The Olive Grove Kicks it Vècchia Scuòla
I'm a sucker for the stereotypical Italian restaurant. You know--like where Lady and the Tramp go to be served spaghetti and meatballs on a red-checked tablecloth by the big-hearted singing Italian waiter. The kind of place that's as authentically paesan as Chef Boyardee himself, where the décor involves lots of plastic grapes and plaster busts of Roman emperors, and where even the pasta comes with a side of pasta.
The Olive Grove Restaurant & Lounge has all these old-school amenities and more (pastel paintings of Mediterranean scenes, servers in tuxedo shirts and bow ties). I love the place just for existing. I know a lot of people who adore the Olive Grove's food, and many of them have insisted that the Grove's signature monster salad bowl and bread sticks with every meal were ripped off by a similarly named, now-ubiquitous chain competitor. (Sorry, folks. The cavernous compound that is the Olive Grove opened in 1994, but the Olive Garden behemoth has been gathering the green since 1982. Looks like the Garden gets the giant golden salad tongs in this Mexican--er, Italian--standoff.)
What can I really say about the food here that anyone who's ever eaten in one of these places doesn't already know? The menu is pretty much what you'd expect, all the usual pasta suspects plus a bunch of seafood--there are a dozen near-identical menus on offer over in Li'l It'ly, but at least the Olive Grove's prices are reasonable. But a recent visit did turn up a truly delish item or two amid the otherwise solid but run-of-the-mill marinara meals.
Lunch at the Olive Grove brings denizens of the multitudinous office parks in the vicinity to chow down down on the Extravaganza ($7.95, or $9.20 with Maryland crab, cream of crab, or French onion soup). This is the Grove's big gimmick: the bottomless salad and soup bowls, the endless garlic-bread sticks. As the salad and bread sticks come with pretty much every entrée on the menu and the Maryland crab soup is unremarkable (we didn't try the others), I think this is a deal you can live without. Though served warm from the oven, the bread sticks are forgettable in taste and texture--too bad, because they look like they'll be fantastic. The salad has tons of toppings, but there's only one dressing choice. I'm not kidding. "Mama's Famous House Dressing," a vinegary version of standard Italian-dressing concoctions, is the only kind you can get; fortunately, it's pretty good. If you really like it, you can buy a jar to take home--or order one from www.olivegroverestaurant.com.
The other you-can-take-it-with-you offering is the Grove's "Maryland's Best Crab Cakes" (quotation marks theirs; $21.95 platter, $12.75 sandwich [lunch only]). And yes, the crab cakes come with a side of pasta, but you can have french fries, baked potato, or rice if you prefer. They're truly decent crab cakes, lumpy and golden and lightly seasoned with mustard. Though equally packed with quality backfin meat, the lump-crab-dip appetizer ($10.95) was kind of scary. The menu promised crab blended with cream cheese and "our famous seasonings." We found no detectable spice flavor, and the dip had inexplicably been smothered in a blanket of melted cheese ("Crab-dip Parmesan," snickered one of our party). Most of it went uneaten--a waste of otherwise nice crabmeat.
Calamari ($6.75) were good, if not great, in crunchy batter and of standard chewiness, with uninteresting marinara sauce for dipping. Eggplant parmigiana ($10.95 dinner, $7.95 lunch), a recommended entrée, was almost good; the freshly breaded eggplant was terrific but overwhelmed by the same lifeless marinara, and the overcooked spaghetti and flavorless mozzarella did it no favors.
On the other hand, the sausage fettuccini ($14.75 dinner, $8.50 lunch) was outstanding. If this sprightly, onion-sweetened tomato sauce came standard on all the Olive Grove's pasta dishes, the place would be a real find. This was a much more complex sauce than the marinara, bursting with herb flavors and studded with peppers, mushrooms, olives, and small whole spicy sausages.
Portions at the Olive Grove are vast, even for the reduced-price lunch menu; take-home boxes seem to come with your meal. We piled all our various leftovers into Styrofoam containers and then asked to see the dessert tray, which was filled with a variety of goodies that I'm guessing hail mainly from Ms. Desserts rather than Mama's kitchen (I suppose making all that salad dressing keeps her busy). High on can't-believe-we-just-ate-all-that adrenaline, we managed to split a slice of turtle cheesecake ($3.95), a decent if uninspired chocolate and caramel creation.
According to a post-lunch parking-lot poll, none of us found the food to be anything more than average (except for the sausage fettuccini), but we'd all had a thoroughly enjoyable meal at the Olive Grove. It is what it is--a good-natured, hard-working old-school Italian-American restaurant. Bring on the garlic bread.
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