“It’s the best-kept secret,” bubbled Dima, our irrepressible, black-clad server. That turned out to be a favored catchphrase of the restaurant, but there was no hiding the young woman’s enthusiasm for her workplace, or her pride in its cuisine.
We’d heard that Olio was a little gem tucked away in an old building a block away from the carnivallike bustle of East Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach — a neighborhood bistro with excellent food, a cozy ambience and a wine list to satisfy every taste. Thanks to the historic venue, the atmosphere didn’t have to be manufactured as it would were Olio located in a shopping mall storefront. The place has three main rooms: the main dining area, which is a long, brick-lined space; a more-intimate “bistro”; and a wine cellar — perfect for parties of 40 or so — whose walls support ceiling-high stacks of bottles.
We chose the main room, which had a banquette running the length of one wall, and sat side-by-side so we could enjoy the space and the cozy bar that welcomed casual diners who perched around it on tall chairs. Sconces with pinpoint bulbs dotted the walls, and the overall light level was intimate. While we studied the menu, we enjoyed a complimentary loaf of fresh, crusty bread accompanied by a compartmentalized plate containing butter on one side and herbed olive oil for dipping on the other.
Dima, our server, is one of those professionals who doesn’t have to write anything down, and she’s free with her comments on customers’ menu choices. Since tapas are a large part of the menu, we chose the fried calamari ($12), jumbo lump crab cocktail ($16) and — because it bore the restaurant’s name — the antipasto Olio (“excellent choice,” said Dima, rolling her eyes heavenward). Actually, all were very satisfying. The calamari — sweet, tender and not too greasy — was dusted with shaved Parmesan cheese. Huge chunks of crab came stuffed into a martini glass, accompanied by a Dijon-based dipping sauce. Dima was right about the antipasto. It was a tempting array of paper-thin salami, a generous amount of prosciutto, marinated vegetables, olives and chunks of farmer and blue-veined cheeses. The presentation was unique. Once we’d cleared the platter, we realized it consisted of one side of a wooden Chianti crate still stamped with the brand name “Ruffino,” and complete with box joints at each end.
For entrees, we tried a pasta dish, that being an individual category on the menu. In this case, we chose the simple Italian meatballs on spaghetti ($18, “from an old family recipe”). It didn’t disappoint. The sauce was rich and well herbed, and the meatballs had a delicate quality that we suspect was due to veal having been included in the mix. The spaghetti had been cooked perfectly al dente.
From the main entree list, we chose the brown-honey, crispy-roasted duck with Asian fried rice ($29). An imaginative departure from the traditional orange-sauce treatment, the honey glaze was very sweet, but succeeded because the gaminess of the meat demanded it. The duck was perfectly cooked and very moist. The bed of rice, which contained bits of chopped vegetables such as zucchini, was also sweet and might have been more appropriate as an accompaniment for a different dish. But it was delicious, nonetheless.
For dessert, Dima proudly displayed a platter of offerings ($8.50 each), many of which, she informed us, had been concocted by the pastry chef at Boheme Bistro, Olio’s better-known sister restaurant in Delray. They included fruit tart with custard, a dense chocolate cake and pistachio cheesecake, which we sampled. The slice was presented with a spritz of pistachio-infused frosting, and was rich, yet subtle — the perfect ending to an excellent meal.
We decided that there was no question we would return to Olio and share the dining experience with friends. And we would be sure to request Dima as our server.
42 SE Second Ave., Delray Beach
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday
Reservations: Strongly suggested on Fridays and Saturdays
Bar: Full service. Extensive wine list, with wines available by the glass
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Boosters and high chairs available. No special menu items available
Credit cards accepted: V, MC, AE, Discover
42 SE Second Ave., Delray Beach