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Photograph by Nikki Bowen
La Familia: Some of these recognizable faces have been greeting Ristorante Avanti's many devotees for years. At center is chef Ben Sims, who took over the kitchen in 2005.

Westside Jewel/h2>

Ristorante Avanti defends its unofficial title as the duchess of Mission Street

By Denise Vivar

My friend Alicia dipped into the ceramic crock and pulled out a small note, written on what appeared to be a piece of a brown paper bag. I sat expectantly as she unfolded her dispatch to reveal its contents. It had never occurred to me to actually read the notes left by other diners in the scores of Italian crocks filling the sills at Ristorante Avanti. I myself have left many a supplication, confession or testimony in those vessels. Like a pilgrim at the wailing wall, I imagined they would not be read by human eyes but somehow absorbed by the universe.

"Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Get busy," she read, returning the note to its cache. We agreed with the proactive advice, so I got busy ordering a glass of wine from Avanti's exceptional list. Alicia had already procured a glass of the Mauro Sebaste Barbera d'Alba ($8), a beautiful garnet orb, very full-bodied. I was thinking about something more local, and our very informed waitress suggested the Pèlerin Syrah ($9) from Monterey. Its low tannin, peppery notes and medium body suited me well on this night.

The bread here is always so tempting, and not just because it is served with a plate of olives lolling about in one of my favorite olive oils, Sciabica's from Modesto. A good crust and crumb is hard to resist, but Dr. Atkins would have been proud; we managed to finish the olives and a good amount of the oil with minimal bread.

I was impressed by our waitress Anilah's complete command of the menu and its ingredients. She probably could have sold me a cardboard box by her descriptions, but instead she brought us the roasted squash blossom ($10). Two perfect specimens of summer's bloom nearly floated atop a bed of frisée and were accompanied by cherry tomato halves and roasted coins of baby squash. The florets held within delicate pillows of fresh ricotta and black olive.

I was pleased to see a salade niçoise ($9) on the menu, and Alicia happily deferred to my Provençal cravings. The princess of this salad is the local albacore, which was particularly moist and flavorful, even without dipping it into the smooth rich dollop of aioli nestled nearby. The small bites of potato were dressed nicely, and the dainty haricots verts were splendidly tender-crisp and a perfect counterpart to the olives and pine nuts. But wait, there's more! Another happy couple graced the plate—a briny sliver of anchovy dolling up an undressed boiled egg. All this and a lively mound of baby greens add up to a festive dish. I love a good niçoise salad, and of what I have sampled, Avanti's is the best in town.

I was at once disappointed and relieved that one of my favorite dishes had left the menu—the roast chicken breast. This immediately allowed me to move forward with so many of the other fine options. It is all too easy to return to the dishes we love in a restaurant, shutting out opportunities to experience exciting new tastes. Alicia chose the roasted poulet rouge ($15) while I selected the special local salmon fillet ($23).

The poulet rouge is a French heritage breed of chicken. Thanks to a growing interest in a healthier, more flavorful chicken rather than a super-breast-heavy, fast-growing (and less tasty) fowl, a number of breeders are responding by dedicating their farming to maintaining these breeds. This chicken was brined and had an incredibly rich, almost smoky flavor. It was simply served over a bed of panzanella—a salad of hearty chunks of toasted bread and colorful heirloom tomatoes—and needed nothing else.

My salmon was equally enticing, a parcel of steaming flaky fish roasted in a fig leaf blanket, accompanied by roast fingerling potatoes, which had a firm, buttery flesh and tenderly crisp skins. The bold romesco sauce of ground tomato, basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil was a perfect partner to the yellow wax beans.

Avanti is Italian for "onward" or "forward leading," an apt moniker for this ristorante. The ingredients are organic and local, and chef Ben Sims' intention to uphold these ideals is just one of the reasons to keep coming back. Consistently excellent service and innovative dishes make Ristorante Avanti worthy of a regular pilgrimage.


Address: 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.427.0135

Hours: Lunch 11:30am–2pm Mon–Fri; dinner 5–9pm Sun–Thu, until 9:30pm Fri–Sat

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