After nearly six years in business, the Olio Crudo Bar was finally becoming a regular stop for Santa Barbarans interested in raw Italian dishes of “finesse and quality,” explains co-owner Alberto Morello, a veteran of downtown’s restaurant scene. After years of cooking around Southern California, the Sicilian chef first broke into Santa Barbara with his wife, UCSB alum Elaine Morello, by opening the still-thriving white-tablecloth restaurant Olio e Limone in 1999. They doubled down with Olio Pizzeria next door a decade later, and then creatively remodeled the slim, adjacent storefront on West Victoria Street into Crudo in 2014.
Then came COVID in March 2020, and the Crudo Bar’s intimate indoor setting felt doomed. “This will be the last place to be reopened,” Morello thought to himself. “Who’s gonna want to sit next to each other so close?”
Instead, Morello decided to embrace his dream of running a simple panini shop, like the many sprinkled across his homeland, from Milan to Palermo, enhanced with various imported, hard-to-find ingredients. They cracked open the doors to Olio Bottega in September.
“The focus is the sandwich,” confirmed Morello over a long lunch last week, and those are primarily based on the high-quality cured meats that he’s either buying or, in the case of the porchetta, making himself. “Finally, after 30 years in this country, we finally get some good salumi!”
There’s pillow-soft mortadella and firm bresaola, spicy coppa and salty prosciutto, all finding their way onto focaccia baked in-house, usually paired with just a few enhancements each. “In Italy, we like just two things together,” said Morello, but he’s adapted to American tastes by adding a couple more.
Young pecorino winds up on a few of them, as do spreads, such as the artichoke paste served on the fennel-flavored finocchiona salami, so flavorful yet delicate in razor-thin slices. The porchetta, which Morello makes with pork belly and shoulder, is the star, also cut thin and served with sweet onions, crispy peppers, and a zesty lemon Dijon. Vegan and vegetarian panini also exist.
The bottega’s core menu of nine sandwiches is bolstered by an espresso bar and breakfast in the morning, and fast and savory street snacks like olives, caponata, lasagna, and arancini all day long. “You like the olives?” inquired Eva Tsiapali as I grazed the cracked Sicilian olives known as nocellara, with garlic, oregano, and vinegar soaked throughout. I mumbled something in the affirmative to Tsiapali, who’s a constant presence at Oilo Bottega, so much that Morello affectionately calls her the “bottegaia.” She smirked in support of my oily fingers, “It’s an addiction, actually.”
Sweets come into play through traditional pastries, from classic sheep’s-milk-filled canolo to sfogliatella, a crunchy, clam shell-shaped treat filled with orange rind and cinnamon crema. “We’ve been making pastry since day one,” he explained of starting the Olio empire way back in 1999 as we ate through three of them, including the ravioli-like cassatelle trapanese, all made today by Claudia Garcia. “We don’t buy pastry.”
Meanwhile, the shelves, windowsills, and, well, all available flat areas are stocked with a wide array of goods from across Italy that Morello selected himself: pastas, olive oils, pastes, mushrooms, wines, liquors, and much more. “These are not just things you find in a normal market — it’s like Macy’s versus a boutique,” said Morello, who works with eight different importers.
“I love to find and sell this stuff,” he said. “To me, it’s like a collection. It gives me satisfaction, and I can share it with customers.”
11 W. Victoria St.; (805) 899-2699; olioelimone.com/olio-bottega; @oliobottega