An appetizer of Castelvetrano olives from Café Mars in Brooklyn.
Photo: New York Magazine
A few months ago, a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings packed into the Three Decker Diner in Greenpoint, eventually spilling onto the sidewalk as the night went on. Among them were Taylor Jeanne Penney, Paul Schrader’s assistant-producer-protegé; Mike Ruiz Serra, who designed Solange’s coffee table; and Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke, a former sex columnist for The Drunken Canal, the now-defunct Dimes Square chronicle, whose day job is at Amanita. The occasion: Olive Night, a roving party that brings together New Yorkers who, if nothing else, share a common interest in bright green, buttery Castelvetranos. “It has no real purpose other than, We love olives,” says Paige Kozak, one of Olive Night’s co-founders.
American palates may have been famously slow on the uptake with olives, but in this city, different varieties of the savory stone fruit have historically been very easy enough to find: in deli jars and grocery-store olive bars, scattered across restaurant menus, or sunken into the bottom of martini glasses. They’ve always been around, but they’ve never been celebrated. That’s changing: Olives have catapulted from being the thing that’s consumed before the main event to the main event itself. They’re a common centerpiece at fashion and beauty events, and a frequent subject of influencers’ Instagram posts. Emma Rose Leger, who covers fashion and beauty and started selling her own jars of olives this year, recently declared to her 614,000 Instagram followers that this is, in fact, an “olive girl summer.” (And, per the Times, they are a key ingredient in any balanced “girl dinner.”)
“I’ve definitely felt a huge shift in interest,” says Kelsey Malone, a New York–based ceramicist who hosted the earliest Olive Night parties at her apartment, and who started making her own Olive Night bowls in 2021 and now sells so many that it’s become a full-time job. (Bumpy, blobby, and adorned with “pit pockets,” the bowls start at $88 and rise to $340 for an “XXL” version) The following year, martinis boomed and “everyone and their mother went to Europe,” Malone says, returning home with slight cigarette addictions and a desire to apéro: “Olives very much became a downtown New York dish.”
Allegra Lorenzotti started the Send Olives Instagram account in 2020 as a way to catalogue and rank the various olives she encountered. She says the account is tagged “at least ten times a day” by people who want to share photos of their “olive porn.” She agrees with Malone’s point that New York’s current wave of olive mania is rooted in escapism. “People want to pretend they’re in Paris or Milan,” she says. “They want to do aperitivo at 5 p.m. and fuck off at work with their glass of wine and their olives.”
Of course, olive connoisseurs want to see a little effort from restaurants. “I’m not going to order $9 olives if I can buy them and eat them at home,” says Lorenzotti. One of her favorite spots, Nura in Greenpoint, marinates its olives in chile, curry leaf, fenugreek and fennel pollen. The Lower East Side wine bar Parcelle serves them in Olive Night bowls. Bon Appétit restaurant editor Elazar Sontag heaped praise on the olive-and-cream-cheese sandwich at S&P, a version of which was sold for decades at Eisenberg’s, the lunch counter that S&P replaced. Meanwhile, the Roman import Roscioli just opened in Soho, home-grown olives in tow.
But nobody makes a statement with olives like Café Mars. “At Italian restaurants, and really any other cuisines that rely on olives, at best, they’ve just marinated some olives, or they’re an afterthought,” says Paul D’Avino, one of the restaurant’s two chefs. He saw this as a creative opportunity, and what are olives, if not an invitation for a good time? He and co-chef Jorge Olarte offer theirs encased in wiggly cubes of negroni-flavored gelatin. “We’re like, Well, here’s the start of a meal compressed into a Jell-O shot.” Then, to bookend dinner, dessert features an olive-oil marble cake inspired by the black-and-white poundcakes sold at the city’s bodegas. A purée of salt-cured black olives offers the visual contrast, and a deep flavor that can trick diners into thinking they’re tasting chocolate.
On Instagram, the author and recipe developer Molly Baz kicked off the summer by sharing a cake of her own with sugared Castelvetrano olives baked into the batter. (“The final form of olive-oil cake,” she declared in the caption.) “Olives are the new cherries,” remarked an illustrator friend who goes by Doodle Deli, and DMs me a new olive-related product almost every week: Olive lovers can buy a $68 olive-bowl tank from Lisa Says Gah, a $6,000 gold olive ring from Brent Neale, or a $60 olive pillow at Big Night (its olive candles, olive-shaped snack plates, and custom, polka dotted versions of Malone’s Olive Night bowls are all currently sold out). Designer Evelina Edens says a hat emblazoned with OLIVES is the third-best-selling item at her shop, Wear Your Snacks, just behind the dirty martini.
“Photo-dump culture and olive culture are connected,” says Dora Grossman-Weir, another charter member of the Olive Night parties (the next one will be in August at Lovely Day). “The olive was the excuse to throw the party,” says Nicolaia Rips, the final member of the Olive Night committee (and the person behind Olives of New York); there was never going to be a discussion of different varietals or harvest techniques. Olives may be historically rooted in symbolism but to be an olive obsessive today is to share just a bit about yourself. You are fun and social — and you’ve probably taken a trip to Italy or Greece or maybe Paris in the past 18 months.