They were determined to make it seem like you were eating in their home, something not easy to do in one of Connecticut's largest cities with a downtown crammed full of upscale restaurants.
But co-owners Stephen Costanzo and Moira Hyland picked a small suburban neighborhood for their eclectic restaurant and choosing a name for it was one of the best parts. “We were debating it. Our cuisine is new American but it's collaboration, too. It's a little bit Italian, a little bit Asian, some Latin,” says Hyland. “We were throwing some words around, like 'miscellaneous' and 'hodge podge,' and they didn't sound right. So Steve's daughter Googled 'hodge podge' and Olio was the first word that popped up. In Latin, it means a dish of many different ingredients. We said, we just named our restaurant.”
Olio, which opened July 5, 2012, in the tiny neighborhood of Springdale, in Stamford, Conn., was, at first, mistaken for an Italian restaurant. “We had a lot of Italian flavors on the menu,” says Costanzo, who's also head chef. “Since I was in the corporate field before this, I had to cook all kinds of cuisines, from Asian to Spanish to Italian to German, so I never really leaned towards one cuisine as my favorite. I like to mix flavors, Latin with Asian, Italian with American. It's more gratifying for me as a chef to play with a lot of different ingredients. We didn't want to be just an Italian or a Spanish restaurant. It gives us the freedom to do whatever we want. We don't have to be under one type of cuisine.”
“We can play with the seasons,” adds Moira. “Steve and I have the same philosophy of food. To incorporate local seasonal ingredients is so important. We started looking into farms in Connecticut and found one that now does all our greens and micro-greens. We bought into their chef garden bed so we have a specific garden bed that our produce and herbs and tomatoes come from. We've looked into numerous ways to get farm-fresh eggs, we have organic chicken, and our coffee comes from the only organic-certified roaster in the state. We look at every aspect when it comes to picking out our food, even our wines. They're sustainable and organic. We go with the seasons; we change our menu every few months. We use the ingredients we can get. It's important to us. It's also,” she laughs, “having fun with your food.”
Ideally, Costanzo says, the two would like everything to be organic, and local. “That was our goal, and we've come pretty far in two years. It's not cheap so we have to do a little at a time,” he says. “One day I hope we can be 90% local. It's just a matter of sourcing everything and being able to get it on a regular basis. We have to do a little at a time.”
Hyland notes that it's also a price thing. “We're in a small area, and our prices will have to increase slightly, the more we go organic. A lot of people don't want to pay downtown prices, so we have to make sure there' s a balance between what we get in, and our prices. We're a very local neighborhood restaurant.”
And here's why they've become so successful. They have dishes as varied as miso barbecue spare ribs; a very popular cioppino, a fish stew with lobster, shrimp, scallops and clams, and a seared duck breast with wahio chili sauce and fresh peas, served over potato wild mushroom corn hash, as just some examples.
The restaurant serves lunch Wednesday to Saturday but has a different menu from the evening one.
What really sets Olio apart is that everything is made fresh on the premises, including its pasta dishes. “We typically have three pastas on the menu every night for dinner, and we make it all here,” says Hyland. “Our breads are made here, all the desserts.”
“Everything down to the pickles you get with your burger,” says Costanzo. “Sauces, stocks, croutons, everything.”
Both love the six stools that overlook the kitchen. “You can see everything,” says Hyland. “That's what Steve and I initially fell in love with. We get to do this, this is our baby, our everything, and people get to watch us and do it with us. You're in our house, our kitchen. It's a small, intimate restaurant. That's why we fell in love with this location.”
“We don't want people to feel rushed, but to enjoy their meal,” says Costanzo. “Have another glass of wine, order dessert. On Fridays and Saturdays we have such a big crowd, it's first come, first served, unless it's a party of five or more. It's too crazy to take reservations for anything smaller, on those nights. But otherwise, we do take reservations.”
“Part of it with us is making everything in-house,” says Hyland. “A lot of our regulars have come to realize, we do run out of stuff on busy nights because everything is made fresh and in-house.”
“Bigger operations don't have that issue but you're not getting house-made,” chimes in Costanzo. “There's a difference between house-made and home-made. They say it's homemade but they're buying it from someone else, and that defeats the whole purpose of having fresh ingredients. Don't forget, with organic ingredients, the shelf life is not as long; they're not sprayed with stuff to keep fresher longer. We didn't want to buy all this mass-produced stuff. We don't know too many restaurants in Stamford that do the amount of house-made stuff we do here.”
Do they regret the restaurant's not bigger? “If we had a 200-300-seat restaurant, we'd need more manpower,” he says. “A lot of people don't mind it.”
“It's more intimate,” says Hyland. “It's like they're coming to our house and we're cooking for them.”
Décor at Olio is simple and clean, homey yet sophisticated. “Not stuffy sophisticated,” says Costanzo. “The walls don't have tons of stuff on them. There's artwork my sister did that reflects on the name, Olio. It's derived from the word 'stew,' a pot with different ingredients cooking in it. The artwork has all different shapes of pots with different ingredients in them. Everything ties in together, the food, the décor, the name.”
“We're so family-oriented,” says Hyland. “His sisters' artwork, my grandmother's coat rack, and wine rack. My mom does our whiskey barrel pots in front that change with the seasons. Now it's mums. I'm simple when it comes to décor. I like natural tones, greens and browns, a few candles, a simple yet classy look that goes with the food. Basic ingredients done right.”
A surprise hit was Sunday brunch. “This area needed a brunch spot,” she says. “We laughed because there were days when it was just Steve and me and one couple at a table. It would be our fun day. We'd have a mimosa and laugh. Brunch was our secret day. But it's really grown, gotten some legs, and people really, really enjoy it now. We're trying to keep it fresh – a new cocktail list, unlimited mimosas at a certain price. We try to develop it even more because it's become one of our best days.”
Brunch is not a buffet as at the other places that offer it nearby, but a la carte. “From Lobster Eggs Benedict to Huevos Rancheros to Egg in a Hole. We even make the bread for our French toast,” says Hyland.
As for their clientele, it's a lot of people who come from the neighborhood. “This is one of the last real neighborhoods in Stamford,” says Costanzo. “We have regulars who come in two to three times a week. They sit at the bar stools overlooking the kitchen and like to watch what's happening.”
The restaurant also pulls from nearby towns like Darien and New Canaan.
What's in the future? “We'd love to expand,” says Hyland. “But we're just so happy with this area and our location here.”
“A big mistake restaurants make is they go too big,” says Costanzo. “To keep it going, you have to serve a lot of dinners. We want to expand, maybe a 2nd location that just does dinner and keep this for brunch and lunch. We've been talking about it. We want to expand a little, not a lot.”
Says Hyland, “When we were going into this, everyone said the restaurant business is the hardest and it's proven to be extremely hard. But Steve and I are both so hands-on. It's our name. It's our reputation. It's us. One of us is always here, typically both of us.”
“We don't want to lose that,” says Costanzo.
“Olio is a combination of us and it really does work and we really do love it,” says Hyland. “To expand would have to be the right location, the right size, and it needs to be manageable for us. It's tough being restaurant owners and taking a back seat to family parties, and your everyday life. If we do it, it just needs to be the right spot.”
Adds Costanzo, “A lot of places expand and then you don't see the chef or the owners anymore. That’s when the food goes downhill. That's when you lose your business. We're never going to be the type to hire enough staff to run it and disappear. We always want to be here. We don't want to get away from that. That's another big thing with our regulars. They know they're going to see us, and they want to.”
“It's a relationship,” says Hyland. “We want people to see us. Family meals, like what we grew up on. This is all of us.”