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Brothers combine talents in kitchen of Olives & Peppers

| Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011

The tiny Italian eatery Olives & Peppers on Route 8 in Bakerstown is thriving in the finicky restaurant business since opening 14 months ago -- despite never advertising nor having a website.

There's not even a sign for the restaurant, so drivers have to know exactly where it's situated. And that suits owners Bryan and Courtney Williams just fine.

"We're slammed every night," says Bryan Williams, 37, who commutes daily from his North Huntingdon home. "When we started, it was minimal. I was trying to cook and wait tables at the same time. Now, a typical wait for a table on a Friday night is one-and-a-half hours"

Williams believes the reasons for Olives & Peppers' success are the food and the atmosphere. Only 34 seats are available in the homey, warmly decorated restaurant. And he frequently sees diners chatting with those at other tables even though they don't know one another.

"It's interactive, like family," he says. "Our blueprint is that we always want it to be quaint, and always want it to be comfortable. We have incredible food at great pricing, and our portions are huge."

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Another reason for the success could be because the entire Williams family is working or helping in some capacity. Bryan's wife, Courtney, took a leave of absence from her teaching job in Norwin School District to help manage. Her father, Norm Pezze, acts as the host, greeting and seating customers and keeping the conversations flowing. Bryan Williams' twin, Blayne, is the pizza maker, while older brother Michael, 44, serves as executive chef.

"That's the most rewarding part of owning the restaurant -- being around family every day," says Bryan Williams, father of two young children. "I learned how to cook through Michael."

Michael Williams has been a chef for more than 22 years, after graduating from Pennsylvania Institute for Culinary Arts in the late 1980s. He worked at a couple of Italian restaurants, ran Nigro's in North Versailles for 14 years, and then joined his brother in their first venture.

"As a chef, you get stagnant (staying) in one place too long," says Michael Williams, who also lives in North Huntingdon and is married, with six children. "It's nice to have full control over a menu. This is classic Italian American cuisine, made fresh to order."

The brothers' full-blooded Italian mother, Jacquie, taught them the basics of Italian cooking.

"We chose to open in this area because we didn't have a lot of money," says Bryan Williams, who managed a restaurant in North Huntingdon for a number of years before taking the plunge into ownership. "This location was what we could afford. It's small, but we have a fantastic customer base. They're very loyal."

A liquor license was recently approved, but they only have room for a handful of Italian wines and several specialty beers. The restaurant still has a BYOB policy, with a $5 corkage fee per bottle.

Customers will find the menu comforting as well as exciting, with typical Italian appetizers such as bruschetta, stuffed banana peppers and mussels. Seven fresh salads, and wedding soup, are on the menu, along with paninis, gourmet pizzas, flatbreads, hoagies, calzones and strombolis. But pastas are the signature items in this restaurant, and they don't disappoint.

There's linguine pallini, with jumbo shrimp and lump crab meat in a sambuca tomato sauce; blue crab- and cheese-stuffed ravioli tossed with garlic butter; portobello mushroom-stuffed ravioli in a sherry cream sauce; South African lobster-stuffed ravioli in a tomato basil cream sauce; and lasagna with bolognese sauce.

Pastas and cheeses come from Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. while the seafood, meats and chicken are supplied through US Foods, locally, and Curtze Food Service in Erie.

"Michael is the brains behind the pastas and sauces, and I do the pizzas and flatbreads," Bryan Williams says. "The menu doesn't change much, but we have a chef's feature every other month."

The best advice Williams ever received came from a close friend who was a restaurant owner.

"He told me, "You're only getting out what you're putting into it," he says. "We have an extreme work ethic here."

He and his family are satisfied with what they've achieved so far, but Williams says they're always striving for more.

"It's a challenge to get consistency day to day, but people expect the same quality each time they visit," Williams says. "We want to make sure people leave here completely satisfied."

Frutti di Mare

Executive chef Michael Williams is sharing his recipe for Frutti di Mare, a classic Italian seafood dish that uses his own, secret marinara sauce. He says to use your favorite marinara in the recipe, but the restaurant does sell its marinara sauce fresh daily to customers who want that authentic flavor.

Williams suggests serving this delicious entree with a full-bodied chianti or a robust merlot.

  • 1/4 cup premium olive oil
  • 12 jumbo scallops
  • 12 fresh clams
  • 16 jumbo shrimp
  • 12 fresh mussels
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 4 ounces cleaned calamari, tubes and tentacles
  • 3/4 cup golden sherry
  • 2 quarts of your favorite marinara
  • 4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
  • 1 cup jumbo lump crab meat
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound linguine, cooked al dente
  • Fresh chopped basil, for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the scallops and cook for 2 minutes per side. Add the clams, shrimp, mussels and garlic. Turn the shrimp after 90 seconds, and then add the calamari. Cook for 2 minutes. If any mussel doesn't open, discard it.

Carefully add the sherry to the simmering fish and reduce by half, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the marinara and the butter, and heat through. Add the crab meat, and season with salt and pepper.

Drain the pasta, and place in a large tossing bowl. Mix in some of the marinara slowly , and separate onto four plates. Divide the seafood pieces and remaining sauce evenly among the plates , and garnish with basil. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Additional Information:

Olives & Peppers

Cuisine: Classic Italian

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $9-$16

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. No reservations accepted. Wine and beer available; BYOB with a $5 corkage fee.

Address: 6052 William Flynn Hwy (Route 8), Bakerstown

Details: 724-444-7499

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