It took us a good twenty minutes to read through Locanda Olmo's menu: a page or two for appetizers, then another three or four pages of primi piatti -- risottos and pastas, mainly -- before we even hit the main courses. There were so many that if the restaurant were full, every customer could have ordered a different entrée.
"It's a little crazy, isn't it?" the waiter sympathized when we asked him for a few recommendations. He pointed us to the back page, with house specialties -- another page I had missed -- and listed a couple of dishes that had become popular with the regulars.
I have passed by Locanda Olmo often enough over the past few years to think of it as a College Avenue fixture. In fact, the Elmwood restaurant has been there since 1997, which in restaurant years is the equivalent of hitting your early forties. But last month I saw an "Under New Management" banner above the door. So I returned for a closer look -- and found a brand-new restaurant inside.
Locanda Olmo is just the kind of place you want to walk into on a cold, damp February night. High-ceilinged and almost as narrow as a walk-in closet, the gold-walled room looks like the set for a college production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Thick tendrils of plastic ivy wind down the cords of low-slung lights, and once you mount the stairs to the Barolo-hued mezzanine, you're surrounded by candles and grapevines. But instead of coming off as cheesy, the effect is cozy and charming.
That's due in part to the charms of the Oculistis, the couple who bought Locanda Olmo in September. The pair moved to the States from Florence in June, and decided to re-create the Florentine experience of the locando -- or small neighborhood restaurant -- in their new hometown (well, Charlotte is originally from Piedmont). They completely revamped the decor and renovated the tiny kitchen so that they rely only on the oven, Florentine-style. Leonardo mans the kitchen, Charlotte the front of the house. Their menu contains a combination of dishes from the old restaurant as well as new additions, and in several months they plan on switching to sustainably raised meat as well.
Charlotte's warm, funny presence brings a familial welcome to the new Locanda Olmo. The service is certainly casual, but under her affectionate attentiveness, little blips that normally annoy me (such as delivering the check with the dessert) just felt like friends dropping the formalities.
On both nights, we adhered pretty closely to her recommendations, and wound up with small lovelinesses: Each part of the spicy lamb salad -- mixed greens and tomatoes in a bright vinaigrette topped with a mass of thinly sliced lamb sautéed with chiles and spices -- tasted nondescript. But put 'em all together, and wham! The vinegar and the spices set each other off, and the tender lamb in turn gave the bitter greens some heft. And one meal ended with as perfect a panna cotta as I've found. The jiggly collapsed Schmoo of "cooked cream," as its name translates, held together long enough to make it to the mouth, where it melted like the loosest of custards. A drizzle of homemade caramel provided all the extra sweetness it needed.
A second appetizer, crespelle di zucca dolce, from the foot-long list of vegetarian dishes, was described as crepes stuffed with pumpkin and biscotti. The crepes were all right -- plump with pureed squash and ricotta, soft but pan-crisped around the edges -- but they swam in a sea of melted butter, with a few dried-mushroom shavings and chopped parsley scattered on top. The pumpkin's flavor was mild and rich. Or maybe it was just the butter, because butter was just about all I could taste. On my next visit, we ordered another crepe, an entrée-size cannelloni d'agnello, a delicate beauty stuffed with lamb ground as fine as the filling in bockwurst or boudin. Its smooth, mild flavor melded beautifully with the sauce of white wine, butter, and sautéed cremini and porcini.
All the main dishes were composed simply -- just a few ingredients combined in the right proportions. The lemon sauce on the salmone ai ferri (salmon fillet) was an almost invisible slick of concentrated citrus on the plate that nevertheless brightened up the roasted fillet considerably. And a meaty osso buco d'agnello (lamb shank) was braised with tomatoes, onions, and carrots until the meat fell apart and the vegetables stewed down into a chunky ragout. It came atop a small puddle of polenta that was cooked so long that each grain swelled far beyond its shape and then fluffed up with cream. Both entrées came with a straightforward but nicely executed mélange of roasted carrots and zucchini.
How loose should a risotto be? Depends on the region, apparently. According to Charlotte, our risotto della Ruffina, as wet as a stew, was as properly Florentine as proper could be. The moist grains of rice with a small, solid center (just right) filled out a rust-red ragout of tomatoes, rosemary, and crumbled lamb sausage, which delivered a whiff of fennel to the nose and a slight burn to the throat. Accustomed to risottos in which the rice is the most important ingredient, I felt like the grain got lost, but loved the taste so much I made the clean-plate club anyway.
As I suspected, with a menu that large -- did I mention they serve pizza, too? -- a chef would have to be almost inhumanly gifted to be able to pull off every dish. Inevitably, some didn't succeed. In the case of the insalatina fresca, a sharp burst of lemon illuminated the salad of cooked tuna, greens, and shaved red onions, but the croutons promised by the menu didn't show and baby lima beans were replaced by a less verdant red bean. Pears poached in sweetened Chianti and served warm, each topped with a chunk of melting gorgonzola and a walnut (quibble: toast the nut first), had a succulent texture, but I thought they should have been moved from the appetizer to the dessert page. More egregiously, thin slices of an arista, or roast pork, were tender and properly seasoned, but the menu-inspired vision of a meaty bean ragout underneath was dashed when we found but a few scattered, unseasoned beans hiding under the pork. And from the taste of it, the juniper-bay sauce was a mere tablespoon of reduced cream with a few juniper berries sprinkled on top.
Tiramisu, yadda, yadda, yadda. End the meal with the panna cotta or the chocolate semifreddo -- a slab of frozen mousse that looked so skimpy that its dense, lush chocolatiness came as a shock, intensified by the alcoholic cream sauce and coffee beans surrounding the mousse.
At the risk of sounding like a skipping record, I enjoyed Locanda Olmo but would enjoy it more if the new owners trimmed down the menu. When a small kitchen is juggling this many dishes, it's hard to maintain the control necessary to practice seasonality, freshness, and care, the hallmarks of Tuscan -- and Californian -- cuisine. With its warm ambiance, warmer service, and a talented chef, Locanda Olmo needs nothing more than a good editor to bring out the excellent locanda it promises to be.
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