Monday, February 19, 2018
Restaurants

Restaurant review: At Olive the World Bistro, olive oils and vinegars enhance a small but smart menu

TARPON SPRINGS

There is not a ton of consensus about the best way to taste olive oils. Some say put a small amount of each in opaque cups so you aren't swayed by the color, swirl them around, slurp while sucking in air, swish them in your mouth, swallow. Then cleanse the palate, but with what? Crackers, bread, maybe slices of apple. But what are you looking for precisely? Mildness or intensity, fruitiness or nuttiness, bitterness or pungency — there are all kinds of descriptors. Really, aren't you seeking an olive oil that meshes well with the things you like to eat and the way you like to cook?

That's what Chris and Gini Aloise thought. They spent 17 years abroad in Germany and the Netherlands, returning to the United States eventually and pooling their skill sets. He had begun in the restaurant business, she in retail. But rather than settling in New York or Connecticut, from whence they came, they chose Tarpon Springs.

Part of this is personal: Chris' mother's best friend lives in Tarpon; her children and Chris and his siblings grew up like cousins. In a way, it felt like home. But also, it's because Tarpon Springs has had another little renaissance in the past couple of years, East Tarpon Avenue bustling with new businesses, Hibiscus blossoming with a couple of fresh concepts and the Greek stalwarts on Dodecanese going strong.

Chris and Gini opened Olive the World Bistro in September 2015, first and foremost a retail shop for boutique olive oils and balsamic vinegars. But here's what makes this something all new: You get to try the more than 30 extra-virgin olive oils and the aged vinegars in the context of real food, food that is quite good, with a short but smart beer and wine list to boot.

Many oil and vinegar shops are franchises, beholden to the parent company in terms of which brands they can promote. The Aloises have no such constraints, so once they know you like things spicy, they'll pour you a little habanero oil to swirl atop your linguine with clams ($14.95) or notch the luxury level of your braised brisket ravioli with truffle cognac sauce ($12.95) with a little powdered truffle spice.

A cheese and charcuterie tray ($9.95 small, $16.95 large) brings a strong lineup of mortadella, salami and prosciutto, a goat cheese, ripe blue and crumbly Parm-ish something with nice accoutrements like cornichons, pitted olives, walnuts and dried cranberries. But what lifts it into memorable is the passel of little plastic cups of different aged vinegars, maybe a dark cherry and a blueberry, and oils like a fragrant basil-infused EVOO. The fun then becomes figuring out the best pairings. (Only dig is they're a bit skimpy on the toasts.)

The menu in some ways is a little idiosyncratic, but I reckon it is a reflection of the size and equipment scope of their kitchen. I'm guessing there's no grill, flattop, fryer or oven, thus nothing roasted, grilled or fried. What does that leave? Plenty. Pastas seem to be top offerings, with a range of fresh linguine dishes (there's a gluten-free option) and raviolis. Salads provide the greatest breadth, from a straightforward caprese ($4.95, $7.95), to a vegan Mediterranean salad ($8.95) starring chickpeas and quinoa on a bed of baby kale accessorized with cukes and such — all salads providing ample opportunity for oil and vinegar freestyling.

Pressed panini on ciabatta rolls reflect the Aloises' travels (Italian cold cuts; smoked salmon with arugula and moz) and they themselves are a strong presence in the dining room, ably shifting from explicating the oils and vinegars to talking about Belgian beer and wine from the Canary Islands.

Olive the World Bistro may have a globe-encompassing name and mission, but it's tiny. I hesitate to hype it too vociferously because we're not all going to fit in there. But I will say this: The lineup of individual-sized Holi Moli cheesecakes from nearby Oldsmar is fabulous ($5.75), lent even more razzle-dazzle with the vinegars. Feel like a round of plush, velvety hibiscus cheesecake? It's even better topped with a swirl of aged hibiscus balsamic. The Aloises will teach you.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
     
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