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Restaurant review: Olivia is not a traditional Italian restaurant, and that’s a good thing

Chris Ponte’s buzzy South Tampa newcomer tweaks the classics, and succeeds.

TAMPA — Chris Ponte will be the first to tell you that Olivia, his buzzy South Tampa newcomer, is not an entirely traditional Italian restaurant.

He knows his bolognese won’t taste like your grandmother’s bolognese. He knows his pizzas aren’t the wood-fired, char-pockmarked Neapolitan-style pies some diners might expect. He knows his meatballs, served with a fontina fonduta foam, might raise a few eyebrows.

But that doesn’t matter. The celebrated chef and owner of the long-running Cafe Ponte in Clearwater and On Swann in Hyde Park wanted to open an Italian restaurant. So he did it his way.

An interior view of the bar area at the restaurant Olivia, 3601 Swann Ave., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Ponte and his wife, Michelle, named their restaurant for their daughter, Olivia. And with culinary chops and a track record like Ponte’s, it should come as no surprise that those tweaks — the delicate nuances in a dish that cause you to do a double take — are what make all the difference here.

Start with the dreamy arancini ($6), which are like little golf ball-sized fried rice orbs that ooze a melty mix of Parmesan, pecorino and fontina cheeses. Nestled in a tangy mascarpone cream (because you can never have too much cheese), they come drizzled in olive oil and topped with a healthy grind of black pepper.

A more curious appetizer features slices of wagyu carpaccio ($10) draped over small pinwheel pastries, or “Parmesan puffs,” which come plated on top of a creamy truffle zabaglione, a hollandaise-like sauce that’s an exercise in decadence. It’s an odd dish that should have stopped while it was still ahead, because perfectly good wagyu is in need of no puff. I found the flaky pastry, while tasty, to be an odd component in an otherwise refined dish.

The Wahoo "Crudo" pictured at the restaurant Olivia, 3601 Swann Ave., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

From the insalata and antipasto section, a wahoo crudo ($14) is a beautiful and light starter, decorated with juicy segments of tangerine and slivers of fresno chili for heat. A calabrese salad ($9) is an adaptation of the American Italian classic chopped salad, slick with plenty of olive oil and studded with thick cubes of provolone, briny olives, tangy shishito peppers and plenty of that salty, delicious calabrese salami.

For the quality and quantity of what you’re getting here, Olivia’s dishes are surprisingly affordable. Pastas hover around the $16 mark and are sizable enough to share with another person, when coupled with an appetizer or two. And the pasta section of the menu is where the restaurant shines. All of the pastas are made in-house, using doughs that are dried for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours, which lends the finished product just enough bite to stay al dente when cooked.

Take the rigatoni with ragu ($18). Carrying a rich, beefy backbone heavy with the flavors of a well-caramelized mirepoix, the thick sauce envelopes chewy rigatoni noodles and comes topped with Parmesan and a dollop of whipped herb ricotta. The sauce is finished with a little bit of chicken livers, which adds a bump of rich umami and flavor. Definitely not your grandmother’s ragu.

Cacio e pepe pictured at the restaurant Olivia, 3601 Swann Ave., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

There’s also a perfect cacio e pepe ($15), where black pepper is folded into spaghetti dough, lending the simple but classic dish just a little bit more pep. The dish manages a wonderful balance, with bouncy, chewy noodles draped in a buttery sauce thick with Parmesan and pecorino cheese and finished with an aerated Parmesan foam.

Like their Neapolitan-style cousin, the pizzas at Olivia exercise some restraint with simple and classic toppings, but they carry a thicker, much chewier crust. The soppressata pie ($15) is a sweet and salty hybrid, topped with thick, spicy slices of the meat, pillowy mounds of melty mozzarella and a drizzle of chili-laced honey tying everything together.

The Soppressata pizza pictured at the restaurant Olivia, 3601 Swann Ave., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

A small selection of secondi, or entrees, includes a colorful chicken milanese ($22) that arrives toppling with an arugula and fennel salad, and a scallop dish ($29), where the fat, perfectly seared bivalves are nestled in a honey-laced squash risotto that hits dessert-level sweetness (a little too much for my taste) with walnuts and an apple brandy drizzle.

For the real desserts, a buttery apple torta ($10) imbues autumn-like vibes and falls somewhere in between a coffee cake and cinnamon-rich crumble. It’s delicious when paired with a scoop of vanilla bean gelato and brown butter caramel sauce.

The apple cake dessert pictured at the restaurant Olivia, 3601 Swann Ave., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Maybe it’s because of Ponte’s well-established tenure, or maybe it’s the buzz of a new restaurant in this part of Tampa, but Olivia appears perpetually packed no matter the day of the week. And with this comes a lot of noise.

Some customers complained that the noise level was near-deafening on the first few opening nights, and Ponte himself admitted the sound proofing in the dining room needed work during the restaurant’s early days.

An interior look at the restaurant Olivia, 3601 Swann Ave., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ Times ]

Since then, the space has undergone two soundproofing installments and is about to undergo a third phase. I dined there after both the first and second installments, and both times I found the restaurant to be very loud but not to the point of being prohibitive to a conversation. Would I take my slightly hard-of-hearing mother there? Maybe not.

But would I come back with any other number of guests? Absolutely. Especially for that pasta.

Freund's Fork [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Food: 8

Atmosphere: 7

Service: 8

What the ratings mean

1-2: Don’t waste your time

3-5: Fair, but could be better

6-8: Pretty darn good

9-10: What are you waiting for?

If you go

3601 W Swann Ave., Tampa; (813) 328-8866

Hours: Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Cicchetti and antipasto, $5 to $14; pizza and pasta, $14 to $22, secondi, $16 to $39.

Recommended dishes: mini rigatoni, cacio e pepe, soppressata pizza .