There is no chef Oliver at Oliver’s Osteria. It’s chef-owner Erik De Marchi who leads an all-out defense of faithful Italian fare at his tidy Laguna Canyon tavern. As for Oliver? He’s De Marchi’s first child, born on the restaurant’s opening day in October.
Wedged into an oddball retail center that has seen its share of restaurants come and go, Oliver’s will be fully discovered by festival season, I predict. Not just because it’s strolling distance from Laguna Beach’s fabled summer events but because De Marchi and crew serve dishes that recall the gastronomic plenty of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, De Marchi’s home turf. Inspired by his grandmother and schooled at IAL Culinary Academy in the culinary heart of Italy, De Marchi brought his talents to California in 2002, serving a long stint at Angelini Osteria, a darling of L.A.’s Beverly Boulevard.
The cuisine is spectacular here because it’s deeply legit. Probably the most American aspect of the meal is the use of local, seasonal ingredients. Pastas are not suffocated by sugared-up tomato sauce, salads don’t drip with dressing, and don’t even think about finding gooey garlic bread. Rather, dishes have a clean, bright lightness in polite portions that rarely yield leftovers. Take the Parmigiana, baked eggplant slices with three cheeses and no detectable breading or thick sauce. It’s not an entree but a delicate appetizer. Or the complimentary fresh focaccia slices beside a cup of diced tomatoes and fresh basil. Any other place would charge you for crunchy crostini under fussy toppings.
Burrata caprese is a pretty starter that will surely taste better in summer when tomatoes are naturally more voluptuous. Carpaccio di Monzo is reliably lovely because the singular, deep flavors of raw, dry-aged steak shine through, thanks to a discreet scattering of arugula and Parmesan.
Rigatoni al Cacio e Pepe seems to be a default star, though perhaps by accident. You can order it in other O.C. spots, but early fans here were smitten, and the word is out. Such a spare dish requires impeccable technique since it features only pasta, grated Parmesan and pecorino cheeses, and pasta water emulsified to a consistency that coats the short pasta tubes and clings to a shower of just-cracked black pepper. It’s not a sauce. It’s made-to-order magic that’s surely profitable—and so alluring that my lunch date all but licked her plate.
Please don’t stop there, though, because De Marchi’s other pastas are wondrous. From the precisely cooked spiral of spaghetti animated by a cooked fresh tomato sauce perfumed with basil to the house-made cappelletti slick with butter and sage and scrupulously filled with minced pork, chicken, and cheeses, it’s easy to find ecstasy in the pasta category.
Supple ribbons of pappardelle are rich with wild mushrooms and creamy mascarpone. Carbonara alla Romana does the classic justice, using flecks of guanciale, pecorino, egg, and a grind of pepper to coat just-boiled thick spaghetti. No cream, no peas.
I’m enchanted by the house-made tagliatelle with its dense and complex Bolognese sauce loaded with coarsely ground beef, veal, and pork.
I can’t recommend it, but you can dine well here with no pasta. Whole branzino baked with lemon and rosemary inside a salt crust is near perfect. No, it’s not salty. If looking at a fish face makes you queasy, the kindly staff will debone and tidy up the moist, flaky striped sea bass. There’s always grilled king salmon or sauteed veal cutlets.
But don’t order a thing—OK, maybe the house Old-Fashioned—until you hear the daily specials. Some will be pasta, say, a trio of ravioli. Vegetarian cannelloni might appear. So might pappardelle with rabbit ragu. Or crepes (crespelle) with porcini mushrooms in truffle-enhanced béchamel.
Oliver’s turns out some astounding Italian fare, seasoned with talent, integrity, and tradition. I do wish the wine list offered more from Emilia-Romagna. A bigger factor that begs improvement is sound control. When full, the dining room is very loud. Try the small patio for relief.
You might never meet Oliver, but here’s to enjoying a long spell of his papa’s cooking at Oliver’s Osteria, a gift for diners who prefer their Italian cuisine straightforward but refined.
853 Laguna Canyon Road,