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Photograph by Jenn Ireland
PARTY ON A PLATE: If Lillian's black truffle-stuffed gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream sauce and New York steak doesn't do the trick, nothing will.

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Lillian's Italian Kitchen dishes up East Coast attitude with the sauce to back it up

By Christina Waters

WE STARTED with prawns diavola and ended with decadent cannoli. In between we feasted on home-cooked Italian food, Jersey-style. A vibrant neighborhood haunt with no pretensions and plenty of gusto, Lillian's Italian Kitchen has come into its own.Those expecting the Italian cuisine of Italy will quickly be set straight. Lillian's is an authentic Italian-American joint with so much meatball-and-marinara attitude it will bring a tear to the eye of any East Coast native.

"I could be at Roberto's on the Shore," rhapsodized my companion Jack, launching into his second mouth-watering meatball. And he was right. Lillian's caters to East Coast expats by providing warm, almost maternal service, kitchen-table casualness and a Sunday gravy to match your great-aunt Zelda's. Imagine a family-run version of Buca di Beppo and you'd be getting close. No wonder the entire Eastside loves to wait and wait for a table on weekends, checking cell phones for an alert that their table—one of only a dozen or so in this tiny trattoria—is finally ready.

Most find the wait well worthwhile, and after a few sips of wine and a bite of my succulent prawn appetizer ($14.95), I had to agree. Jack had wisely ordered a green salad to keep us company on our odyssey through the world of garlicky red sauce ($5). I fell instantly in love with a big tumbler of Martin Ranch Sangiovese ($9.50) while Jack nursed his Chianti Classico ($7.50). Seated comfortably at our plainly set table (there are no white tablecloths here, just paper napkins and simple cutlery), we prepared ourselves for a treat.

The place practically levitates with joy, every table packed with families, grandfolks and couples eating like it was South Philly or something. After plowing through the zesty salad of hearts of romaine, cherry tomatoes and grated carrots slathered in a nicely balanced vinaigrette, we entered the heart of the Lillian's experience: Sunday gravy.

Based on the meaty, garlicky home-cooked marinara that formed the centerpiece of Sunday dinner in, oh, Brooklyn, East Orange or Newark circa 1955, the Sunday gravy is flat-out dreamy. I ordered mine with well-made house Italian sausage over a gold mine of perfectly cooked penne ($11.95). Lillian's Sunday gravy is distinguished by its lavish use of pork, beef, sausage and spare ribs over your choice of penne, linguine or polenta. But you can mix and match with the house ravioli (add $2), thanks to this pasta-driven menu.

Jack ordered a noticeably fiery version of arrabbiata over penne ($8.95) with a side of stellar meatballs ($4). Killer meatballs. Meatballs to make a grown man refuse to believe in cholesterol.

For dessert we shared a textbook version of crisp cannoli filled with chocolate-studded ricotta, maraschino cherry and orange zest ($5.50). Sigh. "This is the only believable cannoli I've had on the West Coast!" Jack swore.

Yes, we had fun with this unapologetically upbeat, nondesigner food. Even though Lillian's flirts with urban attitude, it is smack dab in the middle of Soquel Avenue. There's a little Jersey in all of us. Lillian's just helps it step into the light.

Lillian's Italian Kitchen

1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz


Lunch Tue—Fri noon—2pm; dinner Mon—Fri 5—9pm, Sat 4—10pm, closed Sun; no reservations

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