Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Olivero offers sneak peek of menu ahead of summer opening

Homemade pastas will be offered aplenty at Olivero, such as campanelle — a fluted dough with petal-like edges, passata di pomodoro (tomato puree), chorizo, mussels, basil and pickled peppers. Tortelli — larger than tortellini rings — will be filled with ramp and ricotta, served with spring peas, fennel and Parmesan. (Olivero/Anna Routh)

WILMINGTON — As crews continue to work to open Olivero, Sunny Gerhart’s first Wilmington restaurant, the James Beard nominee is offering a first look into the Spanish-Italian flavors that will pepper the menu.

Gerhart is leaning into his familial roots as inspiration for the flavor profiles. His great-grandfather — whose last name was Olivero — was a sailor from Seville, Spain, and landed in NOLA, which had the largest Sicilian immigration in the country, in the early 20th century. 

READ MORE: Raleigh restaurateur to bring Spanish-Italian flavors of New Orleans to Olivero

“I was born and raised by my mother’s side of the family in New Orleans,” Gerhart said. 

The chef moved from the Crescent City to Wilmington in his youth and attended school in the Port City. 

“I always wanted to return to the coast,” Gerhart said. “I love Wilmington — the cobblestone streets, being close to the beach, being close to the river, being close to downtown.” 

Olivero’s location, three blocks from the foot of Castle Street and the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, is closing the gap of dining options between downtown proper and the crossover to the South Front District. 

As Gerhart was discussing the restaurant last month, crews were banging away to complete the 2,500-square-foot space at 522 S. Third St. 

“I would have liked to open Olivero in January,” Gerhart said. “But I think, at the end of the day, that was more of a pipe dream to be open before the summer season.”

The goal now is to be operational by June or July. 

On Monday, May 15, he’s doing an early walkthrough of Olivero’s techniques and flavors at his Raleigh restaurant St. Roch Fine Oysters and Bar, which opened in 2017. 

Diners will be treated to a beignet with mortadella and fontina, drizzled with Calabrian hot honey. A gazpacho will be made of charred cucumber, served with pickled shrimp gilda (a skewer-type appetizer that got its name from the Basque region of Spain).

Homemade pastas will be offered aplenty. Campanelle — a fluted dough with petal-like edges — is served with passata di pomodoro (tomato puree), chorizo, mussels, basil and pickled peppers.

Tortelli — larger than tortellini rings — will be filled with ramp and ricotta, piled with spring peas, fennel and Parmesan. 

Mains will consist of rabbit milanese, soprosetta, Manchego and charred broccoli salsa verde. While an asparagus and mushroom confit will be served with jamón serrano and spring onion. 

A sweet finish of Basque cheesecake, topped with smoked blueberry and sherry, is also planned.

Olivero is the first restaurant Gerhart has overseen from the ground up. In 2016 he took over the former Joule Coffee + Table space in Raleigh, where he worked for Ashley Christensen; he also was Christensen’s sous chef at Poole’s Diner for years. St. Roch only needed upfitting and redesign to become Gerhart’s vision.

“It was a great learning experience,” he said. “St. Roch was not designed as a full-service restaurant; it’s a cafe and coffee shop twice removed. So not having that experience of opening there, I don’t know that I would be prepared for Olivero’s construction. I probably would make a lot more mistakes than not having that experience of knowing. Anyone can plan to do all these things when building a new restaurant, but I think a lot of it is perspective on what you can do, what you should do, and how to be able to adjust.”

His Raleigh restaurant has endured a lot in its infancy: the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 followed by a fire in the summer of 2021. During that time, Gerhart hooked up with James Goodnight — son of SAS CEO Jim Goodnight — about opening a Wilmington eatery. 

Goodnight has become well-versed in historic renovation, as seen at Front Street’s Seabird. The Olivero building was constructed in 1948. Once a corner grocery, a wig store and a dry cleaners, it has been empty for more than a decade. 

“I like when things are restored, instead of torn down and rebuilt,” Gerhart said.

The building was a blank slate — four walls and a ceiling — when the project began. Its exposed masonry has been left intact with visible steel beams and a 12-foot ceiling painted dark green. Wood and leather seating present a cozy ambiance against marble-cut countertop tables, comfortably fitting around 65 diners.

The cocktail bar sits flush left when entering the restaurant, highlighted by a wall of windows. Gerhart wants diners and bar patrons to be able to look out over the bustling corner of Castle and Front streets.

“The windows were important and so I found myself asking: ‘How can we utilize that for the best light?’” Gerhart said. 

A 10-seat bar is front and center around the open kitchen, allowing customers to see the cuisine in action. Both bars have burnished brass countertops. 

Gerhart envisions the space to be lively, boisterous — something he thrives in: “I like it when restaurants are loud and moving.”

A six-top captain’s table will be situated within eye’s view of the kitchen. 

But for those who prefer a more intimate space, booths align the walls, tucked away from commotion. 

“I kept thinking about different pockets of the guest experience,” Gerhart said, “and I wanted to capture that. We will see, once we get the fires lit, the tables in and the lights turned down low, if any adjustments need to be made.” 

Jamie Meares of Furbish, who worked with Gerhart on St. Roch, is behind the design. Bespoke wallpaper created by the Swedish family Sanberg since 1920 will be hung, along with a mosaic wall installation featuring Moroccan zellige handcrafted tiles — terracotta and similar to subway tiles, only square instead of round. 

A 7-foot painting by Butch Anthony of the Museum of Wonder in Alabama will be a focal point, illuminated by artisanal lighting designed by Kelly Wearstler and Sazerac Stitches out of New Orleans.

Gerhart is hand-curating his equipment, too, including a wood-burning oven to give extra depth to meats, seafoods and vegetables served. Maurer Architecture is helping with the interior and has created a custom hearth and wood storage. 

Outside, a mural of the logo will cover the brick wall. There is plenty of sidewalk space to include outdoor dining, though, no plans are set in stone yet for al fresco options.

“We just are going to play it by ear,” Gerhart said. 

A D.C. couple who moved into town in the middle of Covid to restore a historic home a block away were walking their dog to have dinner at On Thyme as Gerhart was discussing the restaurant last month.

“Are you the chef?” Kurt Schaubach asked Gerhart over a handshake. “This is great, to be within walking distance — a real win.”

“We walk everywhere around here to eat — even Benny’s,” his wife, Christine, added, pointing toward South Front District, located less than a mile away. 

Olivero will join nearby Rx Chicken and Oysters, Castle Street Kitchen, and Creative Tastings by Wilmington Wines to the east and Waterline Brewing and Live at Ted’s a few blocks to the west.

“We love this area — Castle Street’s got a lot of opportunities,” Kurt added. “I think this will help create a landmark for more development.”

Already plans are underway for a mixed-use project and more apartments coming in, with the Pearl II passing the city’s planning commission rezoning last week. It will be located half a mile from Olivero.

“I love this neighborhood,” Gerhart said, who will travel between Raleigh and Wilmington to run both restaurants. “Everything we’re going to do here are things I’ve always wanted to do — that I’ve never done before. Things I wanted to learn, I wanted to cook. So the menu is certainly going to be different.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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