The Olive Tree is not the Olive Garden. But you would be forgiven for mixing them up.
Both outside and in, the two restaurants look quite similar; they share a "rustic Italian" vibe and their logos are nearly identical. Both are reasonably priced, with menus offering a broad selection of popular Italian-American meals.
The similarities between the two restaurants are obvious. But the Olive Tree, locally owned with locations in Glen Burnie and Aberdeen, differentiates itself from the mega-chain Olive Garden with an emphasis on what Maryland restaurants do best: seafood.
During a recent visit to the Aberdeen Olive Tree, the restaurant was bustling, even on a chilly Wednesday night. Around 6:30, most tables were filled with families or older couples.
We started with a glass of house sangria ($4), a fizzy drink that we enjoyed, though it was slightly too sweet for our taste — we prefer versions heavier on the wine with less sugar. Still, it was a decent match for a spinach and artichoke dip starter ($4.50).
Topped with melted cheese, the appetizer arrived at our table warm and ready for dipping. The dip itself was standard, a well-proportioned and well-seasoned mix of spinach and artichokes in creamy sauce.
The chips provided for dipping were crunchy but bland, making the dip itself seem less interesting. As an alternative, we raided the basket of breadsticks that come with every entree. The combination of spinach dip and warm bread, seasoned with a dusting of garlic, was a good one.
Along with the breadsticks, entrees come with salad, served in a large bowl for the table to share. Though the bowl held no surprises, we enjoyed the salad's mix of fresh lettuce, red onion, cucumber, tomato and creamy Italian dressing.
From the start, our waiter was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable, if not perfectly polished. After introducing himself, he gave us a quick rundown of the Olive Tree's specialties, mentioning that the restaurant is known for its seafood.
He also noted that on Wednesdays, the Olive Tree's popular seafood fettuccine ($21.95) can be topped with a lobster tail for an additional $2. How could we resist?
Every bit of love the Olive Tree receives for its seafood fettuccine is warranted. A large portion of seafood — shrimp, scallops, crab meat and (in our case) lobster — was cooked until tender and placed carefully on a bed of pasta tossed with just enough creamy Alfredo sauce to moisten the noodles.
It's easy to go overboard with Alfredo, drowning the noodles in sauce, or to make a sauce that's heavy and boring. The Olive Tree didn't. Instead, the lightly dressed noodles — which are made in-house — played a supporting role, highlighting the delicacy and sweet flavor of the seafood.
The Melizanne Platter ($15.99) from the "Italian Feasts" portion of the menu was less successful. The tower of eggplant, smoked mozzarella, rounds of Italian sausage and slices of prosciutto, topped with tomato sauce, sounded intriguing.
However, the combination of ingredients together tasted less remarkable than each on its own, with too many flavors muddying up the dish. And though the eggplant was properly cooked, the prosciutto we dug from the pile was crispy in a way that was unappealing.
On the side, a few classic cheese-stuffed ravioli were sauced with a rich chardonnay cream, providing a decadent alternative to the eggplant stack. Swirling the cream-drenched ravioli in the eggplant's chunky tomato sauce, we wished we'd ordered a whole meal of ravioli with dueling sauces.
An earthy glass of Ruffino Chianti ($5.50) was a regionally — and gastronomically — appropriate match for the entrees.
Quick table turnover seems to be the standard at the Olive Tree; we lingered longer than most of the diners around us. To his credit, our waiter never rushed us, and our meal was properly timed throughout.
With dinner plates cleared and leftovers wrapped (portions were on the generous side), we turned to the dessert menu, ordering a cannoli ($4.25) to finish the meal.
Given the large entree portions, we expected the cannoli to be an oversized tunnel of pastry, dressed up with mounds of whipped cream and piles of chocolate sauce.
We were pleasantly surprised to receive an average-size dessert with just a few dollops of cream and squiggles of sauce. The cannoli was a lovely way to end the meal — sweet pastry with filling that was just tart enough to balance the sugar.
On our next visit, though, we might skip dessert. After all, who needs a cannoli when a second helping of seafood fettuccine is an option?
The Olive Tree
Back story: Open since 1992, the Olive Tree in Aberdeen is a go-to spot for traditional Italian-American food. With a nod to its Maryland location, the restaurant puts a special focus on seafood dishes.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The seafood fettuccine, a large plate of pasta tossed with creamy Alfredo sauce and topped with nicely cooked scallops, shrimp, crab meat and — if requested — lobster tail, is a sweet and delicate take on the classic dish.
Where: 1005 Beards Hill Road, Aberdeen
Contact: 410-272-6217; http://www.marylanditalianrestaurant.net
Open: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Credit cards: All major
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising ✭]