did I taste them when I've never been to Olio? Their scallops were the standout taste at A Taste of Stamford last spring. So good I had two tastes.
Olio celebrated its first anniversary in July. When it opened, in the former Bella Luna, it instantly became a Springdale neighborhood favorite, a casual, culinary gem. In Spanish, "olio" means a dish of many ingredients. Here the ingredients and influences are many — Latin, Asian, Mediterranean, European and American. The ethos is from-scratch cooking — stocks, sauces, pastas, pastries and ice cream. Ingredients are local and organic when possible. During a recent visit we got a hands-on feeling about the place, of the owners caring very much about making the food sing at Olio.
While we looked at the menus, our waiter brought the complimentary homemade bread. Warm, crusty, moist crumb, good flavor, just enough salt. And with the bread, a spread and a dip with Italian roots. White bean purée was mixed with minced parsley, red pepper, garlic, and lemon. It had a light consistency and bright flavor. The tomato-balsamic-olive oil dipping sauce was good, but the white bean purée was the one I kept going back to.
We decided to make a meal of the intriguing starters. BBQ spareribs ($10) were sublime. The ribs had been sawed in half into plump, meaty riblets. They were arranged in a Lincoln log pile, the glistening meat garnished with white and black sesame seeds. The glossy brown sauce melded miso and soy, a hint of star anise, and sweetness. The meat gently yielded to the fork. We savored the ribs, spooning up sauce from the bottom of the plate to drizzle over every bite of succulent meat and the charred scallions. "It's embarrassing how much I want to lick this plate," my friend said.
Wild mushroom crostini would be a great way to start any meal. The mushrooms were sprinkled with taleggio cheese, not too much, enough for flavor, yet which let the mushrooms peek through the bubbly browned cheese. The three crostini were toasted from Olio's delicious homemade bread, and were accompanied by two piles of arugula topped with a little grated cheese. The arugula's fresh bitterness contrasted nicely with the cheesy, buttery, salty, crostini. I would have liked a little oil and vinegar on the arugula. And if I'd asked, they would have brought it.
Our waiter was professional, attentive and friendly. He listened and was completely accommodating to our request about the pacing of the meal. We wanted time to enjoy our first two starters before the others came out. Co-owner Moira Hyland was there, dressed in black shirt and pants. She was busy, smiling, and modest. We'd arrived early. From our comfortable table for four in the spare, bright front room, we watched as the rooms and bar overlooking the open kitchen filled. Groups of women, young families, and casually dressed, prosperous looking seniors gave a convivial neighborhood feel to the room, a sense of enjoyment. At one table, a gentleman ordered the cioppino, the catch-of-the day stew ($28). At another table, a lady drank prosecco and twirled homemade spaghetti in lobster, shallot, and tomato-brandy-cream sauce ($24).
Back at our table, the guava chipotle shrimp was served. Three fat shrimp encircled finely minced ripe tomato (nice knife skills), showered with cilantro sprouts. The spices on the grilled shrimp had notes of cumin and citrus, which resonated appealingly. The shrimp rested on mango mustard sauce, a gourmet take on the mustard and duck sauce that comes with take-out Chinese. On the night we tried this dish, the grilled shrimp were a little over-grilled, a tad cottony.
The beef empanadas reminded me of mini-Jamaican beef patties. That's probably because the deep-fried half-moons were the same yellow-orange, annatto seed color. They came with aioli spiked with hot serrano peppers and garlic, and a ramekin of pico de gallo. Next time I go to Olio I want to try the starter of braised pork shoulder, avocado, crispy plantain, pickled red onions and coriander.
The wine list is extremely reasonable, with no bottles above $35. The mark-up was minimal. A bottle for $20? "This wine is $15 in the store," my friend said of the Villa del Borgo pinot grigio from the Friuli region of Italy. Tuesdays are half-price wine nights. Wednesday nights Olio offers a special three-course prix fixe for $25. Chef/co-owner Steve Costanzo creates daily specials, which he posts on Facebook. I need to coordinate my next visit with the next time he makes the special starter of duck, wild mushrooms and jalapeño crepes with coconut green curry sauce. It sounds great.
Desserts are made in Olio's kitchen. The homiest is cinnamon-sugar-dusted doughnuts, with Nutella dipping sauce. Next time, I'm saving room for the lemon tart. It would have been the perfect ending to our meal of starters.