"Bread for one!" my server screamed into The Stuffed Olive's back kitchen, saloon doors flapping behind her. She emerged, amid more frantic door swinging, with arms full of bubbling pasta dishes. I pulled my magazine closer and sunk in my chair. The Stuffed Olive--while quaint, with its salted-butter walls, cascading natural light and warm breeze circulating from spinning ceiling fans--is not really a place you dine alone.
Outside on the strip mall Eagle patio, a young dad cut up his kid's dinner, while a middle-aged couple nursed their wine and swabbed hunks of bread in oil and balsamic. Soon my server--the only one tending to the 10-or-so-table establishment--swooped by, edging a bread plate and dipping dish onto my table before quickly disappearing. After a disinterested bite of the crumbly, not-baked-in-house baguette, I pushed the dish aside and steadied myself for the impending calorie bomb: eggplant Parmesan with a side of penne pasta alfredo ($12.95).
Eggplant is one of those line-in-the-sand kinds of foods--one camp contends the spongy nightshade is the king of veggies while the other winces at its oozy, seeded innards. I'm firmly pro-eggplant, provided it's cooked and seasoned well--which The Stuffed Olive's was.
The dish arrived with a not-too-thick blanket of three white cheeses and a sprig of fresh thyme. Under the cheese sat three lightly battered eggplant discs ladled with tart, oil-glistened, housemade marinara.
"It's a secret family recipe," explained co-owner Janice Darelli, whose great-great grandfather owned a bakery on Mulberry Street in New York City. "It's been in my family for five generations."
The eggplant, steaming and gooey, held up without disintegrating to mush under the weight of my fork. And while the penne was cooked agreeably, just south of al dente, the alfredo was flavorless and lacked structure--like half-and-half poured on pasta. Slivers of pre-shredded parmesan and a pickled, stuffed green olive didn't do much to salvage the side.
As I worked on a glass of too-warm Folie a Deux zinfandel, I heard my server explain to a couple of men at nearby table that the calamari would take a while because it's "hand-cut and hand-breaded to order." Though The Stuffed Olive's take on Italian-American food is nothing new or inventive, it's these little flourishes--fresh-battered calamari, fresh cut flowers, fresh herbs--that set it apart from all the Macaroni Grills and Olive Gardens. Now if only they'd extend that philosophy to their table bread.