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Oliveto Café is dead to me

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Backstory: The first time I dined at Oliveto café a few months back, I was nonplussed by the lackluster food given Oliveto's reputation (realize now the food up & down are coming from different kitchens).

Since I hate to write off a place after just one visit, especially if it gets accolades from foodies, we dropped into O café again last night for a light supper.

We arrived close to 9 pm as many tables were leaving. The servers seemed quite harried nonetheless (we even spotted our server mixing a drink behind the bar before stopping by to check in and take our order).

We ordered the potato and celery soup, garden lettuces, pizza Napoletana and cannelloni with summer vegetables. And two glasses of red – one Sicilian, one Californian, both unremarkable but drinkable.

Our soup, which was an earthy, ruddy color and texture, was almost tasteless, seemingly without any salt or seasoning whatsoever. The salad was not bad – a very minimalist greens, salt, pepper, and vinagrette – but nothing special. The cannelloni arrived looking positively TV dinner-esque. Sadly, the texture and flavor were no better. It featured a thick, creamy béchamel sauce, again virtually tasteless, with mixed vegetables that seemed as if they’d been frozen, not fresh.

The pizza, while better than the dried out version we had a few months back, was just “ok.” It certainly wasn't bad, just not at all memorable - paling next to the pies we enjoy frequently at A16, Dopo, Pizzaiolo, Pizzaria Delfina.

Total bill including tip: $70. We left thoroughly unsatisfied with the meal and felt it’s an exceptionally poor value.

So, my question is, why does the café draw such a crowd? Is it the meats? The beau-monde scene? The people-watching on College? else? I confess, I simply don’t get it.

Next time we’re on that block in search of a light meal -- it’s going to be Pearl, or even Cactus.

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  1. I feel the same way about Oliveto Cafe. I gave it two honest tries, the food was consistentyl disappointing, never again. Dopo does similarly styled food with vastly better execution at the same price point.

    1. Some of the people in the cafe are ordering off the upstairs menu (always an option, but everyone at the table has to order from one or the other). Either the upstairs was full or they prefer the downstairs for whatever reason, e.g. limited mobility.

      I'm not sure I've eaten off the downstairs menu since Pizzaiolo opened.

      1. I think definitely the reputation is a draw, but you can't write off the primo location. It's right at the corner across from BART and surrounded by Market Hall foodies. It attracts a well-heeled crowd that likes to be looked at in the outdoor seating, which provides a simple ad for people walking by. I mean, what better than to have a well-dressed couple sipping wine to make you wonder about a restaurant? I ate at both the upstairs and downstairs and the upstairs is far more worth of praise than the cafe. I think the cafe might also be overflow of people with no reservations for upstairs, so that's why it always looks crowded.

        1. I was also disappointed by the cafe.

          It bears stressing that the upstairs is still FANTASTIC. In my opinion, if you want to do Oliveto at a more affordable price, lunch upstairs is the way to go. Per person, about $40 for 4 courses (not counting booze). Also, if your budget is tight, they're really not bitchy if all you want is a plate of pasta.


          1. Ditto on the cafe. One app, two pastas and we were still hungry so ordered another pasta to split. Small portions and I remember the bill being quite high. Oh well! Live and learn...

            1. I am no huge fan by any means, but I seem to have had the opposite experience from everyone else: good meals downstairs, disappointing experiences every time I've eaten upstairs. I've not felt pressure to spend a certain amount or to over-order, and they have some nice wines by the glass. The service at the Cafe was fine, as good or better than the service upstairs, and certainly much better than my last visit to Dopo: where the service was poor enough that I haven't wanted to go back.

              However, that said, I'd agree with Robert that I'd rather eat at Pizzaiolo than downstairs at the Oliveto cafe (For that matter, however, I'd rather eat at Pizzaiolo than at Oliveto upstairs).

              1. We ate upstairs last night and ran into some friends who were eating downstairs, off the downstairs menu. They said everything was great, particularly the cannelloni.

                1. To each his own. It was a waste of my time and money, so I won't be back.

                  1. I'm a bit surprised at the degree of dislike felt for Oliveto Cafe. I had lunch there a couple of weekends ago and had a fantastic chickpea (crema di ceci) soup. The flavour of the chickpeas was amazingly intense. In fact, on a chilly night a few days later, I found myself ordering a chickpea soup at Delfina Pizzeria, and it was nowhere near as tasty.

                    Granted, the mortadella sandwich which followed wasn't great - the bread was bland and spongy, even if the salumi was housemade and the mayonnaise impeccable. However, as I was eating the sandwich, the table behind me starting raving about the chocolate cake... I had to order it, and it was very delicious indeed.

                    Certainly a waste of neither time nor money...IMO.

                    2 Replies
                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        It was on the side in a little pot, but yes.

                    1. We had a quick dinner at the cafe a month ago and thought the food was terrific. The mixed green salad was indeed simple, but I've never had more perfect lettuces. The salumi plate that we shared was enough to get us back again and again. I ordered polenta with house-made sausage, and my bf had a pizza. Both were lovely. If I had to criticize anything, I'd say that the wine list is boring and poorly chosen, but the food was subtle and gorgeous.

                      1. We've always had good luck at the cafe, although I always treat it as a casual, pop-in weekday spot rather than a destination (which the upstairs deserves to be). We tend to always order the salumi and the pizza of the day, and then whatever else strikes our fancy. I've been pleased with the wines and cocktails, and have always had great service downstairs.

                        1. There seems to be mild consensus that the desserts and meats are the best bet - but neither were a part of my meal (see original post).

                          Given the polemics above, it's clear the diner (especially the herbivore-leaning) should proceed with caution at the cafe.