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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Fans of Fanni: At Seabright hangout Al Dente, patrons come for a booming-loud atmosphere and bounding chef Lucio Fanni, whose kinetic style is irrepressible.

Gastronomy In Hyperspace

The one-man show is named Lucio Fanni, and it plays five nights a week at the ferociously entertaining Al Dente

By Christina Waters

AS IF WE'D BEEN dropped into a late-'80s time warp, Jack and I found ourselves in the middle of the town's hottest dining entertainment scene last week. And by the time we'd finished our dinner at 9pm, the place had only begun to cook. As everybody in on the far side of Seabright knows, we were at Al Dente, where wild man pasta prince Lucio Fanni takes no prisoners.

A whirling dervish with a gift for garlic, Fanni has been doing it his way since he blew into coastal California. Happily ensconced in this one-room storefront on Seabright, he cooks his way into an altered state to the absolute joy and occasional irritation of his huge following. They come. They watch. They wait. He cooks, and cooks. You eat when and only when Fanni has personally finessed, massaged and sautéed the dish to his satisfaction.

Translation: While appetizers can arrive swiftly--thanks to a stuptifyingly gifted waitress named Amanda--the entrees can easily take another hour to hit your table.

One must be prepared for the Al Dente decibel count--Fanni is inspired by the presence of extremely loud music. Last week's experience began with funk/rap loud enough to blast the head off a 14-year-old and ended with the whole place singing along to the Beatles' first album. Only in Santa Cruz. Sitting outside, where conversation was actually possible, we made friends with a basket of excellent francese, some red wine and two dozen curbside worshippers at the shrine of Fanni. A sleek lineup of designer Ducati motorcycles in primary colors held down the street in front--the yellow one belongs to the chef, a fitting metaphor for his kinetic culinary style. But unlike his Ducati, the chef never stops moving. Singing, bouncing, stirring, occasionally screaming out of sheer inspirazione, twirling, laughing--he just does not simmer down. Neither does the steady stream of customers for whom he is the sole culinary creator.

So we just got into the flow. Like everybody else who comes to the dinner party at Al Dente, we were there for the evening. An appetizer salad of baby greens arrived--sprightly, fresh and sweet, wearing a restrained, positively Roman vinaigrette ($4.95). Jack's caprese--he knew it was too early in the season for fully ripe tomatoes--was authentically arranged in a row of alternating buffalo mozzarella (squishy and moist), tomatoes and blissfully aromatic basil ($8.75). We ate every bite--knowing that it would be a long while until entrees.

The action continued to unfold around Fanni. Amanda and her fellow combat waitress became a blur of movement. Jack's Santa Cristina Sangiovese grew big with berry tones, while my Kenwood Merlot opened wide ($6.50 each). Beautiful platters of pasta streamed by us, destined for the hungry and the grateful. Fanni cooks--you wait.

"This is real Italian trattoria food," Jack observed, as his plate of gnocchi arrived. "No more, no less." Indeed, the huge white bowl was filled with a crimson acreage of plush, light potato dumplings smothered in a garlic-intensive marinara ($11.75). We immediately dove in. My penne with fresh salmon and vodka-cream sauce ($15.95) arrived 15 minutes later. The fresh salmon, generously dotting the pretty tomatoey sauce, was ultramoist--perfectly cooked. Yet something unthinkable had occurred. The penne itself was ... not al dente. It was rather post dente, if you get my drift. Not enough, by any means, to ruin the otherwise delicious experience. Just unfortunate--especially given how long we'd waited.

Dessert doesn't really matter at Al Dente. The scene sizzles. The food has flair. Like Caesar, Fanni rules.


Al Dente
Address: 415 Seabright Ave, Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.466.0649
Hours: Dinner Tue-Sat from 5:30pm
Ambience: *** Delightful din, animated clientele and a chef direct from a Fellini casting call.
Service: ** 1/2 The hardest-working act in local restaurant service, even these top waitresses can't entirely hold the fort.
Cuisine: **1/2 Some marvelous pastas and labor-intensive custom cookery distinguish this neighborhood treasure.
Overall: A terrific party, Al Dente serves excellent fresh Italian dishes for not very much money.
Caveat Emptor: No credit cards accepted!

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From the July 26-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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