Dinner at L’Olivo, Wheathampstead

L'Olivio, Wheathampstead

L'Olivio, Wheathampstead - Credit: brian arnopp

A trail of fans of Italian food leads to a bustling restaurant in Wheathampstead. Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne follows

The interior is fresh and bright

The interior is fresh and bright - Credit: brian arnopp

Either I’m on a lucky streak or something significant is happening to the Hertfordshire restaurant scene. It’s a thought brought on by the fact in the weeks leading up to and over the festive season, the Hertfordshire Life food and drink reviewers celebrated a succession of meals in a string of eating houses of varying styles and cuisines that have been a pleasure to report on. Galvin at Centurion Club at Hemel, the St Albans trio of Chez Mumtaj, Dylan’s at the Red Lion and THOMPSONS St Albans, plus On the Green in Stevenage, among others, all performed their appointed tasks to a standard that leaves little room for complaint.

Latest on this list is L’Olivo, which descended on Wheathampstead in August 2010 after owners Sergio and Jo Perano finally found the setting they were looking for in which to open their dream restaurant. The magazine was an early visitor and followed its progress as online reviews and word-of-mouth indicated the couple had a success on their hands. The setting that Sergio, who runs front-of-house, and Jo, the chef, found was a former pub in a building dating from the 1800s. It needed complete remodelling; a challenge, but one which gave an opportunity to create a fresh and bright space for the new enterprise. To that, the couple used their previous experience in the restaurant business to set what they considered a proper standard – tables with white cloths, set with shining cutlery and sparkling glassware, muted colours on the walls and furniture, and clever use of lighting to create a modern and friendly atmosphere. And to that they added the food of course – straightforward but authentic southern Italian, based on their family background, plus some traditional customer favourites.

Not much of that has changed over the years, but the menu, although described only minimally and without prices on the website, has grown considerably. It now offers 16 antipasti dishes including signature scallops, bruschetta prosciutto and gamberoni diavola, and 15 mains, or secondi, including linguini Nero as another signature dish, plus old favourites such as pollo pepperoncini and anatra, or honey-coated duck breast. There are also regular specials-of-the-day, desserts, ice cream and Italian coffee, plus cocktails. A smattering of Italian helps with the online listing, but all is explained on the full version of the menu once you are at the restaurant. As noted, it’s nearly all everyday food, at least in Italy, but it’s the way it’s cooked and presented that makes the difference.

Our starters were the familiar grilled calamari with chorizo (£5.60), an increasingly-popular fusion of fishiness and spicy sausage, and portobello dolcelatte (£5.40), a smooth mushroom-and-cheese combi to set up the tastebuds for what followed. Two specials caught our eye for main course, the first a trio of fish – salmon, seabass and sole (£15), in a white-wine sauce, as good a test as any of a chef’s lightness of touch, and, across the table, the old standby of calves’ liver with sage and butter sauce (£15.40), described variously by my other half, an expert on the dish, as ‘heaven’ and ‘perfect’. Again, it’s a commonplace meal but easy to get wrong, which clearly didn’t happen in this case. To round off the meal, a ricotta and pear tart (£5.95) and panacotta with a berry coulis (£5.95) were good choices from a small dessert menu.

Grilled calamari with chorizo

Grilled calamari with chorizo - Credit: brian arnopp

L’Olivo filled quickly on the evening we were there and we had already been told the following two nights were fully booked. From conversations around us, it was apparent many customers were old friends and greeted as such by the efficient waiting staff and the ever-present and watchful Sergio. Being seen and making sure you speak to each table may be old school, but it still works. Put that together with a well thought out menu plus expert and conscientious cooking and you have a clue on why L’Olivo continues to command attention.

The cost of this dinner for two was £76, including one glass of wine. Service was extra.

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This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.

Ricotta and pear tart

Ricotta and pear tart - Credit: brian arnopp

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135 Marford Road, Wheathampstead AL4 8NH. 01582 834145. lolivo-restaurant.com

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