South Tampa's Olivia is an all-star chef at the top of his game

Chris Ponte’s Italian restaurant is already playoff ready.

click to enlarge South Tampa's Olivia is an all-star chef at the top of his game
Melissa Santell
3601 W. Swann Ave., Tampa
813-328-8866; oliviatampa.com
Appetizers $5-$21; entrees $14-$39; dessert $7-$12;beer, wine, cocktails $6-$16
4 out of 5 stars

It’s Spring Training around Tampa Bay and the Florida Grapefruit League is now in full swing. Baseball is a team sport somewhat akin to running a restaurant. Each member of the team has a job and needs practice to hone their skills. When everyone works together, it’s a thing of beauty.

Chef Chris Ponte is one of our region’s perennial culinary All-Stars, with Cafe Ponte in Clearwater and On Swann in Hyde Park Village. His latest venture, Olivia, is an upscale Italian trattoria that shows the care and thoughtfulness of a chef/entrepreneur/coach at the top of his game. However, our weeknight visit begins with a strikeout.

We’ve made a reservation and are greeted by a friendly host and invited to have a drink at the bar while we wait. Since we’re having wine with dinner, we demur. Five minutes pass. There’s a buzz of activity as the staff moves tables and resets for two larger parties. We’re now at 10 minutes. It’s sort of fun to watch. Is that going to be our table? Nope, they’re converting it to an eight top. I’m happy to see the place packed with diners obviously enjoying their meals, but as we pass the 15 minute mark, hunger is gnawing. We’re finally seated 20 minutes past our reservation time. But the team rallies when the kitchen is up to bat.

The cicchetti are savory tapas style snacks to begin your dining adventure. They’re the leadoff hitters designed to get your appetite on base quickly so that you’re ready to score as the game progresses. The quintet of arancini is a reminder of why these deep fried rice balls are so popular. The breaded exterior yields not to a typical meat filling, but to a surprising liquid center of quattro formaggi (four cheeses) with a creamy pool of more cheese dotted with cracked pepper and minced chives surrounding the golden orbs.

click to enlarge The arancini's breaded exterior yields not to a typical meat filling, but to a surprising liquid center of quattro formaggi (four cheeses) with a creamy pool of more cheese dotted with cracked pepper and minced chives surrounding the golden orbs. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
The arancini's breaded exterior yields not to a typical meat filling, but to a surprising liquid center of quattro formaggi (four cheeses) with a creamy pool of more cheese dotted with cracked pepper and minced chives surrounding the golden orbs.

Usually the bright red raw meat for carpaccio is tiled like a roof on the Italian Riviera, but Chef Ponte’s wagyu carpaccio trio drapes thin slices of luscious red beef over Parmesan puffs, which float on small puddles of zabaglione, a thin egg custard laced with truffle. Each is dotted with shaved bits of wild mushrooms and topped with a single tiny leaf of basil. The effect on the round lipped black plate is one of a culinary 3D “Pac-Man” with Blinky the speedy red ghost brought to gastronomic life.

click to enlarge Chef Ponte’s wagyu carpaccio trio drapes thin slices of luscious red beef over Parmesan puffs, which float on small puddles of zabaglione. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
Chef Ponte’s wagyu carpaccio trio drapes thin slices of luscious red beef over Parmesan puffs, which float on small puddles of zabaglione.

Pasta and pizza are the workhorses of the lineup and not to be denied. I always start with a Margherita pizza (as you might remember from my 2015 pizza marathon) because there’s no place to hide. It’s just crust, cheese, sauce, basil and an extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) drizzle. Olivia’s Neapolitan-style pie soars with delectable leopard-spotted char and delightful tangy, chewy crust. It has perfectly balanced tomato acidity, creamy thin squares of fresh mozzarella and a few wilted basil leaves. If I’m really picky, I’d like more basil, but this is a superb pizza.

click to enlarge Olivia’s Neapolitan-style pie soars with delectable leopard-spotted char and delightful tangy, chewy crust. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
Olivia’s Neapolitan-style pie soars with delectable leopard-spotted char and delightful tangy, chewy crust.

As you enter, you can’t help but notice the wall of windows to your right, which is all that separates you from the tireless white-capped chefs creating the array of artisan pastas that await diners. Bucatini, that long tubular pasta, leads your tastes buds on an tangled adventure filled with smoked guanciale nuggets from tender pork cheeks, and plenty of sharp black pepper for pungency to balance the creamy carbonara sauce. My taster notes that as the dish cools, the pasta—while full of flavor—seems drier, like it needs more sauce.

The secondi are the power hitters of the menu ranging from prime steak to scallops with risotto. We settle on a delicate thick halibut fillet poached in EVOO. It’s in a sea of yellow tomato sugo (sauce) swimming with a school of blistered grape tomatoes. An island of verde fregula—tiny Sardinian couscous-like pasta—with diminutive green peas support the beached fillet which is topped with a quenelle of stewed peperonata and olives plus an enormous basil leaf blanketing the whole affair. The combination of colors, flavors and textures is an exhilarating home run.

click to enlarge Bucatini, that long tubular pasta, leads your tastes buds on an tangled adventure filled with smoked guanciale nuggets from tender pork cheeks, and plenty of sharp black pepper for pungency to balance the creamy carbonara sauce. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
Bucatini, that long tubular pasta, leads your tastes buds on an tangled adventure filled with smoked guanciale nuggets from tender pork cheeks, and plenty of sharp black pepper for pungency to balance the creamy carbonara sauce.

The dolci are the closers of the menu, coming from the bullpen to finish the meal with a flourish. The apple butter torta upends the table like a split finger fastball thrown too close to the head. We’re all swooning and moaning at the sweet fruit topped with a sphere of scrumptious vanilla bean gelato balancing a thin chocolate cigarette pointing skyward like a space telescope. To the side sits a viscous crescent of the most delicious brown butter caramel, a finishing salve to cure all that ails you.

While the MLB franchises around the Bay may just be beginning to gel, the kitchen team at Olivia is already playoff ready.

CL Food Critic Jon Palmer Claridge is the Bay area’s longest running food critic and dines anonymously when reviewing. See his list of Tampa Bay’s 50 best restaurants of 2019, check out the explanation of his rating system and read his new book, 'Drink.More.Wine!'

click to enlarge We’re all swooning and moaning at the apple butter torta's sweet fruit topped with a sphere of scrumptious vanilla bean gelato balancing a thin chocolate cigarette pointing skyward like a space telescope. - Melissa Santell
Melissa Santell
We’re all swooning and moaning at the apple butter torta's sweet fruit topped with a sphere of scrumptious vanilla bean gelato balancing a thin chocolate cigarette pointing skyward like a space telescope.


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About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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