Photograph by Carlie Statsky
A man with a mission: The cooking staff at Al Dente are prompt and leave the party to the guests, a far cry from the moonwalking charismatic former owner.
Dining writer Denise Vivar reflects on the lost art of going wild at Al Dente
By Denise Vivar
Mio bello, it has been just over a year since you left me, since you proffered your beloved Al Dente Ristorante to Dan Heichel and Joe Michaelis and slipped out of my life. I knew I would be fine--I would gracefully move on from our nights of revelry and pleasures of the palate. After all, I never expected you to look back. Lately memories of you have drifted into my musings and I smile as I reminisce about those heady nights.
The disco ball fervently spinning, Italian hip-hop thumping and visceral, and you, frisky and fabulous, moonwalking past plates and pots while teasing salsicca in a skillet. Even in your petulance you commanded adoration, and I know I wasn't your only admirer. But who could replace you?
Recently I heard you were back in town, and I feel that I should share something with you. I have been hungry these past few months, and not long ago I found myself at Dan and Joe's doorstep. Immediately upon entering I noted a sense of calm and order. There were no hordes of hungry patrons clinging to doorways and stools. A few tables were still open and I chose a seat in that tiny room with a view of the stove--and the chef. Of course all the photos of you are long gone, replaced by more sober scenes of Roman temples and other architectural finery. The disco ball is still spinning, but seems excessive against the backdrop of the music, which has been tempered to a most modest level. However, it was a novelty not to have to shout to the waitress as we discussed the evening's specials.
With a mixture of relief and trepidation I noted right away that the menu is as you left it, although I admit that its familiarity made me tingle with anticipation. I was feeling testy and needed to know the worth of your successor so I requested my favorite dish on the menu. How many nights have I surrendered to your passionate rendering of the fusilli con tonno ($13)? I had to have it again, even if it meant risking disappointment.
As I enjoyed a lovely glass of St. Michael-Eppon pinot grigio ($8), I was able to sit back and behold the scene. I was much pleased with the staff--convivial, self-assured and content--a sign of a happy house. The chef worked methodically and diligently, generating plates of pastas, grilled meats and appetizing treats at a very reasonable pace.
In very little time my fusilli was presented to me, a large shallow bowl amply filled with twists of pasta gleaming in a buttery sage sauce. Generous bites of yellowfin tuna anchored the landscape punctuated with little gems of capers. I carefully prepared the first bite, and then. ...
Pure ambrosia--a concert of perfect texture and complicity rolled over my tongue and I could not repress a fervent whisper, "Oh Lucio." Could it be? Have I forgotten how much I love this dish or is this better than I've ever had it?
Unable to leave that question unanswered, but afraid all along of the truth I might discover, I returned for a second pass. I also tried the polenta al gorgonzola ($13) slathered with tomato sauce. Flawless. His lobster ravioli ($20)? A paragon of pasta, cooked to a perfect bite, with a tomato cream aurora sauce that one is tempted to take home even when there's no ravioli left. Only the penne salmone alla vodka ($17) did not leave me weak in the knees, although it was completely respectable. The pasta was al dente, accompanied by liberal portions of tender boneless salmon and a textbook vodka sauce.
I realize now that to compare you with him is misguided. You can never be replaced, and for you I will forever keep a special fondness, though I have opened my heart to this new experience. I have come to appreciate the new Al Dente Ristorante in all its softened charm, its consistence and above all, its attention to my needs. I hope you are at peace and I look forward to our evolved friendship. In this I remain
Address: 415 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz
Hours: 5:30-10pm Tue-Sun.
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