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Aldo's New Altar

Aldo's Cafe
Robert Scheer

Seaing Is Believing: Aldo's Cafe chef Marco Verduzco displays a sea bass with potato rounds, shallots and roasted garlic cherry tomato jus--just one of his ocean delights.

In a charismatic marriage of old SC roots and emerging SC tastes, Aldo's Cafe makes a bravura Westside debut

By Christina Waters

BY ANY STANDARDS, it was one of the hottest weeks in May. But even soaring temperatures couldn't wilt the recent opening of Aldo's Cafe, the Olivieri family's first restaurant foray outside yacht harbor turf. The new cafe, anchoring the street side of Westside Santa Cruz's mighty Almar Center, exudes smart, sleek ambiance. Silver ceilings romance a long expanse of polished hardwood flooring, which in turn is echoed in pale wood banquettes, a flirty curved wooden counter and enough sophisticated floral display to please any South of Market groupie. White linened tables and creamy apricot walls enhance a low-key atmosphere that promises to fit in well with the cultural landscape, which involves a blend of older friends of Aldo's, young couples and groups from UCSC.

From a short list of Italian and California vintages, I chose a glass of the precociously drinkable McDowell Mendocino syrah 1995 ($4), while my partner wisely quenched his thirst with a big pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($3.50). Liquids in hand, we foraged long in the basket of excellent breads--a seeded Italian and a warm francese--both from Aldo's Bakery and served with a saucer of olive oil laced with red pepper flakes and huge cloves of roasted garlic. Wonderful.

The appetite we brought to the table last week was matched by the bold and vibrant dishes we encountered. We both loved an evening special of steamed baby clams with housemade Calabrese sausage all drenched in a lusty, salty seafood and garlic broth ($7). And I was very happy with my salad of field greens wilted and pliant under a crown of pancetta and ultra-creamy goat cheese ($5.95). A meal unto itself, the wonderful salad--which got better and better as the sweet/tart vinaigrette permeated every layer of baby spinach, mizuna, arugula and frisée--was marred by mealy pear slices, which should never have left the kitchen.

A platter of pale salmon carpaccio was gorgeous to the eye, a field of soft pink crisscrossed with decorative tracery of mascarpone sauce and studded with capers, sweet Bermuda onions and dollops of lemon-fortified Dijon mustard ($6.95). Pretty but tasteless, which is the fault of the concept rather than the execution--salmon, no matter how sea-fresh, cries out for curing or cooking.

The place filled up during the lull between our courses, a lull that will doubtless grow shorter as fine-tuning continues. Our main courses were huge, confident constructions--one a gorgeous plate of perfect linguine inflected with lemon roasted chicken ($9.95), the other an enormous T-bone steak glistening with olive butter on a layer of garlic mashed potatoes ($17.95).

The linguine had been dusted with some more of the excellent, lean pancetta and al dente slices of fresh asparagus. A perfume of rosemary rose from the large bowl--I sighed. The steak fared less well. It lacked much in the way of flavor and arrived a bit more done than "rare to medium rare" should imply. The potatoes, which my male companion adored because, after all, men are pushovers for anything resembling a mashed potato, were a bit runny. Still, joined with the au jus at the bottom of the plate, they tasted terrific.

Ella Fitzgerald had begun her musical conquest of Cole Porter in the background as the light lowered, the pace slowed down and Aldo's seduced us with desserts. In a refreshing response to the ubiquitous cappuccino concept, Aldo's serves exceptional after-dinner coffee in a French-style café presse ($2.50). My partner practically burst into tears at the sight of his square of tumescent tiramisu ($5.25). He had a right to. Not too sweet, perfectly balanced betwixt mascarpone, cake, the bite of liquor and unsweetened chocolate, it was a sinful archetype. I, meanwhile, was enjoying what I consider the ultimate salvo to a meal of robust Italian foods. Two housemade biscotti--crisp on the outside, chewy and studded with almonds on the inside--arrived, dusted with powdered sugar and a sprig of fresh mint, along with a glass of Vin Santo Italian sweet wine ($4.50).

Alternating sips of amber-hued wine, strong coffee and tender biscotti, I drifted for long moments. Did I mention that we've made plans to return next week?

Aldo's Cafe

Address: Mission Street and Almar Avenue, SC
Phone: 429-9982
Hours: Dinner 5­10pm Tue.­Sun.
Price: Moderate
Chef: Marco Verduzco
Ambiance: *** Contemporary bistro
Cuisine: **1/2 Nicely made dishes, generous portions
Service: *** Knowledgeable, helpful
Overall: Terrific potential for a cornerstone cafe in a discerning neighborhood

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

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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