Oliverio’s Ristorante  serves up staple Italian specialties in an urban setting.

When the Oliverios of Bridgeport Italian-fare fame opened  their restaurant in Morgantown’s emerging Wharf District in 2001, it was a gamble. To be sure, diners here had long considered Oliverio’s Ristorante in Bridgeport a destination worth the drive. But Morgantown had avoided its own deteriorating port and warehouse district for decades—the Caperton rail-trail was still new, and the Waterfront Place hotel hadn’t even been built yet, though plans were in the works—and it was only just beginning to imagine the riverfront as a place of enjoyment.

But the family took a chance. They transformed a gritty Clay Street space alongside the rail-trail, which used to be a Coca-Cola plant, into an urban eatery embellished with Tuscan-inspired accents. Polly Oliverio Washburn, the youngest daughter of Bridgeport restaurant founders Sonny and Shirley Oliverio, headed up management at the new place with her husband, Todd. Polly’s brother and local architect, the late Pete Oliverio, was the visionary, reinventing the warehouse space into a one-of-a-kind extension of the family restaurant.

“I love the space here in the Wharf because it’s so unique,” Polly says today of the family’s successful gamble. “You cannot duplicate the history of this building—its high, loft-style ceilings, exposed brick, and outdoor seating.”

Morgantown clearly agrees. It quickly took to the just-right mix of standards and specialties at Oliverio’s on the Wharf and the atmosphere that’s upscale but never stuffy for everything from business lunches and romantic twosomes to prom celebrations and family gatherings.

Deep Roots

Oliverio’s humble beginnings were housed in the former Dairy King building on Bridgeport’s East Main Street. Opening its doors in 1966 under the banner of “Sonny’s,” the eatery featured typical Dairy King items, such as soft-serve ice cream, hot dogs, and burgers, Shirley says.

Eventually they added pizza, hoagies, and other specialties, introducing oldworld flavors that Sonny’s parents, Pete and Angeline “Ann” Oliverio, had brought from San Giovanni in Fiore, Italy. Shirley, of Irish descent and raised on the country cooking of her own mother, learned from her mother-in-law to master Italian dishes, adding her own twist. “There was a lot of trial and error, but I learned.” She remembers when she began making bread and pizza shells, picking up dough-making tips from everyone who offered them. “I made it by hand—without a mixer,” she says. Sonny, who had grown up on his mom’s Italian food and had worked at Minard’s Spaghetti Inn in Clarksburg, contributed culinary talent, too.

When an early 1990s fire damaged the restaurant, Sonny and Shirley thought it was a good time to make some updates. “We decided to change the name to Oliverio’s and change the look. We eventually added on,” Shirley says.

As time went on, they expanded the menu: steaks, seafood, sizzling skillet dishes, and an extensive line of Italian entrees, including the traditional summer squash casserole teala, which Shirley says was added by special request.

While they developed their business, the Oliverios also raised six children: Pete, Pat, and Petrina, born before the opening of the restaurant, and Philip, Patti, and Polly, who came along later. Namesake of his Grandfather Oliverio, architect  Pete designed a large front addition to the Bridgeport restaurant before envisioning Oliverio’s on the Wharf.

One of the reasons the Oliverios chose Morgantown for their second location is that the family is so close, everyone wanted to stay local, Shirley says. The college town was far enough away for another restaurant but close enough that the family could still gather.

Dining at Oliverio’s

Whether waiting for seating or unwinding after the work day, some patrons at Oliverio’s on the Wharf stop at the stately bar, where they can enjoy a selection from a long list of wines, a specialty cocktail or liqueur, or a domestic or imported beer.

Diners often start with one of the restaurant’s signature appetizers, a salad—classic or the popular Caprese— and fresh-baked breadsticks, one of the restaurant’s most talked-about items. Some menu items predate the Morgantown restaurant, including the renowned Sonny’s Pizza. “Most of the menu was created in Bridgeport and we brought the same recipes north to the wharf location,” says Polly, adding that the Steak Hoagies, Pasta and Meatballs, and Lasagna are but a few of the staple menu items.

Dishes the family has added since Oliverio’s on the Wharf opened its doors include Stuffed Shrimp and Risotto, Chicken and Sausage Diablo, and Veal Milanese. Inspiration for new menu items comes from the family’s travels and their own dining adventures as well as generations of family recipes. “And sometimes we just dream up and make things we think people would love,” Polly says. “We usually run things for dinner specials first, and then we make the decision to add it to the menu based on customer feedback.”

The best-selling dishes? Chicken Parmigiana and Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo.

The Oliverio’s operation is a true family affair. One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, Angel Hair Crab Balls, was created by Polly’s brother Philip. All desserts, including top-sellers Chambord Cheesecake and Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie, are provided by sister Patti Oliverio Simon, owner of Almost Heaven Desserts & Coffee Shop in Bridgeport.

The restaurant is always buzzing with locals and travelers, but it’s particularly busy on certain occasions, Polly says. “WVU sports schedules have a huge impact on how busy we are, as well as WVU graduation in both December and May, along with Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Christmastime for holiday parties.”

Over the years, the owners have made improvements. One of the biggest projects was enclosing and heating the deck that overlooks the Caperton rail-trail and the Monongahela River so the view can be enjoyed year-round. Oliverio’s on the Wharf operates with a staff of 55 full-time and part-time employees, including WVU students and other locals. The restaurant’s best advertising comes from those who visit and sample the fare. “We are lucky to have so much word-of- mouth advertising from people in the area who send out-of-town guests to eat at Oliverio’s. Most just love it and wish they had us closer to where they live.”

Now another generation of Oliverios is active in the operation of the two full-service restaurants. Also affiliated and family-owned are Almost Heaven Desserts in Clarksburg, Almost Heaven Desserts & Coffee Shop in Bridgeport, and Via Veneto catering and banquet hall just outside Bridgeport. 52 Clay Street, 304.296.2565, oliveriosristorante.com, @oliveriosonthewharf on Facebook

written by Julie Perine