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I Wasn't Wowed at Oliveto's

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I went with my wife for dinner at Oliveto's. First off, the service was less than par, not what I would expect at a high end establishment. We started off with Garden Lettuces Vinaigrette and Young Carrots with Mint. The lettuce and dressing were fine, no complaints here. I really enjoyed the carrots. They were soft and sweet with a nice mint flavor that blended perfectly. Based on this, I couldn't wait for the pasta dishes. I had the Saffron fettuccine with Smoked Atlantic Cod and Fennel and my wife had the Herb pappardelle with Braised Hoffman
Farm Hen (which I also sampled). Although the ingredients and flavors were excellent, I was very disappointed. Both plates tasted like entrees that should have been served with potatoes and vegetables. The hen and reduction sauce would have gone well with roasted potatoes. I would have enjoyed the smoked cod with mashed potatoes. It was as though two different dishes had been thrown together, the entree and the pasta. It didn't sit well with me. I liked one of the desserts much better. We tried both the Amaretto panna cotta with House-Brandied Sour Cherries and the Bittersweet Chocolate Cake. I loved the former. The sour cherries were out of this world and the panna cotta tasted fresh and really cleansed my palate. I could have done without the cake, however. It was too dry. Overall, I wasn't wowed by Oliveto's like I had expected I would be. Is my palate not sophisticated or is Oliveto's overrated?

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  1. I don't think you can blame Oliveto for your preferring mashed potatoes to pasta. Maybe you would have been better off ordering an entree.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      What he said was that he didn't think the pasta came together with the protein part of the dishes. From the description, that sounds like a valid point. In Italy, do they really serve pasta with a big hunk of fish or chicken on top? Aren't you the one who is always talking about how in Italy, the pasta course is a small plate and the fish/meat/poultry is served as a stand alone?

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        In Italy, normally the first course is a large serving of pasta or soup (collectively "minestra") and the second course is a small serving of meat, with your choice of vegetables ("contorni") ordered separately and served on the side. Oliveto pretty much sticks to that tradition that except the pasta servings are smaller and the entree servings are larger, and post-Bertolli they've started including vegetable and/or starch sides with some of their entrees.

        In 20+ meals there I've never seen that American-style thing of pasta topped with an entree-like chunk of protein. I've had pasta with braised hen several times at Oliveto and it has always been a sauce--and memorably delicious. Any time I see Hoffman on the menu it's hard to resist.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          I'd concur - from the generic description, I'd agree that the OP has a valid point. I wouldn't be particularly thrilled if my pasta dish arrived with a big hunk of protein wantonly tossed on top of it.

          Ruth, you pulled out the ammo on this one, huh? :) It's true that pasta isn't traditionally meant as a main dish: the portion is usually much smaller and a protein-based entree would traditionally follow. The dishes described really sound like a failed attempt to blend the two together. Can't comment too much without tasting them; however, I'd be slow to question rightstar's taste buds in lieu of doing so. :)

          1. re: jrhsfcm

            The original post doesn't say the hen and fish were served in big chunks, only that they "tasted like entrees."

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Ruth and I apparently both drew the same mental picture... but you're right, Robert, it doesn't specifically say that. I did qualify his description of the dishes as "generic," as they weren't particularly detailed... and did say that my commenting was limited without tasting the dishes. After all, with food, it's all so incredibly subjective: ex. sounds like you love the braised hen.

      2. Lots of mixed reports on Oliveto. I've had great dishes at their special dinners, but it can be hit or miss on normal nights. Given Oliveto's exceptionally high price point, I usually opt for Dopo, Pizzaiolo, or Incanto in SF instead (it doesn't help that I find upstairs at Oliveto to be stuffy and rather unwelcoming for a younger diner such as myself).

        1. I must agree about the service - last time we were there the host and wait staff had a bit of an attitude. We had made reservations and they made a big deal when we said that we would prefer not to set upstairs because it was stuffy. Our meal was just ok and not fabulous and it was very pricey.

          8 Replies
          1. re: misspiggy

            The upstairs and downstairs are separate operations. As noted on the reservations page on oliveto.com, they don't take reservations downstairs.

            1. re: misspiggy

              Upstars is the restaurant and downstairs is the cafe. If you had reservations, they were for upstairs and not down, and hence why your desire to sit downstairs might have been an issue. I've dined upstairs with both family and twentysomething peers and never been subjected to any undue sass or bad attitude.

