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Photograph by Jenn Ireland
Sea and Do: Cafe Mare proprietor Cyrille Gatel and chef Fernando Vasquez with a classic spaghetti misto mare.

Italian by the Sea

Café Mare carries on the European tradition of flavorful, leisurely lunches.

By Christina Waters

Café Mare's spacious dining room always has a soothing effect. The staff provides plenty of space for in-depth conversation without ignoring patrons' needs. And the location is perfect for Pacific Avenue sightseeing.

Specials last week, when Sabrina and I met for lunch, included swordfish, pork chops with juniper berries and a pasta of orrechiette with sausage and tomatoes. The pasta dish immediately caught my eye, but Sabrina took her time with Café Mare's well-appointed menu of primi and secondi. We hesitated over the appetizers. Salumi? No, maybe just prosciutto with melon. Finally we agreed to split an antipasto order of grilled and marinated vegetables ($11.50) followed by a split insalata di endivia (endive salad, with Gorgonzola, cherry tomatoes and walnuts) for $12.

Va bene. And so we began on the very Italian bread, i.e., almost saltless, dipped into a light olive oil, chased with tumblers of San Pellegrino ($5). Very refreshing.

It's impossible not to become a voyeur once seated in the large curved windows slightly sunken below street level. People come, people go. People stop and chat, argue and kiss. A veritable passeggiata. And you can see it all from your ringside seat.

Very quickly came our large platter of grilled vegetables, produced by a very correct waiter--charming, but not too--for whom Italian is, delightfully, a first language. Long strips of zucchini still bearing their golden brown grill marks lay next to fat mounds of eggplant and crimson bell pepper. In the center of these bronzed veggies, glistening in olive oil, sat tiny mushrooms and artichoke hearts. All was tender, but definitely mild. Some garlic, some salt and a few hits of dried red pepper flakes would have brought everything to flavor fullness.

The shared endive salads however were texturally terrific, even if the pretty raspberry vinaigrette was unnecessarily sweet. I loved the endive hearts arranged as spokes of a wheel, punctuated by cherry tomatoes and topped with walnuts (wonderful) and dabs of creamy, pungent Gorgonzola. The crunch of the endive was blatantly addictive, and Sabrina had to caution me that there was still another course yet to come.

After mentally trying on each and every entree on Café Mare's menu, Sabrina had finally landed on the melanzane parmigiana ($14), which turned out to be--once again--utterly authentic. Served without garnish or frills (which Italians consider to be rococo superfluities), a quivering creation of multilayered cheese, sauce and eggplant arrived. Our waiter grated a dusting of yellow parmesan along the saucy surface. Bathed in a very nice marinara, the layers were both silken and chewy. I liked the generous dish very much and noted that with the addition of a green salad and a glass of chianti classico it could continue on to make a very nice dinner. Meanwhile, my orrechiette ($13)--another substantial plate--arrived nicely al dente and lavishly studded with garlic, tomatoes and slices of delicious sausage. Perhaps it was a bit saltier than I like, but nonetheless I did my best to become more stuffed than etiquette required.

Sabrina's eyebrows rose when I smiled and said "yes" to a glimpse of the dessert menu. In addition to semifreddo, chocolate cake and panna cotta, the menu offered the predictable jewel in the crown: tiramisu. As fast as you could say "two forks" the large square arrived ($7). Creamy mascarpone and feather-light genoise had been dusted with chocolate powder and drizzled with chocolate sauce.

"I don't know if there is much booze in this," Sabrina observed, as she sampled her fourth bite. I simply continued inhaling my side of the pastry. Aided by an excellent single espresso, I managed to polish off the remaining acreage of this easy dining classic.

Had it been dinner, we would have managed a proper toast to the entire concept of discreet, unpretentious, well-made Italian cuisine. Very much like that created, and served with warm expertise, at Café Mare, where--sooner or later--all of Santa Cruz strolls by.

Café Mare

Address: 740 Front St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.458.1212

Hours: Open 11:30am-2:30pm and 5-10pm Mon-Fri; 10am-10pm Sat-Sun

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