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Buon appetito with a few hiccups at Olive & June

Chef Shawn Cirkiel's latest spot captures the flavors of Italy in some dishes but others fall a bit short

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Nobody seemed terribly surprised last year when massive Argentine steakhouse El Arbol closed after just 18 months in business.     

Yet customers and critics I talked to didn't have a solid understanding of the reason. Too much outdoor seating? A shape-shifting menu? Too expensive? Odd location?

The official word from El Arbol management in September was that the (first-time) owner simply didn't want to be in the restaurant business.

The space may still be sprawling, and the sun shines with the same intensity on the patch of land just off 35th Street. But one thing is certain about its new chef-owner Shawn Cirkiel: He wants to be in the restaurant business.

The man behind the recently opened Olive & June has had success with his modern East Sixth Street oyster bar, Parkside, which opened in 2008, as well as his follow-up, Backspace, a pizza joint adjacent to Parkside.

Parkside and Backspace have brought sophistication to an area of town still flirting with the idea of cleaning up its image. The two restaurants also helped raise the profile of New American tavern food and Neapolitan pizza in Austin. With his new restaurant, Cirkiel challenges boring, Americanized Italian with authentic, seasonal cuisine in an urbane space warmed by the gastronomic spirit of Italy.

Olive & June, named after Cirkiel and his wife's grandmothers, brings another much-needed voice to Austin's Italian operetta.

The large, layered menu, a culinary analogue to the multi-tiered restaurant, features flavors from Tuscany to Sicily. The space has been reconstituted to allow a better flow, and entry through the terrace reminds one of dining at a restaurant in Siena or a neighborhood off Piazza Navona.

With low-slung ceilings, exposed brick walls and white wrap-around banquettes, the hip restaurant feels like a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood Hills. But the red glasses, dish-rag napkins and loud sharing of plates transport you to an Italian restaurant on the East Coast.

Diners at Olive & June are in for a lesson in Italian flavors and language. A selection of piccoli piati (small plates) and antipasti offer a wide point of entry into more familiar pastas and grilled entrees.

The antipasti are large enough to serve several bites to each person at a four-person table, but the small plates are exactly as advertised. That means maybe two bites per dish, so the best way to experience the piccoli piati is to order several of them, share when possible, and circle back to order the greatest hits.

The star of the antipasti roster is a fluffy poached farm egg ($9) served atop creamy and comforting polenta and grounded by the earthy flavors of mushrooms. The peasant food dish is simple and honest like a hard day's work in the field.

Paper-thin slices of zucchini wrap a gift of smoky tomatoes and slightly sweet raisins in the delicate involtini ($5). One of the best small bites on the menu, the name derives from involti – the Italian word for bundles — and the bites look like miniature green bales. Acidic capers and bitter greens cut into the big meaty triangles of grilled oily fish on another small-plate wonder, the swordfish spiedini ($2.25).

Juicy pork meatballs ($11) have to elbow out overpowering flavors in an antipasti dish that could have used another move or two of the blade. Large pieces of bitter parsley would have benefited from being chiffonaded, and sweet figs could have been slivered to avoid overpowering the tender meatballs. I also detected a bit of unexpected and unnecessary sugar in the tomato sauce, though I had no problem with the supple clown-nose roasted tomatoes.

Creamy and stringy burrata cheese gets a backbone from slightly charred and crunchy bread, but the $13 price tag feels a bit high, and promises of citrus were nonexistent.

One of my favorite almost-daily snacks while living in Rome, the suppli ($2) at Olive & June tasted more like a round mozzarella stick. A deep-fried bronze crust enveloped a burst of mozzarella and risotto that lacked firmness. The mozzarella should be a nice surprise in the middle, not an overwhelming presence. The rice was perfect, however, in a creamy and comforting risotto ($19), electric with citrus color and flavor. Broccoli and cheese meld in the classic dish that tastes like a pedigreed version of a certain "San Francisco treat."

Beyond the suppli, other fried dishes met with mixed results. Eggplant polpette ($2) delivered burnt and homogenous flavors. The fried panelle, a popular Sicilian street food, served with honey and reminiscent of a sopaipilla, received a warmer reception. Even if the dish seemed as if it could have come at the end of the meal instead of the beginning.

Mezzalune pasta ($15) could have felt equally at home at the end of the meal. The half-moon shaped homemade pastas stuffed with butternut squash tasted like a winter dessert, swimming in a viscous mostarda, sweet with raisins.

