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Night Brightened

Star Bene Chefs
Robert Scheer

Three Wise Men: Star Bene chefs Luca Lorenzini (from left), Sandro Costanza and Gianpiero Iuliano toast their new Italian eatery's food, ambiance and charm.

Adding luster to the East Cliff Drive neighborhood galaxy, Star Bene proves that Italian is a lot more than just pasta

By Christina Waters

THE TINY COTTAGE HOUSING Star Bene--the area's latest effort to carpet California in wall-to-wall Italian restaurants--offers lots of sparkling white linens indoors and a sheltered courtyard for al fresco dining. Decorator charms aside, Katya and I couldn't help but make a note of the attractive staff. Here Italian is not only spoken and eaten, it fills the air with unhurried ambiance. When our waiter smiled and explained that somehow the espresso machine wasn't working, we were so enchanted we almost applauded.

The menu at Star Bene doesn't attempt to reinvent. Salads, antipasti, a handful of pastas and some meat and fish main dishes--it's all simple, direct and affordable. Since the insalata di mare I'd wanted wasn't available, I went for a house insalata ($4.75) featuring baby spinach, pecans and truffle oil. And that was fine with Katya, whose recent trek to the Gobi had left her with a healthy appetite for all things green.

The classic workhorse prosciutto and melon ($6.50) achieved something of a religious transformation on this encounter. Three mezzaluna wedges of cantaloupe were almost erotically sweet, finessing the hollows and curves of the excellent cured Parma ham. A trio of kalamata olives played voyeurs to all this culinary arousal. The appetizers worked brilliantly. Of course, the big pours of a luscious Calabrian red wine, Lamezia 1995 ($4 a glass), didn't hurt either.

Meanwhile, Katya's emerald harvest of "really, really fresh" baby spinach was smooth and supple under its gleaming coat of truffle oil heightened with garlic and roasted pecans. Lest I forget to mention, all the while we were savoring our starting dishes, we managed to consume more than was decent of some ungodly rich, moist focaccia offered to us along with a bowl of herb-and-garlic-infused olive oil.

At exactly the right lull in our conversation about pre-Czarist Russian architecture, our entrées arrived, perfuming the air with rosemary. The gorgeous herbal scent completely saturated my dish of half a roasted Cornish game hen, flattened for ease of access, the juices enhanced with wine ($11.50). The dish came with creamy mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. It was the best poultry dish I'd eaten in ages, succulent and nudged into something spectacular by the simple application of herbs, wine and a dusting of parsley.

Katya's moans were attracting attention. A taste of her girello vegetariano ($9.50), and I comprehended. The unlikely sounding dish of housemade pasta filled with eggplant and zucchini was sauced--trust me--with small portions of an exquisite béchamel and a freshly made marinara. The three elegant pinwheels of vegetable-layered pasta were splashed with the red and white sauces and then flecked with parsley. This was the ultimate luxury vegetarian dish.

Plied with offers of dessert--to which we offered absolutely no defense--we decided to bypass the tiramisu and panna cotta (both of which I'd had and loved on previous occasions) and went directly for an order of ricotta cheesecake. Katya, who was now thinking seriously of taking night classes in conversational Italian, came up with le mot juste. "This really is ricotta cheesecake," she murmured. The crust was gorgeously moist and the two sauces of raspberry and chocolate made a calligraphic duet on the plate ($4). The coffee was so good we forgave the espresso machine.

Star Bene
Address: 2-1245 East Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz
Phone: 479-4307
Hours: Dinner from 5pm nightly
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
Head Chef: Luca Lorenzini
Ambiance: *** Charming, intimate and attractively appointed
Service: ** Can be a bit languid, but always attentive and responsive
Cuisine: *** Wonderful dishes, an expert touch with the classic sauces and seasonings of southern Italy
Overall: This is a delightful, affordable slice of Italian atmosphere--a terrific neighborhood magnet.

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

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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