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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Great Expectations: Expect classic sculpture, classic food at Ristorante Avanti.

Our West Side Gem

Using an imaginative touch, Ristorante Avanti transforms high-quality local ingredients into simple scrumptious elegance

By Selene Latigo

By definition, a trattoria is a casual Italian neighborhood cafe, a place where someone can stroll in for a light snack, a glass of wine or an elaborate multicourse meal. Attire, age group and price range all come in a wide array, but the standard for comfort and good food are set in stone. Fortunately for us West Siders, we have Ristorante Avanti, where Cindy and Paul Geise have successfully achieved this standard in dining. They proudly use only the highest-quality local ingredients, and chef Brian Curry ingeniously transforms them into simple dishes with an imaginative touch. The menu changes with the seasons, ensuring the freshest meal possible.

Dave and I leisurely walked the four blocks from our house to arrive at Avanti, which is located in the Palm Center across from Longs on Mission Street. The wood Venetian blinds were drawn to shield the setting sun's glare, and created an ethereal glow throughout the whole restaurant and bar area, matching the cheery yellow walls and antique Italian ceramics that cover every wall and counter space. Brilliant Ranunculus, radiant with spring color, sat elegantly on every table.

On a Thursday evening at 6:15, the restaurant was already bustling. Before we were seated in one of many romantic corners, we had a chance to survey the nightly specials, handwritten on a large chalkboard next to the bar. All of them were intriguing and showcased the arrival of spring. Along with the daily specials, which include an antipasti plate, a salad (insalate), a cooked vegetable (contorno) and a couple of entrees, there are a variety of cheeses offered and a flight of wine. We couldn't pass up the cheese selection, a great deal at $9 for a taste of all five as opposed to one for $5. Along with this I chose a glass of the 2002 Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($7/glass, $28/bottle), which was part of the featured pinot flight, and Dave ordered the 2001 Emina Ribera del Duero from Spain ($7/$28). The extensive wine list offers comprehensive selections from several countries, regions and eras, including some Madeiras from the 19th century.

Our friendly and efficient server, whose timing proved impeccable, brought out our cheeses along with a basket of thick, chewy bread and a small ceramic dish of mixed olives in a light, floral olive oil. The five cheeses fanned out counterclockwise in order of the list and surrounded thin slices of dates and membrillo (quince) and fresh walnuts. It was hard to choose our favorite from these rich selections, but it ended up being a toss up between the peppery and musky Fontina d'Aosta and the French Florette, a mild goat milk cheese, similar to Brie in texture with hay and fungus flavors.

Pushing our cheese plate aside to take home, we welcomed the special insalate of asparagus, grilled baby leeks, prosciutto and Reggiano ($10). The young asparagus shoots were crisp and dressed perfectly in the simple lemon, shallot and olive oil vinaigrette, while the tender, spicy leeks paired beautifully with the thick shavings of Reggiano cheese and the salty prosciutto. The balance of lemon and sweet shallot in the dressing acted as a palate cleanser after each bite.

Our entrees arrived steaming and portioned well. For several minutes not one word was spoken as we savored and melted into our bliss. My wild Alaskan halibut ($21) was flaky and tender, perched atop a colorful array of tandoori-cooked onions and raisins, spinach, cauliflower and sautéed gnocchi, drizzled with a cucumber crème fraîche sauce. This innovative Indian-inspired dish with Italian overtones impressed me. The decadence of the gnocchi and crème fraîche was balanced well by the fresh fish and seasoned vegetables.

Dave's huge lamb shank in red wine sauce ($18) came with a side of perfectly roasted carrots with parsley, cabbage that was slightly underdone and creamy polenta, something that we miss terribly from the countless mornings of polenta and poached eggs that Avanti used to serve when they were open for breakfast.

How else could we end this ideal dinner than with a serving of classic cr ème brûlée ($7)? The caramelized burnt-sugar crust was nicely crackable and a good ratio to the cool vanilla bean custard. We both agreed that the custard had an excellent rich and eggy flavor, but that the texture was somewhat gelatinous. As we licked our spoons and rubbed our tummies, we both let out sighs of satisfaction, completely happy with this meal, but also with the knowledge that we can walk down to Ristorante Avanti anytime we want for a consistently superb experience with a warm and casual neighborhood welcome.

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From the April 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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