Walking into Dolly Olive, you’re hit with a scent straight out of Sicily: oregano, garlic, sage, and fennel waft from the kitchen, while bartenders shake and stir cocktails made with nocino and amaro. Plates of roasted garlic focaccia land on tables alongside eggplant parmigiana and chitarra tossed with clams and tomato. In wine glasses, prosecco and lambrusco quietly bubble, followed by pours of Sicilian whites and Piedmont dolcetto.
Those walking in uninitiated may have a hard time believing Dolly Olive is a relative of Portland standbys like Mediterranean Exploration Company or Shalom Y’all; visitors won’t find Sesame Collective restaurant group staples like mejadara, a rice and lentil blend, or any variation on hummus here. Instead, Dolly Olive — which opens Wednesday, June 22, in the former Bistro Agnes space — wants to focus on an Italian slice of the Mediterranean, while showcasing some of the restaurant group’s best and brightest.
The team at Sesame Collective, which runs not only MEC and Shalom Y’all but also Yalla and Bless Your Heart Burgers, had no intention of opening another restaurant in the near future; their plan was to focus on keeping what they had going, especially considering the tumultuous state of the restaurant industry. But over the last two years, as they opened the tiny Lil Shalom in the former downtown Shalom Y’all space, they watched the nearby Bistro Agnes sit vacant, with no updates from owners Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton. It was the dream space in a number of different ways — it had a large back kitchen, which would work well for a commissary. It had a beautiful dining space, with gorgeous tile work and plush banquettes. And the building was steps away from a Sesame Collective restaurant, with two others within a 10-minute drive. So, after a while, they put in an offer on the space.
“We weren’t aggressively looking for a space,” says Jamal Hassan, co-owner of Sesame Collective. “But really this has felt like the right move — to take all the talented people from all around the company and put them under one roof.”
Hassan, along with culinary director Natalie Gullish and co-owners Kasey Mills and Laura Amans, had been talking about opening a pasta shop for several years. Gullish had recently taken a trip to Sicily and found herself particularly inspired by the culinary scene there. Mills had worked in Italian restaurants in the past. And, looking around Portland today, pasta seems to be in high demand: Gabbiano’s in Northeast Portland drew crowds for its nostalgic take on red-sauce Italian, while restaurants like Ripe Cooperative have won praise for handmade pastas on a more eclectic menu. Dolly Olive falls more within the latter camp: Its pastas, made in the back with Shepherd’s Grain flour, are just one facet of a more expansive menu. However, the restaurant will always have at least three each night, starting with a clam-and-Aleppo-butter chitarra and a rigatoni tossed with asparagus, spring peas, and pesto. Mills is particularly excited about the restaurant’s tagliatelle al burro, a simple preparation with French butter, aged parmesan, and cracked pepper — plus the optional add-on of in-season morels. “We want to let the ingredients speak for themselves,” he says.
Part of that ethos, shocking no Oregonian, is focusing on sourcing in-season Pacific Northwestern produce for various dishes. The restaurant sources fruits and vegetables from farms like Canby, Prairie Creek, and Gathering Together, for dishes like kale salad with ricotta salata and bavette steak with shaved summer squash. Products that aren’t local are often imported from Italy — for instance, the restaurant will feature a number of different varieties of olives, studding focaccia, dotting a plate of Spanish octopus, and garnishing a pre-batched, near-freezing-temp martini.
The bar has a similar love of imports: Many of the cocktails at Dolly Olive incorporate a wide spectrum of amari, from a splash of Sfumato in a shaken mezcal-grapefruit cocktail to a stirred rye whiskey cocktail with nocino, Amaro Ciociaro, and sarsparilla. Even in non-alcoholic cocktails, the bar will use its own house-made “no-maro,” made with grapefruit pith and other botanicals. “We want to make what we can’t source or can do better,” Hassan says.
As for wine, Joanna Scarpelli — formerly of celebrated bistro St. Jack — sourced a wide selection of Italian wines, as well as Italian varietals grown in other parts of the world. For instance, the rosé selection includes not only Barbaresco and Etna rosato, but also Tim Malone’s rosé of nebbiolo, grown in the Willamette Valley.
All of this is served in a space with a faint echo of the former Bistro Agnes: The tile and banquette remains, but the walls are now perhaps more muted, with wooden design touches. On one wall, a painted olive bush climbs up the walls, designed by the company’s own creative director, Austin Phelps.
Down the line, the team wants to introduce brunch with an extensive pastry program, allowing pastry team Carrie Ellen and Lyndsey Caldwell to experiment and grow beyond the already-promising dessert menu. For now, dinner ends with scoops of vegan spumoni, tiramisu with Kahlua-mascarpone mousse, and affogato with fennel biscotti and fernet ice cream. “All of our locations are known for share plates,” Amans says. “But here, there’s more of a beginning, middle, and end.”