One of Wilmington’s most-anticipated restaurants has officially opened its doors on the corner of Castle and South 3rd Streets. Olivero is the dream of chef Sunny Gerhart (of Raleigh’s St. Roch). Named after his grandfather Joseph Olivero, the restaurant is Gerhart’s life story told through food and design. The idea behind Olivero was one that had been brewing in the back of Gerhart’s mind for a while — a way to explore his family’s Italian and Spanish background while also physically getting him back closer to the coast he loved when he was younger.
A military kid, Gerhart went to high school in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and spent significant chunks of time in Wilmington and on the surrounding beaches. “I’ve always wanted to come back to Wilmington,” he says, “I wanted to build something special.” The actual planning part of opening Olivero took almost two years, and it was a journey that involved not only preserving and restoring a historic neighborhood building in Wilmington but also excavating what his background meant to him culinarily and how he wanted to approach running a second restaurant.
For the latter part, Gerhart went in a direction not many chefs are willing to go — instead of bringing on a sous chef or second-in-command, Gerhart reached out to friend and fellow Raleigh chef Lauren Krall Ivey, bringing her on as co-executive chef. On the menu side of things Gerhart, with Krall Ivey’s help, arrived at a flavor profile that leans heavily on Spanish and Italian influences with quick detours to New Orleans, another place that holds a special spot in his family history. That mash-up is most evident in one of the signature dishes on the menu, the beignet.
Fluffy pillows of fried dough come to the table swimming in a sea of fontina fonduta, layered with mortadella, and drizzled with Calabrian hot honey. Another dish, the lasagna, substitutes an octopus Bolognese for traditional meat sauce in addition to Spanish chorizo sausage. The custom-ordered Arcobaleno pasta extruder is one of the stars of the kitchen, producing all the pasta daily for the menu’s selection of pasta dishes.
The mafaldine with sweet corn and North Carolina crab is a decadent end-of-summer dish, while the agnolotti is stuffed with butter beans and mascarpone cheese — it’s North Carolina meets Italy, on a plate. The other hero is the large wood-fired grill that occupies a full corner of the open kitchen.
This is Krall Ivey’s area of expertise, honed from her time spent running the wood-fired menu at Raleigh’s Death & Taxes. Many of the dishes on the menu have components that come off the grill, like the ribeye steak, grilled local fish, or smoked eggplant puree appetizer that comes on baguette slices with anchovy and piquillo peppers. The interiors at the restaurant are like a modern take on an old-school Applebee’s.
The walls of the open kitchen are clad in retro-looking tiles that could have been taken directly out of a New Jersey red sauce joint. One corner of the restaurant is dedicated to lush leather booths, while the bar around the open kitchen is lined with stools for an elevated diner-style experience. Whimsical paintings, marble-topped bistro tables, and a huge, shining zig-zag bar complete the space.
Customers can choose from a variety of dining vibes — opt for a corner seat at the kitchen and take in all the action at the wood-fired grill or cozy into a corner booth for a more intimate experience. The bar menu, heavy on cocktails, also places an emphasis on retro-meets-Mediterranean. The namesake Olivero martini is made with fino sherry and the boilermaker comes with Basque cider and a sherry-based cocktail.
The wine menu skews European as well, with plenty of sherry and vermouth options, a relatively rare thing to find in Wilmington. In one corner of Olivero, on the way to the restrooms, a series of framed photographs graces the wall. More than mere decorations, these are family photos Gerhart got from his mother, some of the only things the family was able to save when their house was inundated during Hurricane Katrina. Those photographs are perhaps the most direct link between the restaurant and Gerhart’s past, but after spending some time with the food and in the space it’s easy to see how every detail is part of his life’s story.
It’s the design throwbacks to classic Americana restaurants; it’s the flavors that meld Gerhart’s past, present, and future; it’s re-thinking some of the basic structures of kitchen culture and putting Krall Ivey on equal footing, not as a subordinate. Whereas St. Roch is a very specific ode to Gerhart’s Louisiana background, Olivero is that second act that really weaves all of his threads into one culinary tapestry.