J ohn Brennan, the restaurateur behind Elm City Social and the new Olives and Oil, where he’s also the executive chef, says he doesn’t believe in curses.
O&O recently opened in a long, historic space at 124 Temple Street, in a building Brennan says was built in 1902 to house the United Illuminating Company. In its century-plus lifetime, the address has seen a lot of businesses come and go.
“There’s been a lot of strong businesses here that have closed quickly,” Brennan notes. “Some people say the building’s cursed. I don’t believe in that. I just fell in love with this building, with its Venetian architecture—the lion heads and lightning bolts carved outside.” The Italian flavor of the stone inspired O&O’s concept, a “tribute to Italian peasant-style food in an urban setting,” says Brennan, who learned Italian cooking from his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
All the essentials are there: Frank Sinatra tunes playing in the high-ceilinged space, vintage Italian advertisements on the walls and a pizza oven crackling cheerfully along the back wall. The food, however, is a little heretical. “We want to serve stuff that maybe you wouldn’t think of when you go to an Italian restaurant,” Brennan says. “Roasted octopus, hamachi, tuna and scallop crudo—these are all traditional Italian style dishes depending on where you go in Italy, but not a lot of places offer them around here.”
I started with the Polipo ($16), a dish of visually striking, coral-colored Portuguese octopus tentacles served with farro, peppers and blistered fennel. The octopus, which Brennan says is slow-cooked for four hours before being sautéed with pancetta and preserved lemons, was tender and rich, with a taste not unlike lobster. The fennel bulb was cumbersome, but its herbal char was well worth the trouble of pulling it apart.
Next, I sampled the Linguini ($19), a mixture of plain and squid-inked noodles Brennan says are made in-house each morning at 6 a.m. The dish is served with an abundance of clams that play well with the subtle briny flavor of the squid ink, and a classic suite of Italian herbs: parsley, oregano and red pepper. It was all swirled up in a butter sauce, which gave the dish a decadence to go with its elegance.
I also tried the Hamachi Crudo. Light and fresh, it was tasty on its own. The accompanying arugula and macadamia nut pesto, however, was the most interesting part of the plate. Bright green, it had a grassy springtime flavor that was potent and appealing.
This being New Haven, there’s a pizza menu. Brennan is aware that serving pizza in a pie-mad city takes courage, but he isn’t trying to compete with the old guard. Instead, he says, O&O serves only “rustic-style” 10-inch pizzettes meant to be split and sampled, with “funky” flavor combinations like everything-bagel spice with poached egg, or pork belly and pineapple marmalade. I tried the Sweet Sausage ($17), which, in addition to the eponymous meat, is covered with chili, oregano and dots of “drunken” goat cheese, having turned purple after being soaked in cabernet. The wine-y cheese’s sweetness lifted the heavy sausage, and the crust tasted faintly of almond.
Out of several drinks, including a mixed wine flight and three cocktails, the standout was the Olive It Dirty ($11). Bartender and co-creator Conrad Meurice says the drink starts with olive-infused olive oil—that’s not a typo—which he then adds to a hot water bath along with vodka. The heat breaks down the fat molecules and allows them to flavor the liquor. The whole mixture is then frozen to separate the oil, until it makes another appearance as a garnish, floating prettily on top of the drink. The end result is a terrifically briny, fatty brew that calls for dark corners and hushed conversation.
It’s a tribute to olives and oil, and a credit to Olives and Oil.
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.