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Room With a View

[whitespace] Vincenzo D'Amico and Steve Carniglia
Robert Scheer

Culinary Heights: Carniglia's chef Vincenzo D'Amico (left) and owner Steve Carniglia show off a towering Napoletano.

Carniglia's on the Santa Cruz Wharf offers some dazzling Italian cuisine in a pretty setting at a languid pace

By Christina Waters

WITH A GLASS of Orvieto Classico ($4.50), dry, crisp and white in his hand, and an outstanding Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 ($6.50) in mine, dinner began last week at Carniglia's on the Wharf. And while at times it also appeared that dinner would never end, during the course of the evening we sampled some outstanding handiwork on the part of chef Vincenzo D'Amico, a genuine talent whose culinary flair almost overwhelms some inspired cooking.

The menu looked promising, we agreed, noticing with delight that the artwork dotting Carniglia's walls is devoted to reproducing the Renaissance. "It's as if Caravaggio and a painting on velvet had babies," noted my artist-companion, Frank, admiringly.

The view of gulls swooping against the setting sun just outside the main wall of windows also enhanced the relaxing mood in the long split-level dining room. Ah, but two of our menu choices were unfortunately unavailable that evening. Perhaps our waiter might have announced right upfront that a showcase entree like stuffed boneless quail in a grappa, raisin and white wine sauce was not available. Or that one out of five red wines by the glass was not to be poured that evening. And why not simply open another bottle?

Well, we thought--while waiting 20 minutes for the bread to accompany a lovely saucer of olive oil, garlic and balsamic--we'll just make other selections.

The appetizers--making a very leisurely approach to our table--were gorgeous, even bordering on the baroque. An intimidatingly huge plate of very tender calamari arrived fragrant with garlic, fennel and organic tomatoes ($10.50). Half of it made a terrific lunch the next day, but perhaps the portions might be made smaller--and consequently, cheaper--to begin with. The calamari was the best I've tasted in a decade, but the squiggles of what looked like mustard and ketchup on the plate's rim trivialized the fine dish.

A very boisterous spinach salad ($7.50) arrived overdressed but festooned with such luxurious toppings as crispy pancetta, caramelized onions and microdots of organic goat cheese. It was a zesty affair, but nowhere near as sophisticated as the amazing calamari dish. And afterward, I had to wave my arms for the fifth time that evening to catch our waiter's attention to clear the plates.

Of our opulent entrees, one--a country-style dish of veal medallions on spinach with Fontina-laced polenta ($24)--arrived on a platter with more of the gooey squiggles. The very, very rich polenta was accompanied by perfectly sautéed organic vegetables with flavors that sang an Italian folk song. But $24 for tender, though relentlessly tasteless, veal?

My order of Capesante e Spinaci ($16) was outstanding in every way. The fat sea scallops had been dusted with dried porcini mushroom essence and then sautéed for a few milliseconds. They joined a toss of pancetta, fresh baby spinach and organic tomatoes over definitive farfalla pasta.

Dreamy is the word for this successful marriage of sea and land. We literally sighed over every bite, only occasionally picking at the creamy polenta (which was way too filled with butter and cheese to resemble polenta) and a baby carrot or two from plate number one.

Desserts, chosen from a handsome tray of homemade sweets and pastries, were appealing, though they too were guilty of overdecoration--lots of dabs of cream, dots of fresh fruit, zigzags of crème Anglaise and raspberry puree all over everything.

But a quivering fresh lemon tart ($5) was enchanting to the tongue --not too sweet and very purely lemon in flavor. A slice of multilayer tiramisu ($5.50) tasted of rum, chocolate and mascarpone cheese--and bore the stamp of authenticity. Lovely. Not too sweet. Frank respects desserts that aren't too sweet. Carniglia's does too.

Address: Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-3pm during the week; dinner nightly 5-9pm (till 10pm Fri.-Sat.).
Price: Moderate-expensive
Chef: Vincenzo D'Amico
Ambiance: **1/2 Lean and streamlined, the decor stays out of the way and lets the food play the starring role.
Cuisine: *** 1/2 Chef D'Amico can cook. Very well. And the range of menu offerings appeals to discerning food adventurers.
Service: * Very inconsistent, with some staff appearing to have training that
others, alas, lack, i.e. can be quite slow.
Overall: Excellent food is served with lavish flair, and the spectacular views almost compensate for an inadequately trained serving staff.
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *OK

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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