The al dente homemade pasta impressed in each dish, but the same could not be said for all of the sauces. Rigatone ($16) in a meat ragu suffered from too much salt and unwelcomed sweetness from an overabundance of dried cherries. Chunks of ricotta salata and mint leaves could have brought some freshness and balance, but they were hard to find in the dish. The firm cavatelli ($17), plucked from the water a few seconds too soon, held acidic tastes of tomato in its furls, but tiny pieces of cubed rock shrimp were lost in the unremarkable broth.

Short ribs, slightly gamey and tender from absorbed fat, fill pockets of ravioli ($16) in a subtly rich sauce of white wine and butter given crunch and Italian color from green beans, tomatoes and roasted red peppers. But I could have done without the briny olives.

The grill at Olive & June delivered on each unfussy item. A chunky striped bass ($22) showcased the beauty of simplicity. The meaty fish held up to the smoke from the grill, with pieces of fennel delivering refreshing high notes of licorice.

A Tuscan classic, the bistecca alla Fiorentina (a massive porterhouse) arrived a medium-rare the color of a robe in Boticelli's "Annunciation" and topped with a tangy salsa verde of Italian herbs, garlic and vinegar. My guests and I stabbed at the center of the table, reaching for the prized tenderloin, but on a normal visit, I doubt anyone would be grasping at the bill for the $49 piece of meat that comes without sides and would have trouble sating two people. From an extensive country-hopping list of wines, we selected a full-bodied Monta Garbi Ripasso Valpolicella ($43) to enhance the steak.

We opted for marinated beets, with a snap of celery and citric sunset of oranges, and a bland farro salad, oily from speck and confused by mushy peas and hard walnuts, as our two contorni ($6.50). A dinner companion dismissed the farro dish as a "hobo salad," so I will let you guess which of the two sides I'd order again.

The dessert highlight on each of my visits was a scoop of a dense, nutty pistachio gelato, the best I've ever tasted. The restaurant offers a nice list of digestivos, limoncello and grappa to enjoy after a meal. And if you don't think disgetivos work, order a glass of artichoke-flavored Cynar and watch it work its settling wonders.

Service experiences at Olive & June have run the gamut. On one occasion, an obviously seasoned server directed our party toward specific wines to pair with our dishes (a $12.50 glass of Paitin nebbiolo complemented the short rib ravioli), which received a brief but thoughtful explanation. The food arrived in starts and fits, but the server checked with us to assuage any concerns about timing.

Another night told a different story, as a fresh-faced server struggled to name components of dishes and could not locate in his mind the provenance of a certain wine. California, he said. Asked to clarify, "California," he repeated with a laugh. Visits to the table felt perfunctory and rushed amid the clamor of a packed dining room. The vibe created by the customers is festive and familial, with one boot in Austin and the other on the Italian peninsula, but service can make you feel like little more than a number.

The hostesses — stationed at one of the most awkward hostess stands in the city — reinforce that feeling. We had been told on the phone that we could show up without a reservation and wait, but once we arrived, the hostesses told us that the restaurant books tables in two-hour blocks, and every table was full for the night. This despite the appearance of a half-dozen empty tables at 7:30 p.m. A restaurant that leaves no room for walk-ins and communicates its policy so poorly puts the impetus on the customer to have an enjoyable night and also conveys the message that maybe the restaurant isn't prepared to handle such a large space filled to capacity. Exclusivity is nice, but only for those who don't feel excluded.

To alleviate some of the strain of its three levels, Olive & June has converted (or plans to convert) the third floor into an event space, and uses its second-floor patio solely for drinks and appetizers. That leaves limited space in the first- and second-floor dining rooms, so I advise making reservations for any night of the week.

Olive & June serves some of the best Italian food north of downtown, but it still needs to work on paying more attention to customer service and execution. The convivial vibe can mask some dips in service, but there is no getting around overly salty or bland dishes. There seems to be little rhyme or reason as to what dishes Olive & June does well and why they fail at other times. You can have a really solid meal here, but it requires a bit of trial and error, which can become expensive and frustrating.

As long as the restaurant stays true to Cirkiel's mission of simple Italian flavors and classic preparations delivered in a festive environment, the 18-month benchmark set by its predecessor should be a fait accompli, and Olive & June should have the same kind of staying power as Parkside.

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986 Twitter: @Odam

Olive & June