If the Italian dining scene is a spectrum, with neighborhood pizzerias at one end and fine-dining establishments showcasing authentic regional traditions at the other, the most crowded tables are at the Italian-American family restaurants in the middle. And no wonder: pizza, pasta and fried cutlets parmigiana are near-universal pleasers.
But what is far more rare and wonderful is a restaurant that combines both ends of the spectrum: a place casual enough to turn to on a no-cook weeknight, and delicious enough for a modest celebration. Olives and Peppers is such a place.
With a location up Route 8 beyond the turnpike, it would be a bit of a stretch for us city dwellers to adopt it as our neighborhood go-to Italian spot. But if we expand our definition of "neighborhood" to include all the places we might happen to find ourselves within a reasonable drive of Pittsburgh, Olives and Peppers becomes a bright spot in the otherwise spotty strip-mall-scape of outer suburbia.
Actually, the restaurant itself is located in a mini-strip just above a shiny new housing development. But the owners, Bryan and Courtney Williams, have done an admirable job of creating a relaxed, yet refined, ambience in a potentially awkward space. A dropped ceiling, painted black, vaguely recalls a tin ceiling; an unretouched cast-iron column in the middle of the dining room stands in for a quirky old relic; and a subdued, neutral color palette allows the food to become the focal point at each table. Other touches, such as water for the table served in tall stoppered bottles, serve as subtle suggestions of sophistication.
The menu rises to the occasion without putting on airs, offering hoagies and seafood pasta dishes with equally earnest effort. We started with mussels and a margherita pizza. The former were tender and flavorful in a classic garlic-butter broth. Though some members of our party found the broth on the salty side, none of us had any problem sopping it up with good, crusty Italian bread. On the pizza, halved grape tomatoes weren't exactly the essence of a traditional margherita, nor was the layer of tomato sauce under the cheese. But the crust and quality of the toppings were a notch up from pizzeria-grade.
At this end of the spectrum, sandwiches are clearly a forte of Olives and Peppers. A diner at an adjacent table volunteered that she's not a sandwich person, but she makes an exception here, and we can't disagree. The meatballs on the meatball hoagie were simply superb, tender and full of flavor from both juicy beef and herbal seasonings. A touch more sauce would have been good, although the lesser amount kept the sandwich from being too messy.
A mortadella "panini" was also very good, although we took issue with the name. A panini sandwich should be served between slices of bread pressed in an iron, resulting in the twin benefits of toasting and compression; a panini is not merely a hoagie with fancy ingredients. Olives and Peppers uses ciabatta bread to distinguish its "panini" from its hoagies, but we detected no pressing. Nevertheless, we liked the combination of mortadella — the original bologna, historically a sausage of tender, finely ground pork — with sweet roasted tomatoes and peppers, spicy banana peppers and melted cheese.
Results from the pasta side of the menu were more mixed. Several dishes were served with a choice of three house sauces: tomato (smooth), marinara (chunky) and Bolognese (tomato with meat). We had our quattro formaggio — four-cheese ravioli — in tomato sauce for an elemental, yet excellent, experience. The pasta was al dente, the cheese rich and creamy, and the tomato sauce sweet-tart and well seasoned with peppery basil. However, a companion's linguini with shrimp and crab was served in a Sambucca sauce so sweet it was almost dessert-like, possibly to counter the heavy anise quality of the liqueur.
Then there was the mother lode. Our server estimated our single serving of lasagna at two pounds, and it's possible he was understating things. Each of the respective elements — the tender homemade noodles, the creamy five-cheese mix, the savory Bolognese sauce with its substantial, meatball-like chunks of beef — was great, but all together, it was overwhelming. Sometimes, more is just too much.
It struck us as an uncharacteristic note of excess for Olives and Peppers, which otherwise relies on quality ingredients, judicious proportions and thoughtful preparations to make its humblest dishes as appealing as its most ambitious.