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Mediterranean Charm

[whitespace] Zoccoli's Pasta House
Scott Lechner

House of Yum: The staff of Zoccoli's Pasta House serves up delicious Italian classics with warmth and skill.

A new spin on the interior decor and a deliciously expanded menu repositions Zoccoli's Pasta House in the center of the pack

By Christina Waters

IT SHOULD come as no surprise that a place named Zoccoli's--long synonymous with Mediterranean flavors in Santa Cruz--should have fine Italian cuisine. But our meal last week at Zoccoli's Pasta House reminded me all over again just how fine this friendly restaurant can be. Our dinner, served with genuine warmth and skill, was delicious from start to finish. And it was priced so accessibly that it's no wonder many regular patrons are college-age couples who love to eat out but don't have money to burn. With its low lighting, sparkling white lights and romantic background music, Zoccoli's is an obvious choice for a first date. Or, in our case, a date well into the double digits.

An evening special--New York steak marsala for $15.95--caught my eye the minute we walked in. But so did the revamped decor. The sparkling white lights had been festooned with faux gold ivy. That attractive touch was repeated with lavish greenery and attractive artwork. Vivaldi in the background and the rich maroon wall treatment did the rest. Amazing how cozy it felt given the open-beam ceilings and vastness of the main dining area.

We took our favorite mezzanine table and began the hard task of choosing from legions of pasta favorites and a full dance card of chicken classics, plus interesting appetizers like a brie and foccacia offering--or the one that we decided to share of grilled prawns on a bed of baby lettuce ($6.95).

Two breads --a French baguette studded with seeds and a sensational francese, both from Golden Sheaf--arrived quickly, followed by a bottle of Pellegrino water and goblets of our wines by the glass. Zoccoli's offers quite a few local wines, and while Jack chose a plummy Pepperwood pinot noir ($4.25), I went for a merlot from Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyards ($6.25). Made by the legendary Ken Burnap, this baby gave merlot a good name.

Soup or salad came with our entrees, including Jack's spaghetti puttanesca ($12.95), so we began with an abundance of mixed lettuces topped with the house balsamic vinaigrette and an irresistible garnish of blue cheese and toasted walnuts. The appetizer offered even more of the tender greens plus a half-dozen perfectly grilled prawns, chopped tomatoes and wedges of lemon. Plump, moist and sweet with flavor, the prawns were so good I almost forgot about my entree.

That would have been a big mistake.

The New York steak--thinly cut bistro-style--had been charbroiled exactly as I'd requested, halfway between rare and medium rare. A splash of marsala, a dash of herbs, a tiny hit of cream and both the delicious beef and its topping of sauteed mushrooms were wonderful. The side dish of al dente penne, tossed lightly in olive oil, with a few florets of broccoli, some slices of carrots and freshly grated parmesan, was good enough to stand alone as a main course. Fresh parsley, in the authentic Italian fashion, dusted everything. Lightly. This kitchen has a light, expert hand.

Zoccoli's Pasta House
Scott Lechner

Jack's puttanesca tasted as saucy as its name. Lots of tomatoes and capers infused the spaghetti, along with slices of sumptuous kalamata olives and untraditional but welcome artichoke hearts. This was a wonderful pasta creation, and even though we enjoyed our entrees so much that we couldn't even sample the outrageously creamy house tiramisu, we still had plenty left to take home for lunch the next day.

Zoccoli's cooks are sensitive to variety--in appearance and in flavor--as well as fresh execution. Just writing this makes me want to run right back for dinner tonight. And that's good advice for everyone.

Zoccoli's Pasta House
Address: 431 Front St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 423-1717
Hours: Lunch weekdays, 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner nightly, 5-9pm.
Ambiance: ** 1/2 Islands of intimacy inside an industrial space
Service: *** Skilled, warm and knowledgeable
Cuisine: *** A full repertoire of Italian classics freshly created with a light hand and respect for ingredients
Overall: Zoccoli's is a wonderful local trattoria with lots of style packed into a modest, well-priced menu.

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From the February 17-24, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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