Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Blaze of Glory: Satisfying Italian fare is expertly prepared at Star Bene.
One Dish, Two Dish
A superb evening at Santa Cruz's Star Bene.
By Denise Vivar
The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day." Chaos, in the form of an uninvited cat, drops in on an unsupervised Sally and her brother one rainy day in Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. And while deep in their beautifully subversive little hearts the children are enraptured by the intoxicating romp, the fish tries his best to thwart this giddy adventure. If this had taken place on a recent blustery night in Santa Cruz you might have heard him say, "No! No! Make that cat go away! Tell that cat in the hat you'll have dinner away. Drive to Star Bene where the lights are still on. Drive to Star Bene and make that cat gone!"
Chaos here was not a feline in colorful head gear but that whopper of a gale bringing down trees and power lines, closing businesses and leaving most of us in the dark. But as one of the lucky spots on the grid with electricity, Star Bene stood as a welcome haven from the blitz for my friend Dani and me. We arrived a little soggy from our travails, but with good appetites. We sat hunkered down in the back corner of the cozy dining room and left the storm outside.
We raised a (slightly belated) toast to the new year with glasses of the Prosecco Brut Canavel ($30), champagne's fun and light-hearted Italian cousin. This fresh and fruity but dry sparkling wine is made in the Veneto area of northern Italy, where most proseccos are crafted. The fruitiness of proseccos is due to the varietal of grape used, which is more akin to the sweeter muscat grape, as opposed to the chardonnay or pinot noir grape used in champagnes. In the second fermentation phase, where champagnes are moved to the bottle to finish—méthode champenoise style—proseccos undergo a shorter fermentation in bulk tanks, known as the Charmat method, which produces a fresher, lighter taste.
As we sipped and perused the menu we broke off pieces of the very toasted and herbed francese, which was improved by generous dips into a plate of olive oil pooling around savory little mounds of chopped roasted pepper, olive and garlic.
In deference to my pescavorian dining companion I steered away from the carpaccio di manzo ($9.50), a favored appetizer for me. We also skipped the tomato-laden caprese ($8.50) and the bruschetta ($6), as fresh tomatoes out of season are simply out of the question. By unanimous decision we set our appetites to the portabella e scamorza ($11). The two diminutive dining rooms filled quickly with other grateful refugees and we were in good cheer by the time our grilled portobello mushrooms arrived. Several modest caps were laid atop a plate of fresh mixed salad greens and covered with melted mozzarella. Bits of sweet caramelized onion nicely complemented the salt of the smoked mozzarella, the voluptuous marsala sauce and the woodsy flavor of the portobello.
I was sorely tempted to indulge in more of the portobello, but decided not to. Just in time our secondi piatti arrived: Dani's Sturgeon ($21) and my farfalle alla Russa ($16.50). Dani enjoyed the generous portion of grilled fish, which was meaty and substantial. To me sturgeon has a slightly strong fish taste, somewhat like snapper, but not oily. The robust sauce of olive, caper, and tomato was a good match for such a fish.
My farfalle was served with a delectable sauce of vodka and tomato cream. The chunks of smoked and fresh salmon were moist, delicious and plentiful—the bowl was heaped with four times the amount I was able to eat. We left warmed, well fed and happy, and my only regret was that I had no electricity to refrigerate the mound of pasta I had to leave behind.
In the end? Order the pasta, or order the fish. Or order another fine dish if you wish. Try it tomorrow or try it today. But go there real soon and have a nice stay.
Address: 2-1245 East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz
Hours: Lunch: 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri, dinner 5-10pm nightly
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