An unincorporated suburb of Santa Maria founded as an oil town in 1904, Orcutt evolved through spurts, stalls, and spurts. It’s 70 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara, a bedroom community often passed without notice. A curious collection of buildings along the old part of Clark Avenue includes a quilt shop, an aquarium supplier, a storefront Pentecostal church, and a clinical psychologist’s office adjacent to a Victorian stained glass studio; and if you take a turn onto South Broadway Street, you’ll come upon Trattoria Uliveto, an Italian restaurant housed in a charming little cottage near the former Union Oil headquarters. In the stark light of a hot summer day, the vacant streets of old-town Orcutt might have the dusty tumbleweed aura of a deserted frontier town, but Trattoria Uliveto invites you to pretend that you’re in Italy.
Incongruous? Shed your skepticism and step inside: ambiance, vivace! Music is playing, from opera to Sinatra, slightly schmaltzy but sounding just right; family photos and Italian scenes adorn the walls; and the air is filled with aromas of chicken roasting in a wood-burning pizza oven, sauces simmering in the kitchen, and some heavenly saute of garlic and wine. Above all, there is the unmistakable bustle and hum of people having a genuinely good time. That’s exactly what Jim Spallino and Alfonso Curti were hoping to achieve when they opened Uliveto in August 2008. It was a brave venture in the context of an unraveling economy and a location that some might think of as off the beaten track, but the locals came, and, as word spread, so did others. (So, for that matter, might you : for what adventure does not ask of us a bit of faith, a little effort, and a willingness to embrace the unexpected?)
A native of Calabria, Chef Curti’s fundamental instruction in the art of Italian cooking came from his mother and his grandmother, but he honed his skills working at Trattoria Grappolo, his family’s well-loved restaurant in Santa Ynez. Curti’s approach is relaxed and unpretentious; dishes are adapted from the cuisines of both northern and southern Italy, and offerings are customized to make use of fresh Central Coast ingredients-locally grown heirloom tomatoes, for example, starring in a salad special. My favorite entree is the sole picatta ($15), in which lemon and capers heighten the delicate flavor of sole sauteed in white wine. On another occasion, I tried the veal funghi marsala ($16), the meat tender and thinly sliced, its flavor deepened with earthy mushrooms and savory sage, woodsy and autumnal. For a sense of good peasant food, I would go with the salsiccia fagioli ($14), oven-roasted Italian sausages served over a bed of cannellini beans sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and chili flakes.
Although Uliveto is beginning to draw patrons from a wider radius as the buzz gets around, at its heart, it is a friendly neighborhood restaurant. “What I am most proud of,” said Curti, “is becoming a real part of this community,” and his gratitude and affection are evident. Uliveto’s patrons linger in true Italian fashion, and meals are, as they should be, relaxed and conversational; no one feels rushed here. “It’s warm, festive, and friendly,” reports area resident Mac Duncan, who lived in Italy for several years and met her husband, Michele, there. “The menu celebrates the simple goodness of fresh ingredients, expertly prepared. In other words, we feel like we’re back in Italy!” For Al Chavez, another regular fan, it’s all about the lasagna, which reminds me that I haven’t even mentioned the array of pasta dishes, from spicy spaghetti puttanesca ($13) to ravioli zucca ($14) with pumpkin, butter, sage, and cream, or linguine vongole ($15), a clam and garlic dish for which I have a weakness. The rollino Veneto ($11), a rolled pizza antipasto, is also popular, and for dessert, may I suggest the torta Della Nonna? It’s a rustic cake of pastry cream, pine nuts, chocolate chips, and vanilla sauce originated by Curti’s grandmother. Priced at $8, it’s luscious and rich and perfect for sharing.
If you care for wine with your meal, an impressive selection of both international and domestic possibilities awaits you at Uliveto, but the emphasis is clearly on vintages from nearby places such as Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, Sta. Rita Hills, and Santa Barbara. It’s a perfect venue in which to sample the county’s offerings or make a culminating stop on a North County wine tour. You’ll find the staff to be attentive, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. While we’re in a sipping mode, it’s worth noting that coffee is also an excellent litmus test of quality and authenticity; Uliveto orders the finest fair-trade organic coffee beans from another outstanding area business, Green Star Coffee in Goleta. The cappuccino was hair-raisingly robust, and in my world, that’s a good thing.
Travel to Italy in old town Orcutt at Trattoria Uliveto, located at 285 South Broadway Street. Call 934-4546 or visit trattoriauliveto.com.