Cafe Olli is a lot of restaurants.
By day, it’s a casual counter-service spot, with your pick of pastries, sandwiches and square Roman-style “pizza alla pala” by the slice. There’s also soup, two different kinds of fancy cheese on toast (whipped ricotta with bee pollen and citrus marmalade or stracciatella with Calabrian chile honey), and made-to-order breakfast options, all in a bright space with big windows facing both Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Failing Street.
At night, the room darkens. There’s wait staff on the floor, and the cooks get busy with the wood-fired oven, which remains from the space’s previous occupant, Ned Ludd (though it is not the only cooking implement). The pizzas are now whole and round, and the menu includes snacks like beef tartare and marinated olives, salads, roasted veggies, a single pasta, three mains and desserts (get there early or eat fast to guarantee yourself a slice of classic chocolate fudge cake).
With its eclectic simplicity, Cafe Olli has a decided “this is what a restaurant needs to be after a pandemic” feel. Its five founding partners all previously worked for Submarine Hospitality (Ava Gene’s, Tusk). They own 50% of the restaurant, while the other 50% is in an employee-owned trust. That means half of quarterly profits go to employees based on hours worked and seniority.
There is also no tipping here since Cafe Olli charges a 20% service fee to pay all staff higher wages and provide health care as well as paid time off. Socially minded practices extend to the menu, which includes a sliding scale ($0-$14) community meal—savory farro porridge during the day and a meatball entree at dinner—available, as it describes, to “those who are experiencing food insecurity or financial hardship. No questions asked.”
But Cafe Olli also has familiar pre-pandemic elements: It is, of course, “seasonally focused” and “locally sourced,” with Pablo Munoz Farms produce and Laney Family Farms beef. There’s also a commitment to making as many things as possible in-house, including pasta, breads and roast meats for sandwiches. Both the menu and the space also bring to the mind the brunchy, crunchy vibe of all-day L.A. stalwarts Sqirl and Gjusta.
For breakfast, a frittata of the day ($8) changes with whatever seasonal veggies are on hand—during a recent visit, that was potato, leek, spring onion and green garlic. It came with a swipe of mayo and a side of hearty dressed greens.
If you’d prefer a sandwich instead, Cafe Olli allows you to order your frittata nestled inside a seeded ciabatta roll served with cheddar, greens, mayo, and a fermented jalapeño and serrano hot sauce ($10).
A big green schmear of hot sauce with cheddar and mayo is also on the sausage sandwich ($10), which can be ordered with or without fried egg. Its smallish crusty “breakfast roll” looked unlikely to contain its layers, but, in fact, the roll is both chewy and compressible, and all the elements held together without needing the supplied knife.
If it’s Saturday or Sunday, the star pastry attraction is bombolini ($6), a gigantic, crunchy sugarcoated Italian doughnut that walks the “is it dessert or is it breakfast?” line, especially when the filling is a salted chocolate custard. Other recent options have been passion fruit curd and cheesecake mousse. There’s also an old-fashioned doughnut ($5), with vanilla bean buttermilk glaze, as well as good old coffee cake in loaf form ($3 a slice).
The dinner menu has a choose-your-own-adventure feel, suitable for someone looking for a quick meal of pizza and salad at the counter with its full view of the oven, or a customer looking for a full trip through the menu. On a recent night, a plate of deeply flavored roasted Brussels sprouts ($10) stole the show. In fact, its char, sweetness and acidity also made the next plate, beef tartare with potato chips, horseradish and Meyer lemon ($14), seem bland.
If you have to choose your carb, go pizza over pasta. Current options include a four-cheese (no tomato) with kale raab and agrodolce onions ($26) and an Italian sausage with pepperoncini and Calabrian chile ($25), which you can also gild with Calabrian hot honey ($3). But it’s the minimalist pomodoro ($20)—nothing but tomato sauce, thinly sliced garlic, oregano and olive oil—that really shows off the naturally leavened, fire-kissed crust.
Except you are also going to want to “spoil” the purity of this pizza by adding stracciatella ($3). And oh boy, will you feel spoiled. Hand-stretched from curd provided by Cowbell Creamery, the milky fattiness of the fresh cheese is simultaneously decadent and simple. Which also sums up Cafe Olli.
EAT: Cafe Olli, 3925 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-206-8604, cafeolli.com. 9 am-2 pm Tuesday, 9 am-9 pm Wednesday-Sunday.