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New World Orders

Ernesto Garcia and staff
Robert Scheer

Four Score: Ristorante Italiano's veteran senior chef and kitchen manager Ernesto Garcia and waiters Darla Contreras (left), Jana Dyer and Greg Goldfield stand behind the cioppino, a house specialty.

The exuberant tradition of Italian-American dining is alive and kicking at Ristorante Italiano's welcoming hearth

By Christina Waters

IT'S HARD NOT TO LIKE a restaurant that just happens to be located in the place where I was born. Like many other lucky locals, I entered this turn of the karmic wheel in the hospital that is now called Branciforte Plaza, located across from Shoppers Corner. Recently, as I made my way to a corner table in Ristorante Italiano's festive red, white and green interior, I imagined my mother impatiently waiting for me to make my appearance -- somewhere upstairs, quite a few years ago.

That predisposition was having a nice effect on my two companions, Rosemary and Frank, who agreed that a bottle of Lodola Nuova Montepulciano 1991 ($28) would be a nice accompaniment to this historic setting. The lovely wine went well with slabs of soft, chewy bread dipped into a light, balsamic-flecked olive oil. While the service was to be slow that evening, our conversation about Rosemary's upcoming trip to Rome filled in any and all gaps. Why is it that Italian restaurants always seem the perfect setting for lots of laughter and good conversation? Probably somewhere in our collective DNA, we're all partly Italian.

The menu here is a veritable Who's Who of lasagnas, pastas and parmigianas and all the scampi, chicken and veal that Dean Martin could possibly wash down with a cocktail or three.

The sun was setting beautifully on the outdoor deck that is one of the popular attractions of Ristorante Italiano just as we all dug into the soft roasted garlic and a mound of melting baked brie ($7.95). "Now that's not Italian," noted Frank, who wondered, why not gorgonzola? Or perhaps fontina? We all liked the presentation of the two heads of garlic in a little cast-iron skillet fresh from roasting. But we all disliked the very, very hard buttered toasts that accompanied the appetizer.

I liked the salads, fresh, vibrant and filled with romaine coated with an herb-intensive Italian dressing. "It's not objectionable," murmured Rosemary, who is grateful for any alternative to iceberg.

It took quite a while--our wine was long gone--for our main courses to arrive, but when they did, all were steaming hot and generously proportioned. My order of the Wednesday night special--osso bucco ($10.95)--was right on target. Big veal marrow bones had been cooked to the point of moist, meaty perfection. Every bite had both flavor and accessibility, and the dish arrived with steamed fresh vegetables.

Rosemary's veal piccata ($14.95) was slightly problematic, with mushrooms cut small enough to somehow lose their identity in the strident, thickened sauce. Under it all, the slices of veal were fine.

Deciding to conjure a contact dose of beefy masculinity through an order of bisteca Marsala ($14.95), Frank found himself similarly equipped with small, lifeless mushrooms, some overcooked fusilli and a Marsala wine sauce that lacked oomph. I thought the dish had more going for it, and liked the aggressive way the slices of Italian sausage and strips of flavorful New York steak were enhanced by the presence of green bell peppers. The individual elements might not have been bound together conceptually, but they did nice things to each other in the mouth.

An order of spumoni gelato ($2.75) tasted happily like our childhoods in the late '50s. Another order of cannoli provided the tang of ricotta cream enhanced with almonds and chocolate chips--however forbiddingly crisp the actual cookie container ($3.25). Real whipped cream might have elevated each of these simple desserts into the perfect finish for a robust dinner.

Ristorante Italiano
Address: 555 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
Phone: 458-2321
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30am- 2pm, dinner nightly from 5pm
Price: Moderate
Senior Chef: Ernesto Garcia
Ambiance: ** 1/2 Colorful and cheery
Service: * 1/2 Sometimes friendly and helpful, but often inattentive
Cuisine: ** Standards fill the menu--capable results often compromised by lack of depth and flair
Overall: Ristorante Italiano provides a comfortable backdrop for non-threatening meals and good fellowship.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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