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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
July 18-25, 2007

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tortellini soup

Photograph by Ronit Taggart
Tortellini Soup for the Soul: Rustic and hearty are the watchwords at Caffé Lucio.

The Prince of Pasta

The creator of Al Dente lends his genius and his name to Caffé Lucio

By Denise Vivar

Have you ever played the either/or game: Pepsi or Coke? Boxers or briefs? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? It's an entertaining diversion and an opportunity to rib your friends about their taste (or lack thereof) and maybe glean more insight into each other's moral compasses. On the menu, it's: fish or chicken? Hot fudge sundae or hot new bikini? Farmed and eco-problematic or wild and mercury-laden?

I've spent a couple evenings at Lucio Fanni's new restaurant, Caffé Lucio, and had to make some tough choices. The former owner of Al Dente on Seabright is back with an all-new menu in an expansive new home, and the offerings are marvelously tempting.

On my first visit, I passed through the front door and immediately spied Fanni, arms akimbo, sputtering orders to his new charges, a shock of tresses asserting a corona around his face. All about him the energy hummed as the waitstaff buzzed around the room. I was pleased to see that Fanni has added several cooks to the line; some were in training that very evening. I noted a decently appointed bar in his new scene as well, which gives even more seating and dining options, and I'm glad we again have a full view of the kitchen action from our tables. The yellow interior, coupled with the long palisade of windows, brings a brightness and cheer to this eatery at the corner of Soquel and Water streets, which has seen more incarnations than Madonna has hairstyles.

My friend Helayne and I enjoyed a glass of Pietra Santa Zinfandel ($8.50) while we studied the menu, noting immediately that it is lighter on the pasta options and more focused on grilled meats and fish. I came with pasta on the brain and was rent by indecision. Our waitress brought the carpaccio ($12), a platter generously covered with razor-thin slices of beef fillet, drizzled with olive oil and dotted with capers. It was mildly flavored and nothing I lost my senses over.

Helayne ordered the pollo con prosciutto di Parma ($18); the waitress offered her a choice of salad or a pasta side ("Lucio's choice," she said). Helayne opted for the mystery pasta, and I settled for the rigatoni Bolognese ($17). Helayne's chicken breast was a little dry, but the prosciutto and mozzarella, along with the wine and sage sauce, helped bring around the flavor. I directed the waitress to shred more than a fair share of parmesan over my pasta, which resulted in some unfortunate oversalting of my dish. The biggest hit was the mystery pasta, a classic fettuccine Alfredo--rich, creamy, savory and decadent, everything an Alfredo should be.

On my next visit, I came alone and sidled up to the kitchen counter, the better to see Fanni in action. Again I ordered a Pietra Santa from the well-balanced wine menu, this time a pinot grigio ($8.25). I watched as bistecca alla griglia ($23) and agnello scottadito ($23) from the grill menu slid by and realized that maybe the grill options would be the most inspired. I decided to try the lamb chops on another visit--they looked lovely--but succumbed to the sea bass ($22) in a wine caper sauce from the special menu, along with the pasta surprise. Would it be the gnocchi with pesto, capellini al pomodoro or some other delight that awaited me? At least I wouldn't have to make any tough decisions about it.

I was left alone with my fantasies while I watched Lucio work his magic. I love the way his whole body jerks and skips back as he tosses the pasta in the sauté pan. I love the way he has taken the new chefs under his wing, generously sharing his talents. I love his passion and his drive. I don't love his temper and impatience with the very promising waitstaff, the way he admonishes them in front of the rest of us. We have other places to go, customers and staff alike.

By the way, the sea bass was absolutely divine. Tender, moist and full of the flavor and the passion that is truly brilliant cooking. Decisions can be hard to make, but at Caffé Lucio, there's always a reward.

Caffé Lucio

Address: 381 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.427.0164

Hours: Daily, lunch 11:30am-2pm, dinner 5:30-10pm.

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