Johns Island, South Carolina, is known for narrow roads that wind beneath canopies of moss-draped oaks through miles of farmland and forest—not so much for a buzzing restaurant scene such as you’d find in downtown Charleston. Yet the island is a natural setting for farm-to-table dining, and Wild Olive has been filling that niche for nearly a decade. The restaurant’s cucina Italiana—Italian kitchen—spins updated Mediterranean classics that showcase the top-quality products of local farmers and fishers.
“We knew from the beginning that this was going to define us,” says Wild Olive executive chef Jacques Larson, a hospitality veteran whose credentials include stints in top Charleston kitchens, such as Peninsula Grill. “The restaurant is a huge supporter of the farming community on Johns Island.”
In fact, Wild Olive’s commitment to local sourcing, sustainable fishing and humanely raised animals has garnered it and its sister restaurant, The Obstinate Daughter, certification by the Green Restaurant Association. They are two of only five restaurants in the state that have met its standards for the designation. Produce for the restaurants comes primarily from Ambrose Family Farm and Rooting Down Farms.
Larson learned his way around Italian cuisine while working for renowned Charleston restaurateur Hank Holliday, who sent him to Italy and New York to do research and development in preparation for the opening of former Charleston restaurant Mercato.
“When you go to Italy, you see how passionate everyone is about their food. It’s such a revered part of their lives,” notes Larson, who’s traveled through the Piedmont region, Milan and Venice, and also spent time in the New York kitchens of chef Mario Batali, studying “a lot of pasta theory.”
Larson’s passion for Italian flavors and fresh, indigenous ingredients is shared by Wild Olive general manager Jason Parrish—both are ardent students of Italian food and culture.
“Italians make their wine to go with their food,” notes Parrish, who is also a certified wine specialist. “Instead of a sauce on a dish, it will be accompanied by a wine specific to its region.” The wine list he’s composed for Wild Olive provides a rich taste of the Old World.
My guest and I were wowed before we’d walked through the front door. The parking lot had been expanded and invitingly landscaped since my last visit. A long walkway leading to the front entryway was enhanced with an iron handrail crafted by Robert Thomas Iron Design.
Inside Wild Olive, the dining room, “freshened up” over the winter, was casual and lively; the short menu of offerings were straightforward Italian classics. “My food philosophy is ‘less is more,’” says Larson. “Italian food is about two to three ingredients on a plate that are tied together and sing in unison.”
Dinner began with Prosecco and a basket of sliced, crusty baguette from Tiller Baking, along with good extra virgin olive oil for dipping.
The evening’s appetizer special was a rustic charcuterie board of house-made sausages, salamis and pâté accompanied by fresh mozzarella and piquant vegetables that offset the rich meats perfectly. We also indulged in locally sourced Clammer Dave’s littleneck clams, steamed in a spicy lemon-caper zuppetta and served with grilled ciabatta.
Next from the kitchen were several Wild Olive signature dishes. Charred octopus was made incredibly tender, we were told, by adding a wine cork to its marinating liquid. A combination of spring onion, capers and pancetta produced a must-have dish with bright clean flavors. An intensely flavored bisque featured local Whitemarsh Farm mushrooms and an earthy splash of truffle oil.
Larson credits chef de cuisine Bradley Grozis with another restaurant favorite: ravioli stuffed with crunchy pistachios and goat cheese, served in a slightly sweet broth of roasted beets and lemon butter. The result was an innovative interplay of textures with salty and sweet flavors.
“Jason and Bradley make it all happen on a daily basis,” explains Larson, who divides his time between Wild Olive and The Obstinate Daughter, located on Sullivan’s Island. He is also involved in community outreach efforts, such as chairing the Lowcountry Food Bank.
My favorite pasta dish was tagliatelle alla Bolognese, made lighter with ground veal and pork added to the classic sauce of white wine, milk and tomato. The pappardelle with guanciale, Whitemarsh Farm mushrooms and arugula was a close second.
Classics like ricotta gnocchi and the stalwart chicken parmesan were also lighter, served in a smooth, bright marinara sauce.
Pastry chef Kara Corbelle puts her own spin on sweet dishes: a chocolate bourbon sticky cake with brown butter honey gelato, and a molto continental gelato affogato topped with espresso and served with biscotti.
“You can taste her passion and joy in her delicious desserts,” notes Parrish.
With Italian roots planted firmly in the Lowcountry, Wild Olive is a Johns Island gem. It’s worth a trip from Charleston, or anywhere, for a sampling of its authentic cucina Italiana.
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer and marketing consultant.