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Absolutely Avanti

[whitespace] Ristorante Avanti
Robert Scheer

Tres Chic: Ristorante Avanti owners Paul and Cindy Geise and chef Bill Healey consistently update their Italian menu with dishes like linguine with chanterelles and kale, which keep their eatery innovative.

Ten years in business have only fine-tuned the flair and confidence deliciously expressed at Ristorante Avanti

By Christina Waters

AVANTI'S CULT FOLLOWING needs no imprimatur from me to keep the unpretentious Westside trattoria up to its gnocchi in success and ambiance. Chicano robustica is alive and well at this nonaggressive Mediterranean hearth, described by my recent dining companion Franco as "a California restaurant that likes Italy."

Now that we've all grown up and learned that Italian cooking is a playfully seasoned attitude, we've stopped interrogating menus for marinara. Rather than slavish imitation of Old World recipes, Avanti offers updating in the spirit of Fellini. So, over the years, I've come to feast here as much for the locally harvested organic produce as for the aged Reggiano Parmigiano cheese, as much for the fresh Monterey Bay halibut and local chanterelle as for the creamy polenta and chicken cacciatore (so authentic it would fool Anna Magnani's mother).

Franco nonetheless muttered something sotto voce about how an antipasti plate of marinated vegetables ($9.95) we ordered might not be authentic. I calmed my purist's fears by ordering some red wines by the glass. We loved the big, velvety Keltie Brook Merlot 1996 ($5.50) and a delicately tannic San Romano Dolcetto di Dogliani 1996 ($5). Another sample of a glorious Luna Sangiovese Napa 1996 ($6.25) proved slightly too abundant with cherry-ripe fruit to be food-friendly.

Dredging slabs of the new house wheat francese into pools of fragrant olive oil and balsamico, we sipped and talked until the flawless Angela Hurwitz brought forth the antipasti. Franco was clearly impressed. "This is a very pretty dish," he observed admiringly of the large, round plate arranged with marinated and grilled vegetables.

Indeed it was. Bold, crimson watermelon radish wedges had been tucked next to garlicky broccoli florets. Buttery cauliflower nestled by grilled fennel and mushrooms. Infant beets were tangy with a sweet, pungent vinaigrette, and long, plush pickled green beans practically ran off with the whole show. There were some slices of eggplant and radicchio, but Franco ate them so quickly I had only a moment to admire.

There were none of the peppers and cured meats that characterize antipasti in Italy, but there was a creative harmony of flavors, and there was that delicious diversity that comes from each veggie having been marinated separately.

Entrées--one of fresh, grilled yellowtail tuna ($14.95) and another a petite portion of grilled duck breast ($12.95)--continued the enchantment. Electric-orange carrots tossed with olive oil, capers and fresh parsley accompanied both dishes. Franco's moist, intensely flavored yellowtail--topped with an onion and citrus relish--was sided with tiny, perfect roasted potatoes, and my earthy game arrived paired with an exquisitely creamy polenta. We traded bites back and forth, sighing with pleasure--especially over the blueberry balsamic reduction on my moist duck meat--until everything except a few heroic leaves of Italian parsley remained.

For dessert, we sampled the house gelato ($4)--finding the hazelnut exceptional--as well as a shared order of light, barely sweet panne cotta that came in a simple goblet and was glazed with tangerine sauce.

Before I closed my palate with one of Avanti's world-class cappuccinos, we sampled the new cheese course ($4.50 for one cheese, $2.50 for each additional variety) constructed of nutty Reblochon (my favorite cheese on the planet), a ripe St. Nectaire, some crumbly aged Parmesan and pungent Tellagio. With these came fresh shelled walnuts and dried apricots--a splendid new course proving that true landmarks know how to freshen their acts.

Ristorante Avanti
Address: 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 427-0135
Hours: Breakfast daily from 8am, lunch weekdays 11:30am-2:30pm, dinner nightly from 5pm.
Chef: Bill Healey
Ambiance: **1/2 Rustic pottery decorates this modest trattoria, whose clientele and bohemian wine bar do their part in creating chemistry
Cuisine: ***1/2 Zesty, high-quality ingredients, kitchen flair and a religious devotion to honest flavors keep Avanti foods on the mark
Service: *** 1/2 Caring and warm, the serving experts at Avanti are a huge part of the charm
Overall: Avanti is a confident keeper of the Italian-California culinary flame.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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