On the corner of South Third and Castle streets rests Olivero, a new restaurant venture from James Beard nominee Sunny Gerhart and co-executive chef Lauren Krall Ivey.
It features Italian- and Spanish-inspired dishes and cocktails; it has a rich, familial story at its heart; and best of all it is currently and officially open for business.
After two successful preview dinners and a friends-and-family weekend event, the restaurant at 522 S. Third St. opened in early September to the public. This came after months of menu writing and planning, as well as multiple generations’ worth of blending cultures and flavors. Gerhart’s grandfather was born in the heart of New Orleans to a father from Seville and a mother from Sicily. After Gerhart’s own father died unexpectedly, he started digging deeper into his family history and wanted to do something meaningful for his mom. He landed on naming a new restaurant after her maiden name, decorating it with family photos and infusing the menu with inspiration from her heritage.
“I think restaurants are wonderful, and I think this business is certainly a craft for me,” Gerhart said. “But it’s also nice if you can kind of have a story to tell and be rooted in something more meaningful.”
Those roots are prevalent in everything from the menu offerings to the decor and ambience in Olivero. And since this is such a deeply personal project for Gerhart, selecting his core team needed to be just as intentional.
Gerhart and Ivey have known each other about 15 years, originally working together in Raleigh at Poole’s Diner, part of the Ashley Christensen Restaurants group and often considered one of the restaurants that put the city’s food scene on the map.
“I was very green in my cooking career at the time,” Ivey said. “That was my first real kitchen job, and Sonny was tough and taught me a lot.”
Gerhart and Ivey started talking about working together on Olivero earlier this year.
“I’m really enjoying being a part of something like this from the ground up,” Ivey said. “All of the logistics and menu writing and getting to see all of the little details that go into this … it’s been really great.”
Gerhart, who admits organizational skills are not his “bread and butter” is grateful to have someone like Ivey on the team this early on.
“It’s hard to find good people that have the same attention to detail even if it’s not their business,” Gerhart said. “That’s a big thing for me, so you know aside from the fact that Lauren is a great cook and is really organized and thoughtful in how she goes about things, there’s also trust here.”
When two innovative chefs trust each other in the kitchen, the result is innovative food, and that is precisely what is being served up at Olivero. It is neither strictly an Italian restaurant nor strictly a Spanish restaurant, but an honest blend from menu item to menu item (and even some New Orleans flavors make an appearance à la Gerhart’s grandfather’s influence).
But how does a true mixture of culinary flavorings come together?
“It’s a good question, and we talked a lot about it because I don’t think it leans one way or the other,” Gerhart said.
To break it down into one dish, Ivey and Gerhart share about one particular menu item: the lasagna with octopus Bolognese, chorizo and whipped ricotta.
“We had originally been working on two different pastas,” Gerhart said. “One was a lasagna with corn and crab and then another pasta with octopus and chorizo, and we just weren’t happy with it.”
“Well, it was not very good,” Ivey added.
“Right, so then it’s, ‘What if we moved things around?’” Gerhart continued. “So we ended up making the lasagna with the octopus and chorizo, which is a pretty typical Spanish combination, but we’ve got it served in this Italian pasta, a layered lasagna. We don’t want to mix cuisines just for the sake of saying we did, but we have these flavors and techniques and we’re making it work.”
In addition to the lasagna, other Olivero menu highlights include mafaldine pasta with sweet corn, North Carolina crab, pink peppercorn and Thai basil; grilled fish with smoked tomato gazpacho and crispy okra; a beignet appetizer with Calabrian hot honey; and the cocktail menu, put together by bar manager Robby Dow.
“It’s an approachable cocktail menu, with some loose crossover to what the kitchen is doing,” Dow explained. “We want to take a drink that someone is familiar with and tie it back to Olivero’s influences with things like sherry or vermouth.”
Dow was brought on to work with Ivey and Gerhart after their first few meetings with him when they could tell, as Ivey puts it, “he gets it.”
“We have this concept and this idea of how we want the space to feel and how we feel about hospitality, and we want that to be true for everyone on this team,” Ivey said.
From the staffing and the ingredients to the types of pasta cookers and the central-fixtured, wood-fire grill, not a detail was left unacknowledged leading up to the opening of Olivero.
For Gerhart, it’s a generational feat of accomplishment and a vision come to life.
“I feel very fortunate,” he said, “that I got to build the restaurant that I wanted to cook in.”