We’ve all got one of those mates; the one who insists on calling satirical 1980s puppet show Spitting Image ‘Spitting Images’. Or the relative who every Christmas makes us want to scream as they suggest a game of ‘Trivial Pursuits’. Neither of these things come with a pluralising ‘s’. No, they don’t: you’re wrong. So let’s get this sorted from the off: it’s Olivo – Ohleevoh – not Olivio with two ‘i’s, nor Olivios with that extraneous ‘i’ plus an unnecessary bonus ‘s’.
Having got that off their collective chest, Matt and Cat can now get on with the business of talking about Olivo, Newport’s smooth Italian restaurant. Back when it opened, its position in Sts Thomas Square was quite a lonely one. Wedged next to some council offices and opposite the Island’s first multi-storey car park it may have not at first glance seemed to be the ideal location. However, Olivo has stuck it out and has seen the fortunes of this car-free area of the town turn from a bit of a back street to a busy al fresco dining space. Alas during this rise some of those other venues have subsequently fallen in action (cheerio Valentine Gray’s and the Wheatsheaf). But Olivo has remained steadfast, and Matt and Cat think that they know the reason why.
M&C first reviewed Olivo back in 2007 and, from the start, two things were apparent: the food was jolly good and the service was exceptional. And, as any fule kno, with both of those in place a restaurant has more than a decent chance of success.
The venue hasn’t changed much over the years; it’s still pretty cosy and, because of that, it’s not always possible to get a table. But, again, this popularity is not without foundation; Olivo is a busy place during a mid-week lunch, for a coffee with friends, a romantic supper and pretty much any other time. Like town-centre Italians around the country it has a wide appeal. But unlike many such bland Italian chain restaurants Olivo has always had a bit of an edge. Going in there feels slightly exciting, even after all these years. Chefs can be heard (and occasionally glimpsed) busy in the back kitchen. European accents are de rigeur. Staff bustle up to new arrivals and greet them with unfailing enthusiasm. The whole place feels busy, lively, and cosmopolitan.
The food has a similarly Mediterranean focus but without the usual avalanche of generic pasta and pizza. Sure, those things are on the menu, but there’s always more. Matt has a particular fondness for the belly pork special that sometimes crops up; or the delicious rich fegato calves liver. And fresh fish is almost always on too if you want it.
There’s also a salad section to the menu that often catches Cat’s eye – and we all know what it means when you order a salad as a main dish. It means you want a decent meal but feel the urge to deny yourself. Like all good restaurants, Olivo plays along with this game. Salads they are, with plenty of fresh leaves and lashings of balsamic reduction; but you won’t have to deprive yourself too much as fresh, hot doughballs are hidden amongst the leaves, scatterings of fresh parmesan shavings, and plenty more. Cat’s satisfying papera salad included densely-packed duck confit parcels wrapped in filo pastry. These delicious meaty packets were distributed around a substantial nest of baby spinach, dressed with sweet fig chutney, apple and given a tang with gratings of feta cheese. It was very filling, and Cat certainly didn’t feel that she had been deprived – of quantity or flavour.
Matt has a go-to favourite at Olivo, and that’s the calzone pizza. If you’ve never had one, calzone is a pizza folded over – enclosing the contents in a hot, steamy parcel. The classic calzone includes ham, cheese and tomato; variations can incorporate seafood, or as in the case when Matt ordered recently, chorizo chicken, vegetables and garlic. The searingly-hot parcel arrived anointed with garlic oil and herbs, and as Matt tore it open, the contents disgorged enticingly onto his plate. It’s a straightforward dish, but you’d have to go a long way to beat Olivo’s consistently good interpretation of this pizza chef-d’oeuvre.
There’s another game to play when it’s time to leave Olivo. Can you get to the door before one of the busy staff gets there first and opens it for you? You’ll have to be quick, because they are hot in Olivo – you’re going to get thanked and seen off the premises unless you’re really making a dash for it. Service at this place is so good, and so consistent, that it’s a gold standard some other Island venues would do well to aspire to. That’s probably why Olivo is still there, when others have come and gone in the little square. They are good at what they do – really good. And they keep at it. Open all day, all year, right there in the heart of the town, Olivo has become an institution that richly deserves its good reputation. So much so that Matt and Cat retain the pious hope that this success will teach the world at large how to pronounce the venue’s name correctly.
- Outstanding service
- Interesting and varied menu
- Lively environment
- Not much room