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Viva Convivio

[whitespace] Convivio Trattoria
George Sakkestad

Marco Said Knock You Out: Convivio Trattoria executive chef Marco Verduzco (left), manager Teresa Zolar and pastry chef Tabitha Stroud combine their extensive talents to make Santa Cruz's newest restaurant a knockout destination spot.

Fueled by luscious flavors, vivacious ambiance and the stylish instincts of chef Marco Verduzco, a new trattoria conquers Santa Cruz

By Christina Waters

FOR THOSE WONDERING just how a brand-new restaurant could be packed every night of the week without even putting a sign over its door, I offer the explanation: Marco Verduzco. The flamboyant and talented chef/proprietor of what is arguably Santa Cruz's hottest new dining venue, Convivio Trattoria, brings considerable background and flair to his latest endeavor. And after two visits I'm convinced that Verduzco is the real thing--a culinary entrepreneur with edge and chutzpah, with the skill to back up an ambitious menu. And the personal charisma to attract an equally skilled staff.

Let me see if I can put my finger on exactly how Convivio works its magic. In my initial visits I enjoyed fine service from people who genuinely appeared to like what they were doing and believe in what they were serving. The small debut wine list emphasizes top local wines to go with fine locally produced fish, cheese and vegetables. A glass of elegantly structured Ahlgren zinfandel ($6) evoked the redwood mountains overlooking the sexy trattoria at Seventh Avenue and Capitola Road. On another visit, we enjoyed a bottle of never-better 1996 Bonny Doon Cigar Volante ($32) along with a basket of three breads, organized in small clusters to emphasize quality rather than overwhelming quantity. Here's where we discovered the brand-new anise and sesame seed baguette from Kelly's. Verduzco does his homework.

The serving dishes are beautiful and spacious. Glass platters seem to have been chosen to complement the colors and design of the foods presented. Deep bowls easily embrace voluptuous pasta creations. Amply proportioned stemware allows full opening of the wine.

Looking around on both occasions, we saw a full dance card of energized fellow diners. Everybody clearly has a good time at Convivio, whether watching lots of skilled young chefs dancing around the exhibition stoves or nuzzling romantically over a glass of something by Storrs at the sleek wine bar. Small wonder.

The decor feels avant garde, yet not pretentious. Blown-glass lights that might have been designed by Salvador Dali hang down over the white-linened tables. Industrial materials mix cleverly with Old World textiles. Tile floors encourage maximum buzz.

Such a confident kitchen. A plate of ahi and salmon carpaccio arrived squiggled with lemon-flavored mascarpone sauce ($6.95). A simple salad of baby spinach went super nova thanks to a warm raspberry vinaigrette, crunchy toasted walnuts and pancetta and Sea Star goat cheese ($5.95). Another salad of fresh arugula topped with shaved parmigiana-reggiano and basil oil was distinguished with prosciutto and grilled Castroville artichoke hearts ($6.50). Nothing tasted overwrought, and each dish exceeded expectations.

One evening an entree of unbelievably succulent Monterey spot prawns arrived impeccably grilled atop a breathtaking wild mushroom risotto ($14.50). It could not have been creamier had it been produced at home. We loved a main dish of roasted pork loin, subtly stuffed with a house-made sausage served on top of cannellini beans and a nest of green and red cabbage, all lavishly fragrant with fresh rosemary ($13.25). How can they continue prices like this, I wondered, as I sampled another bite of a tender game hen ($13.95), grilled "under brick" style, served on a pool of soft polenta quattro fromaggi that was ungodly. Ungodly.

One night's dessert of alabaster panna cotta, a smooth white square of quivering sin on a deep-blue glass plate, came with tiny circles of intensely reduced ginger sauce ($5.25) and a crown of crisp rice noodles. The mango cardamom sorbet blew us away with its primal perfume ($4). It arrived in a martini glass on a tiny bed of tangy crème fraîche--yeow! Only a doughy crostata filled with sour cherries and golden raisins proved underwhelming ($4.95). And while the spun sugar decorations are visually interesting, they're really unnecessary.

Convivio lives up to its advance reputation. Deliciously.

Convivio Trattoria
Address: 655 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz
Phone: 475-9600
Hours: Dinner Tue-Sun, 5:30-10pm
Service: *** Skillful and friendly, the staff here wisely puts the patron first
Ambiance: *** Engaging visual decor, gorgeous tableware and an exhibition kitchen override a high noise level
Cuisine: *** 1/2 Chef Verduzco and company go the distance to get top ingredients and treat them with both integrity and flair
Overall: Convivio announces a long overdue renaissance of dining out in Santa Cruz. Make your next visit a top priority.

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From the February 24-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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