From boiled octopus that melts in your mouth to ginger-spiked fatty tuna, urchin- and caviar-dosed halibut, luxuriously rich lamb belly, and Italian wines you’ve never seen (cannonau!), there are epicurean epiphanies being served right now on West Victoria Street.
The latest in the Morello family’s mini-village of Italian restaurants that they started building in 1999 a half-block off State Street with the white table-clothed Olio e Limone, Olio Crudo Bar occupies the meticulously remodeled, rather tight space that, for the past 18 years, housed The Herbal Spirit. That former tenant was a somewhat mysterious store selling all sorts of earthly wonders, and with so much excitement coming out of the Crudo kitchen, there’s clearly some magic left in the building.
Of course, for Elaine and Alberto Morello, it’s much simpler than that. “It’s the kind of food we crave eating late at night,” said Elaine during my recent visit, explaining that the formula for Crudo is the same that’s brought them great success at Olio e Limone and the adjacent Olio Pizzeria. “We just keep putting out favorite things and making it available for guests,” she said. “It’s not rocket science.”
The Morellos — he’s from Sicily, she’s a UCSB grad from Agoura Hills, close to Westlake Village, where they are opening new restaurants later this year — designed the new space as an ode to Milan, and the LED-lit faux marble backdrop and high-ceilinged bar gives the otherwise tiny 26-seat restaurant both breathing room and big-city sensibility. The chefs are Francesco Pesce, a stereotypically strapping Italian from Marche, and Ramon Velasquez (founding chef of Cielito), who both work behind the bar alongside the cocktail shakers.
But epiphanies come at a price, and in my hour or so at the bar, my solo tab would have easily exceeded $100 for food alone had I not been the Morellos’ guest. Yet Elaine counters that the prices are, in fact, “very underpriced.” Take the Spiedino, for instance: four ounces of Australian-raised Kobe-style beef. “That would be $80 in Los Angeles, but here it’s $27,” said Morello. “We didn’t want to be prohibitive.” The wine and cocktail prices also approach the high end, but are well within the normal range of Santa Barbara’s top establishments, from $10-$20 a glass.
With that in mind, here are the dishes and wines that wowed me, and I’m already saving up for return trips.
Tonno Rosso: The spicy Atlantic bluefin tuna belly with ginger vinaigrette and wasabi shoots is delicate and light, eaten preferably with chopsticks, yet Elaine pledges, “We’re not trying to be sushi!” Paired with the Venetian prosecco from Mionetto Cartizze.
Ippoglosso: Halibut drizzled with Japanese sea urchin, Siberian caviar, and lemongrass. Revelatory. Try with the arneis from Cerreto in Piedmont.
Polipo: “This octopus costs more than lobster!” said Alberto of the meat he imports from the Mediterranean. It’s served with Controne peppers, slightly sweet potatoes, and boiled into a heavenly consistency like I’ve never tried, approaching Vienna sausage and not chewy at all. Excellent with the Concerto Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna.
Pancia d’Agnello: Lamb belly is somehow even better than pork belly (which they also serve). This is where our wines got weird: lagrein from Hofstatter in the Alto Adige and cannonau from Pala I Fiori in Sardinia.
Torrone: You are totally full, and yet you eat the entire cup of this nougat mousse with spicy dark chocolate; it’s like a custard with nibs. No drink required, unless you have lambrusco to finish.
Olio Crudo Bar is open at 11 West Victoria Street seven days a week, from 5-10 p.m., except on Friday and Saturday, when it stays open ’til 10:30 p.m. or so. Call (805) 899-2699 or visit oliocrudobar.com.