              1. re: misspiggy

                The service has always been an issue at Oliveto -- I know that nothing could induce my Dad to go back after the poor treatment we had there. There were some claims that it had improved when Bertolli left, but from more recent reports it seems to have reverted. Robert having been there by his own admission more than 20 times probably gets better service as a "regular."

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I absolutely agree. We have never had service there that is deserving of the prices and hype. It borders on negligent and really, that's not cool when you're shelling out that amount of cash.

                  On one occasion when we were there for the truffle menu, we waited until our food was cold, even trying desperately to flag people down, to get the actual truffles shaved onto our food, which was the whole point of the dinner (you'd think that with the amount of cash they charge for the truffle shavings, they would have at least been on the ball with that part of it). Our server was also amazingly ignorant about the menu and wine offerings. Even on non-busy days, it's still appalling service. I just don't get it.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    I don't think we get better service as semi-regulars since we usually get a different server every time.

                    They get the orders right, get the food to the table promptly, make sure we don't run out of wine, water, or silverware. I haven't heard many complaints about that sort of thing since Paul Canales took over.

                    In the old Bertolli days the servers were sometimes laughably amateurish.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Well, the worst experience was last fall, for what it's worth (not sure when the chef change took place).

                      I am glad it's not a constant issue, since otherwise it would be out of business entirely and in general it's a good addition to the food scene. I'm just saying that I had enough lame experiences with the service that when I feel like having a nice dinner, I'm not going to go to Oliveto since it's a crapshoot whether I'm going to have good service.

                      About the "being a regular" issue, I'm sure there are notes somewhere in some database for the host/servers that Robert has been there many times, that pop up with his name, regardless of who's serving his party. Even if not, apparently he gets the luck of the draw with the service, because so many people have complained about it in their visits.

                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                      I feel like there are few dozen strings about the service issues at Oliveto. Like Robert, I've never experienced them, either upstairs or downstairs. In fact, some of our most memorable meals--in terms of food and service--have been at Oliveto. And this has been true even though we are (1) I like to think on the younger side; (2) tend to vary in what servers we get; and (3) often split courses (such as only one entree).

                      1. re: The Dive

                        I'm going to speak up just because this post is so negative in general. Maybe I got lucky, but the waitress we had on our one trip to Oliveto upstairs was incredibly, incredibly nice. Above and beyond most servers I had in San Francisco, and I'm always telling people how great service is in San Francisco compared to Los Angeles.

                        She was friendly and helpful all the way through the night, even though we shared entrees and pastas and had very little wine and no dessert (NOT big spenders or eaters, not regulars). When I hemmed and hawed and finally decided on something else, she comp'd us a side of polenta because she said she couldn't let us have our first meal there and not try it. She patiently explained all the names of all the pastas they had available that night, along with each and every kind of cured meat. She truly seemed enthusiastic about the food--too bad it seems not all their servers are so on top of their games.

                  2. When did Canales take over?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Maya

                      Paul Bertolli left in July 2005. He's still part-owner.

                    2. Oliveto is over-rated and too expensive, resulting in unrealistic expectations. It excels in the subtleties of artisanal food, not really the kind of place to "wow" you. We had one of the most memorable meals ever during the truffle festival last year. And our service was outstanding. Sad to say but for me, the cost (especially the markups on the wine list) is prohibitive.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Grubbjunkie

                        Oliveto does a better job of wowing me than all but a handful of other places in the area. A ribeye tagliata over a spring vegetable ragout and a pork scallopine with black truffles and polenta were among the half-dozen most memorable dishes I've had in recent years.

                        When I check I usually find that their wines are priced at the standard markup of 2X undiscounted retail / 3X wholesale. The list does heavily favor more expensive wines.

                      2. I find Oliveto maddeningly inconsistent, but I keep going back because they frequently have dishes that sound great, and when I do find something good, it's really, really good (basically, any pasta with a long-cooked ragu). I will say that I've had more disappointing dishes than impressive ones, but the good ones were good enough to keep me going back.

                        I've generally found service to be friendly, and I think the Enzo Tiezzi Rosso di Montalcino is delicious and reasonably priced at $45.