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A Zesty Zoccoli's

Zoccoli's Pasta House
Robert Scheer

Prime Directive: Russell Zoccoli, Santa Cruz's very own guru of Italian culinary delights, sits down to a pasta primavera, one of his namesake restaurant's many offerings.

An honest pasta house consistently charms with its lusty flavors, low-key atmosphere and attentive service

By Christina Waters

EVEN MY DINNER PARTNER'S tardiness couldn't spoil the warm vibes I got the minute I stepped inside the friendly, cave-like interior of Zoccoli's Pasta House last week. Wedged between the Pontiac Grill and Cymbaline, Zoccoli's holds down one prime location in downtown Santa Cruz.

Sure, it still sports lots of industrial bric-a-brac from its former life as a pizza parlor, but you've got to admire the way the owners have tried to infuse atmosphere into the huge, split-level dining room. A few dried wreaths, some sunny posters from the Mediterranean and those sure-fire little white lights strung all along the mezzanine railings--they all work along with copious quantities of the inimitable Dean Martin crooning in the background.

Dino, I've decided, is the perfect aural metaphor for Zoccoli's approach to Italian cuisine. Not exactly retro, the concept here avoids fussy presentation and trendy ingredients. This is the land of marinara, linguine with clam sauce, a gazillion chicken specialties, ravioli, tortellini and, yes, lasagna. In fact, Italian-American cooking--and plenty of it--is what rules this accessible domain.

The wine list goes a few steps further in sophistication, and we gladly selected a Peroni Italian beer ($3.50) and a glass of cherry-filled Soquel Vineyards pinot noir 1992 ($5.50). Some red-and-white-checked tablecloths might liven this place up, I thought, dispatching the first--but not last--slice of toothsome francese bread--bread so fresh that I couldn't even work up a healthy diatribe against my usual pet peeve, foil-wrapped butter.

Dino was putting his vibrato through its paces when our soup and salad arrived, along with an appetizer order of steamed Manila clams ($7.95). The table was suddenly bathed in a haze of garlic--and that's not a complaint. The soup of the evening was indeed a glorious broth of fresh and roasted garlic hung with a few colorful ornaments of ricotta-filled tortellini. Quite a soup--impeccable clear broth offering just enough garlic to let you know that you weren't in Fargo anymore. The clams were moist and abundant, though the white wine, lemon and garlic sauce that bathed them could have used something more in the way of finesse. Hearty? Yes. Balanced? Well, not exactly.

Still, we were making a big-flavored happy mess, as well as enjoying the huge salad that attempted to fit itself on a too-small plate. On a larger surface, this generous burst of balsamic vinaigrette, walnuts, blue cheese, grated carrots and vibrant romaine--all flecked with purple cabbage--would have been a lot easier to manage.

Our main courses hit the table riding atop another cloud of garlic, a sacramental ingredient the kitchen here takes seriously. If, like us, you adore the pungent allium, you would have liked the evening special ($14.95) of tiny scallops, fresh tomatoes and snow peas tossed up with a light marinara, a bit too much olive oil and a significant quantity of perfectly al dente linguine. The fresh tomatoes add a sweet edge to the tomato sauce, the sort of synergy you get when two stars influence each other's orbits.

Meanwhile, over at my partner's side of the faux granite table, an aromatic array of textbook spaghetti ($9.95) had been coaxed into another dimension thanks to olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, anchovy and parsley--Zoccoli's holds its own in the alio e olio department. Rich, intense, deliriously garlicky, it's the genuine object, a destination dish that shines in partnership with a fruity red like Soquel Vineyards' pinot.

Next time the moon hits your eye, you should head for Zoccoli's Pasta House.

Zoccoli's Pasta House

Address: 431 Front St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 423-1717
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: ** The gray color scheme is more suited to industry than coziness
Service: *** Smart staff aims to please
Cuisine: *** Nicely made dishes presented with loving lack of pretension
Overall: With a terrific location and good value for the money, Zoc's has carved a righteous niche in downtown Santa Cruz.

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

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From the July 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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