My friend Becca knows just where to find the best (THE best!, she’ll insist) pimento cheese. She introduced me to diet cranberry splash Sierra Mist (addictive, she’ll attest), and she is also passionate about finding (and eating!) the perfect Southern tomato pie.
In other words, she pretty much always has an opinion about food. So when we were plotting out a recent dinner-and-a-movie night, I threw out a few suggestions and waited for her response. She countered with Oliviana Bar Italiano, Ristorante & Pizzeria.
The Italian restaurant at the former Polka Dot Pig Gastropub in Surrey Center recently opened under the helm of Michael Schepis, the restaurateur behind the successful Pizza Joint franchise.
Oliviana again invites customers to Italy – but a more upscale Italy.
Its daily dinner menu (in both Italian and English) focuses on starters including beef carpaccio, seasonal Tuscan soup and hearty green salads drizzled with balsamic and sprinkled with Parmesan; baked and classic pastas and risottos; classic Italian entrees such as lemon chicken, beef filet topped with Gorgonzola cheese and rosemary pork chops; and of course, pizzas.
The restaurant is also open for lunch daily, swapping out a selection of paninis for the entrees (the Cuba Meets Italy, combining coppa, spicy mustard, prosciutto, pickles and mozzarella, caught my eye) and adding more pizzas.
Naturally, Becca had already dined at Oliviana, and though she had enjoyed her filet, she wanted to try one of the pizzas or pastas. So after a nail-biting matinee of Argo, we settled in to one of Oliviana’s spacious booths and got ready for a full Italian meal.
While we were talking over the menu, our waiter, Anthony, took our drink orders and brought by some crusty golden foccaccia and a dish of olive oil and balsamic. I took it as a good sign that our loaf was boot-shaped and reminded me of Italy – although, when we asked, it was actually just a tad misshapen.
The attentive Anthony offered menu advice when we asked, but we eventually decided that the best decision was indecision – just to order several things and share them, starting with the tomato soup.
Presented against simple white china, the bright orange of the soup popped, and was garnished with two croutons, a slice of toasted bread and a delicate sprinkling of basil. The kitchen kindly divided our soup for us, so we each had a palm-size bowl.
The soup looked beautiful and was appropriately thick and creamy, but didn’t have as rich of a tomato flavor as I would have liked. Instead, it compensated with sharp notes of basil.
Our cured meats and cheeses came next – available in selections of six, eight or all 10 meat and cheese options. We took turns choosing and ended up with parma prosciutto (the national ham of Italy); mortadella, a cured pork; Genoa salami; parmeggiano reggiano; gorgonzola montagna, an Italian blue cheese; and goat cheese.
Sampling these took me back to when my husband and I traveled to Italy and every hotel buffet offered cold Italian meats and cheeses for breakfast, along with the more usual American offerings. The mortadella wasn’t as flavorful as in my memories, though, and the parmesan was a bit hard and crumbly – plus, Becca’s first bite was all rind. But the prosciutto and salami were packed with fantastic salty flavor, and paired well with the sweet and tart goat cheese.
By this time, we realized we had ordered way too much for two. And, when our entrees came, all we could do was laugh. Becca’s speck e rucola pizza – an artisan-style pie topped with mozzarella, juicy cherry tomatoes, arugula and pancetta (Italian bacon) – plus my dish of shrimp alfredo tagliatelle and a side of risotto primavera (which they inadvertently brought as a full-size portion) covered our entire table.
After agreeing that most would be coming home with us, we started sampling. Becca had enjoyed the risotto as a side on a previous trip, but, while the flavor was delicious – the peas and asparagus made it a delightfully springlike dish – the risotto was a bit past al dente and therefore a little too soft for my taste. Becca agreed it was overcooked this go-round.
But both the pizza and pasta were outstanding. The pizza, obviously, couldn’t be anything less – given Schepis’ background at Pizza Joint. But with a beautifully uneven, thick crust, topped with sweet cheese and tomatoes, salty bacon and handfuls of slightly bitter greens, this pie went way beyond anything at the Joint.
But the highlight was definitely the pasta, which was coated in a rich, creamy and smoky alfredo sauce, scented with bacon. The wide noodles were cooked perfectly, and the fresh shrimp almost popped as you bit into them. Despite being pretty full, I had a hard time not taking “just one more bite.”
With leftovers packed in foil containers brought by Anthony – who scribbled “Grazie!” on each of the lids – we wandered back out into Surrey Center soon after.
Our final opinion? Oliviana might have a few tweaks they could work on, but with its great service and delicious pizzas and pastas, I look forward to introducing it to other friends.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Oliviana Bar Italiano, Ristorante & Pizzeria, Surrey Center, 399 Highland Ave.
HOURS: Lunch, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday. Bar stays open late Friday and Saturday.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 723-1242