Whenever I head down to Provo—which admittedly isn’t often—I’m struck by the unexpected diversity of the restaurant scene there. Yes, it’s true that Provo-Orem is mostly a franchise-restaurant destination. But there is also a smattering of good one-off international eateries. Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Cuban, Brazilian, Japanese and Vietnamese are just some of the global cuisines represented in Provo. And recently I discovered one of the best Italian restaurants in the state, right downtown on Provo’s Center Street.
Ottavio’s Cucina Italiana isn’t new; it’s just new to me. Located in a historic turn-of-the-century brick building Ottavio’s is a cavernous restaurant with exposed brick, a huge wood-fired pizza oven and large fresco-painted walls. The kitsch factor at Ottavio’s is unintentional, unlike faux Little Italy eateries Ã la Buca di Beppo. But bring your compass. Ottavio’s is large enough that I seem to always misplace my date there.
When Otto Ottavio, Lenny Belvedere and Vic Balsano came to Utah, they found a dearth of decent Italian restaurants. Being in the construction business, they decided to take matters into their own hands by creating Ottavio’s. Well, the Ottavio’s trio might be construction guys but there’s also some Italian culinary DNA flowing through their veins—or perhaps an Italian grandma or two giving guidance in the kitchen—because Ottavio’s serves up some of the best Italian fare I’ve found in Utah.
This isn’t the fancy food you find in Northern Italian restaurants. You’re not going to be offered any sliced white truffles at Ottavio’s or pasta dishes with butter and sage sauce or “aio e oio.” What Ottavio’s does well is cook up the hearty Italian cuisine that is peppered throughout movies like GoodFellas and The Godfather: lasagna, manicotti, fettuccini Alfredo, veal parmigiana, pizzas and the like. But fresh homemade sauces and attention to detail in ingredients—not to mention terrific service—put Ottavio’s a few cuts above franchise pasta emporiums like Olive Garden, Tucci’s and Macaroni Grill.
I was surprised and relieved to discover that Ottavio’s sells booze. A Utah County restaurant equipped with a wine list and a full bar is, to say the least, an oddity. The wine list isn’t extensive, but it’s there. So if you’re a wine drinker, I suggest that you order a glass or bottle of Chianti and sip some “vino” while you peruse the lengthy Ottavio’s menu. The last time I visited Ottavio’s, the tomatoes weren’t quite ripe enough in the large caprese salad ($7.50), but they are probably at their peak now. The “caprese” at Ottavio’s is simple and traditional: layers of soft, bright-white, fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced Roma tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and a splash of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a good way to get a meal going. I’d also recommend the plump mushrooms ($7.75) stuffed with a delicious ground meat mixture of chicken, veal and beef. It’s the same yummy mix that goes into the cannelloni at Ottavio’s, which is now on my list of all-time favorite Italian dishes.
Oooooohhh ... that cannelloni. I would have sworn that the wonderfully textured al dente pasta sheets used to make Ottavio’s cannelloni were homemade, but I was told otherwise. Well, store bought or fresh, the pasta that envelops that hearty and heavenly mixture of veal, chicken, and beef is one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever eaten. Topped with Ottavio’s homemade meat sauce—there are actually chunks of tender beef in it—Ottavio’s cannelloni ($11.50) is a hard dish to improve upon. It comes, by the way, with a choice of soup or salad; I strongly recommend the freshly-made minestrone, brimming with tender vegetables and white beans. In place of that amazing cannelloni, non-meat eaters should opt for Ottavio’s manicotti ($10.95), which is that same rolled up pasta stuffed with a blend of mozzarella, Romano, ricotta and pecorino cheeses, all baked (and thankfully not over-baked) in the wood-fired oven and served with a bright-tasting fresh marinara sauce. For the best of both worlds, order the manicotti and cannelloni combo plate for $11.25.
Ottavio’s is a carbo-loaders dream restaurant, with an array of delicious pasta dishes that range from good old spaghetti and (fantastic) homemade meatballs to ravioli “pescatora” ($13.95). The latter is ravioli stuffed with crab, shrimp and cheese and topped with a rich and glistening lobster cream sauce. Along with all the traditional standards, there are other harder-to-find pasta dishes on Ottavio’s menu such as rigatoni “fra diavolo” and gnocchi “alla pesto.” But my favorite—aside from the cannelloni—is “pollo al Arrabbiata con capellini” ($12.95). The consistency and texture of this dish is somewhat dry and not unlike say, a good Cajun jambalaya. Indeed, the spicy flavors remind me of jambalaya, but a jambalaya with a base of thin capellini pasta rather than rice. The capellini is tossed with a mixture of highly-spiced chunks and strips of tender chicken breast, along with garlic, fresh basil, olive oil, and sun-dried tomatoes. It’s a unique pasta dish with a rainbow of tantalizing flavors and one that you won’t find on many Italian restaurant menus in Utah.
A good way to experience the range of good flavors at Ottavio’s is to give yourself the afternoon off from work and head down to Provo for the “Sicilian Style” lunch buffet. For $8.95 you can indulge in a wide array of Ottavio’s salads, antipasti, pasta dishes, pizzas, homemade desserts and much more. However, at lunchtime you’ll have to forgo the strolling accordion player. He only comes out at night.
OTTAVIO’S CUCINA ITALIANA 77 E. Center St. Provo 801-377-9555 Lunch & Dinner Monday through Saturday