by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s restaurants go, Olive Oilz is small. The Italian caf & eacute; in a strip mall just off two of the main streets in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood -- 29th and Regal -- features about eight small tables, plus a bar with five seats. It's an intimate setting. Our party of four occupied two tables next to the front window. Nearby was a middle-aged man who shared dinner and lively conversation with three senior ladies. They were apparently regulars; the owner/hostess greeted them by their first names. In the corner, two men occupied another table. Collectively, we nearly filled the place.
The d & eacute;cor doesn't scream Italian; it's more Americana. There's an old-time cash register behind the bar, and on the far wall, a big circular clock with a smaller inner circle that lights up red. It's the type of clock you'd have seen in a gas station 50 years ago.
But the menu does scream Italian, or Mediterranean. The western edge of the Mediterranean is represented by the paella ($25) -- a traditional Spanish dish. But Italy dominates here with several pasta dishes and a dozen enticing antipasti (appetizers), which include the tempting Gorgonzola croutons served with roasted garlic, tomato and basil in balsamic vinaigrette ($7). We chose the spread and veg ($7) -- a plate of sliced raw carrots, cucumber and tomato accompanied by dishes of black olive pesto and an artichoke aioli -- and a cup of soup. The aioli was surprisingly tasty (surprising mostly because I'm not a big artichoke fan) on the cukes and carrots, with a dry, cheesy bite. I preferred the olive pesto by itself, eaten as you would eat caviar, with small spoonfuls. A colleague recommended Olive Oilz's soups and we were not disappointed by the creamy tomato vegetable soup with Gorgonzola. It was delicious, with the Gorgonzola adding a bit of smokiness to an already rich concoction.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or our entr & eacute;es my three companions and I picked four completely different dishes. The most unusual was the orzo pasta with chicken in a lemon basil cream sauce ($18). Lemon is a traditional Mediterranean flavor, but this is something we'd never had before. The white cream sauce was almost sweet with a lemon accent. One companion compared it to a sweet lemon dessert. Another liked it but thought the bite-sized, tender chicken chunks didn't figure much, if at all, into the flavor.
My second companion ordered the New York strip steak with wild mushroom Gorgonzola (there it is again) sauce ($22). The steak was cut into bite-size pieces and was almost melt-in-your-mouth tender. The sauce was rich and delicious. Two small quibbles: the steak came a little more cooked than the requested medium rare, and the asparagus spears that came with it were partially charred. I'd suggest steaming, rather than grilling, the vegetable accompaniment.
My third companion ordered the most Italian of our four dishes, pasta with large prawns ($18): angel hair pasta in a bowl, covered with a tomato-saffron sauce, with Italian sausage and prawns. The prawns were amazing, said she, and popular. Everyone had to reach over and get one before they were devoured. The tomato sauce was herby and good, but kind of soupy.
I ordered the homemade crab cakes, which shared a plate with a small lettuce salad ($15). To go with them, I chose a sun-dried tomato pesto, which was drizzled over both components. It's a tricky thing to find a sauce with enough flavor to give a boost to the lettuce without overwhelming the considerable flavor of the crab, and the pesto mostly succeeded: It was subtle enough to enhance the taste of the crab cakes, but it needed more oomph as a salad dressing. Still, I'd rather have it that way than the other way around.
Two breads, baked in-house, accompanied the meal. The Jewish-style bread with poppy seeds was dense and dry and good for dipping into my companion's soupy pasta sauce, while the sun-dried tomato bread featured a swirl of filling inside. It was a hit and a nice addition to dinner.
We finished with a hopped-up, piece-of-pie-shaped brownie ($6.50), topped with drizzled chocolate frosting and chocolate shavings. The cake itself was moist, the top layer crumbly. "Way rich, but so good," said one companion. Another pronounced it "orgasmic." Not the word I would use, but I understand the sentiment -- I've never met a brownie I didn't like.
Olive Oilz is small but it has been getting some word-of-mouth buzz. The foursome near us had apparently been there before, and another customer commented that she planned to come again. Some may think the place a little pricey; others won't blink. Regardless, the food's decent, and if you like cozy, it's a nice option.