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Al Dente, Molto Bene

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George Sakkestad

Dente Work: Luccio Fanni cooks every dish to order at Al Dente.

Luccio Fanni reinvents himself and whips up high-wattage pastas at his new Seabright location

By Christina Waters

THE CHEF APPEARS to be joyfully out of control, pacing, swooping, worrying his sauté pan like a hyperactive diva. The new Al Dente--located in the neighborhood warmth of the former Papa's Church on Seabright--is small, cramped and noisier than a convention of Rush Limbaugh impersonators. Furthermore, the tiny, convivial cafe takes no reservations, so on most evenings you'll have to do some waiting for the menu's modest offerings of Mediterranean classics.

But don't hesitate--Luccio Fanni can still cook pasta better than most folks this side of Bologna, and eventually the happy chaos of the place will sweep you up and carry you along. We went willingly last week--one of our first meals back after almost a month in Italy. And we loved it.

Be advised that you'll need to be patient when awaiting your meal at Al Dente. Fanni is a perfectionist and cooks every single pasta dish to order. Tutto bene, we decided, while sipping away at our goblets of sturdy red wine--an Italian cab from Villa Chiopris ($4.50) and a fruity, well-rounded California cab from Madelena Vineyards ($4). This diversion, combined with our trusty San Pellegrino water and plenty of francese bread to dredge in olive oil, kept us occupied as we yelled our conversation across the table. Yelling is required at Al Dente, since the hardwood floors and boxy construction of the room act as a garlic-scented acoustical box, magnifying every sigh into a roar. As long as you know upfront that this isn't a place for intimate conversation, you'll be fine.

The high noise level accentuates the illusion that Fanni, a one-man whirl-athon, puts on what amounts to a floor show. He preens for children seated at the exhibition kitchen counter. He throws himself at his sauté pan like a military hero falling on an enemy hand grenade. He shouts and twirls as he cooks, creating small eddies of visual chaos--a stork on speed comes to mind--to match the aural chaos.

We received our appetizers rather swiftly--my substantial mixed salad ($4.95) dressed in a perfect vinaigrette, and Jack's lavishly rich dome of polenta ($6.25), smothered with basil and gorgonzola. Floating atop a lake of olive oil, the polenta was napped with a vibrant tomato sauce. "It's as rich as cheesecake," Jack grinned, diving in for more. Way too filling for a single human to actually finish as an appetizer, it tasted great, with its pudding texture and pungent gorgonzola. Alas, the tomato wedges accompanying my salad were bland and unripe--a sin during tomato season in a region graced with the glories of Molino Creek. Perhaps Al Dente's produce buyer might want to hit a local farmers market.

A quick word of praise for Al Dente's duo of amazingly resourceful and swift waitresses. Heroic, relentless and hugely overworked, they pulled off miracles and kept their senses of humor. "Everything's from Italy," said our server, pointing to the Illy Caffe espresso machine. "The coffee, the desserts--even the chef."

Oversized white plates deep enough to be classified as bowls barely contained our main dishes. Jack's linguine frutti di mare was a rosy creation studded with very fresh salmon, green-lipped mussels, tiny clams, rock shrimp and the tenderest calamari we'd tasted since the heyday of India Joe Schultz ($13.95).

My farfalle di patate ($8.75) was as good as it was when I first tasted Fanni's version in Capitola many years ago. The secret of this dish begins with perfectly cooked pasta--"This place really lives up to its name," said Jack, a former resident of Rome--then Fanni sautés the pasta with olive oil, garlic, lots of fresh sage and basil and huge slices of cooked potato. It's amazing. And like the linguine, it was a portion that might have fed the entire population of Vatican City.

Another case of intimidation by mammoth portion, each entree could easily--I exaggerate not--easily have fed three hungry people. Yet it's hard to fault such sweet bay scallops, such fresh salmon, such tender squid and the perfection of the light tomato and basil sauce. So we had pasta lunches for the next three days. Life could be worse.

Al Dente
Address: 415 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831/466-0649; no reservations.
Hours: Lunch weekdays 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner 5:30-10pm. Closed Tue.
Chef: Luccio Fanni
Cuisine: *** Three stars for the pasta, vibrantly prepared by the energetic chef
Service: *** Grace under pressure
Ambiance: ** Cozy neighborhood cafe with almost intolerable noise levels
Overall: Fanni's the real thing and provides a good show and great flavors for very reasonable prices.

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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