When Dan Oliver was still a teenager, he got a job at Chi Chi’s, a high-end Mexican restaurant which was part of what was then the brand-new Madison Square Mall. He will be the first to tell you that he never planned on becoming a restaurateur. A “restaurateur” is defined by Wiki as “a person who opens and runs restaurants professionally. Although over time the term has come to describe any person who owns a restaurant, traditionally it refers to a highly skilled professional who is proficient in all aspects of the restaurant business.” That is what occurred over the next eight years, as Dan learned every aspect of the restaurant business from the inside out. With a chuckle he will tell you that he has been in the restaurant business so long that he “was a waiter at the Last Supper.”
Dan has managed outlets with such familiar names as Olive Garden and Ruby Tuesday’s (where he met his wife of 23 years, Kami), and in the years he was with Olive Garden, he learned the nuanced art of authentic Italian cooking. At the time, there were only 21 Olive Garden restaurants in the country, and everything was made from scratch. So he learned what made Italian food so popular, and then he made it his own. They were also kind enough to pay for Dan’s college education. He has a degree in business from Athens State University, a Master’s in Business and Economics from Alabama A & M, and he teaches Economics at Faulkner University, in between owning and managing two thriving restaurants.
Much of perfecting Dan’s recipes came through trial and error, and he will tell you that it is usually just one ingredient that will set a particular dish apart and make it memorable. The years of experimentation and an intense perfecting process have led to the two locations of Terranova’s -- one in Huntsville and one in Athens located right next door to U. G. White’s at 105 Jefferson Street. However, there is more to being a restaurateur than creating great food. When you walk into Terranova’s, you can tell that the staff wants to be there, they are glad to see you, and they enjoy each other. Most importantly, Dan clearly likes working with his crew, and in my opinion, all of that serves to make the food taste better. He buys fresh and local as much as possible, and for example, gets his green tomatoes and eggplants from the Amish.
I asked Dan if he had a favorite dish to cook, and while it was tough to narrow it down, it was scaloppini, properly spelled, “scallopine.” Scaloppini is served in many forms. The meat is most often beef, veal, or chicken, and is thinly sliced. Then it is dredged or covered in wheat flour and sautéed in various reduction sauces. “Scallopa” is Italian for “envelope”; the idea is the flour envelopes the meat before it is sautéed. They serve a traditional veal scallopini at the Huntsville location, and a chicken version at Athens. In addition, there are familiar favorites such as spaghetti and lasagna, fettuccine Alfredo, as well as more complicated chicken or rib eye Marsala, and eggplant Parmesan.
Every type of pasta you could want is available in abundance -- manicotti, cannelloni, bow tie -- expertly stuffed with cheese or covered in an authentic sauce of one’s choosing. Terranova’s is famous for its corn crab soup, and also features entrée salads which include chicken or salmon. The homemade bread is delivered to the table with a blended oil and herb mix that is part of their legend, as is the wine trio tasting called the Tour of Italy. For $5, you get a 2 oz. pour of a custom selected Italian wine, and the “Tour” has been highly successful. Terranova’s also offers whole-wheat pasta as well as gluten-free pasta with several of their entrées.
Then there are the desserts. Of course, any Italian restaurant worth its salt is going to have tiramisu, and Terranova’s is described as, “Layers of lady fingers soaked in our coffee mixture, layered with strawberries and creamy mascarpone cheese.” The Italian cream pie is described as “Heavenly Italian cream layered between caramelized pecans and coconut, topped with freshly made caramel, all in a graham cracker crust.” The cannoli comes in twos, which are covered in chocolate and filled with a sweet creamy filling. They also have other desserts that are not Italian, but are by popular demand, such as Dan’s secret recipe for chocolate mousse pie.
Terranova’s always features monthly specials, and for March they include:
- Entrée - Creamy basil and spinach pesto tossed with penne pasta
- Appetizer - Toasted ravioli with a side of marinara
- Soup - Broccoli and potato with extra sharp cheddar
- Desserts - Chef Katie's homemade chess squares and Chef Annie's home-grown and home-made blackberry cobbler with Mayfield vanilla ice cream
One of the other charming features of Terranova’s in Athens would be the antiques. Dan was able to get doors and windows from old churches in Alexandria, Egypt, and some of the church artifacts are from Europe and are hundreds of years old. There are also lovely black and white photos of historical sites in Athens.
All of it comes together in Terranova’s Athens—the food, the surroundings and the staff, and when I asked Dan why I should eat there, as if I need a reason, he said, “We have the best food, the best atmosphere, and you are treated like a person wants to be treated.” I know from experience that he is telling the truth, and I invite you to come find out for yourself!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner