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Photograph by Nikki Bowen
Lotsa Pasta: Lillian's specializes in simple, satisfying Italian cuisine.

Review: Lillian's Italian Cafe

Can you say "pass the meatballs"?

By Denise Vivar

Recently I received an email from the director of the physical therapy center whose staff facilitated my recovery from knee surgery last year. His note read something like this: "Dear Denise, How is your knee? I hope you are getting good exercise because you must be eating a ton of food. I know I gain weight just reading your reviews." I was touched by his genuine concern for both my knee and my body mass index. True, I do risk a high lipid profile and formidable triglycerides in this line of work, but I do it for you, dear reader, and I'm sure the reward for my selfless acts comes back as some biochemical homeostatic payback. To show my appreciation for his care and to assure him of my attention to my rehab, and at risk to my BMI, I invited him to lunch at Lillian's cafe, home to a classic Italian kitchen on Soquel Avenue. By day, the diminutive dining room buzzes in the manner of a luncheonette, and by night the candlelight on the tables mellows the scene to, well, a diner by candlelight. But don't get me wrong, the spirit here is exceptional. It is said, "You are who your friends are," and by the looks of the dedicated clientele, it indicates something is right at Lillian's.

Charles and I started out with the antipasto platter ($7.45, half order), which is about the size of a football. A resplendent display packed with roasted red peppers, salt-cured olives, Fontinella cheese, a rustic soppressatta salami and the Sicilian lemon and orange dipping salad lay before us. The dipping salad was in fact not a salad by any definition with which I am familiar. It's actually olive oil with lemon and orange juice and flecks of red pepper—more like a salad dressing—with a few small chunks of orange sunk to the bottom. Together all the components of the platter might have made a nice sandwich, but before I could consider such an undertaking our actual lunch arrived.

I ordered the Gorgonzola alfredo with grilled chicken breast ($9.75, half order), which came with a small green salad. The menu describes the Gorgonzola sauce as rich but light, but I don't know if you can really consider Gorgonzola as light. It didn't overpower with the pungency of some Gorgonzola, so I might have called it mild. It was certainly rich enough. The chicken, described as "Sicilian chicken," was tasty and modestly seasoned but otherwise unadorned.

I give a thumbs-up to the chicken pesto sandwich ($7.95), which was Charles' lunch of choice this day. That same Sicilian grilled chicken breast was delivered with pesto, melted provolone, roasted red peppers and onion on a satisfyingly crunchy grilled Italian bread. The benign pesto played a supporting role in this sandwich not really dominated by any one player. But there is enough happening to satisfy a hankering for sweet, salty, toothy, greasy and gooey—all in the same bite.

On previous visits I have enjoyed the pasta e fagioli ($5.95 bowl), a simple and satisfying soup of white cannelloni beans, pasta and kale. You can get a cup for $2.80 and three ample meatballs ($4.95) and call it a meal and then some. The meatballs are rich, and well formed—not too loose or too packed. I imagine the meatball sandwich might be worth a try if they use the same crusty bread as with the chicken sandwich. It is served with the Sunday gravy, which I have voted as my favorite menu item thus far.

If you're a transplant from New York or New Jersey you know "gravy" means tomato sauce. The Sunday gravy ($8.95) is slowly simmered with beef, pork, Italian sausage and spare ribs and is a nice surprise from this modest little eatery. I tried it over the polenta, which has a perfectly submissive taste but stands up in texture to the rich meaty sauce. If you're really going for the gusto you can add two meatballs for $3.

It's easy to succumb to the temptations of the rich and hefty classically Italian fare here, but if you're looking to navigate to the leaner side, it is possible. Certainly the cozy family atmosphere and unpretentious air are worth the risk.

Lillian's Italian Kitchen

Address: 1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.425.2288

Hours: Open noon-3pm and 5-9pm Mon-Sat; closed Sun

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