Food for Thought: Now that's Italian
Ever since Caffe Lucio opened at Ocean Street and Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz, I've wanted to drop in and see if it lived up to Al Dente, its previous incarnation on Seabright Avenue. I can give it an enthusiastic yes ... and then some.
My neighbors Donna Bauer, Larry Fogelquist and their sons Jack and Spencer invited me to join them for dinner over the weekend. We wanted to try something new, and Caffe Lucio was it. Would we need reservations? No, we figured. It was 6:30 on a Saturday evening, and the place was relatively new. How crowded could it be?
OK, so we were wrong. Maybe two or three people could get in at the last minute, but a group of five would have to dine outdoors. That was fine with us, though it did remove us from the enthusiastic din of the dining room, with owner Lucio Fanni's outrageous sense of humor at the center of it all. Still, we were there as much for the food as we were for the atmosphere.
The evening's menu looked good right from the first item. I couldn't find any spaghetti and meatballs or pizza with "the works," which was a huge plus for me. Too many Italian restaurants rely on the tired cliches, which I find irritating and limiting.
For our appetizers, we selected the sublime carpaccio, ultra-thin slices of raw filet mignon with olive oil and capers. It went down like butter on a hot tongue. Our antipasto mista was equally tasty -- a plate of sliced prosciutto, salame, tomatoes, mozzarella and greens. Larry almost inhaled it.
The boys were delighted to find a separate pizza menu, which allowed them to order individual wood-fired pies, one with pepperoni and the other with fresh baby spinach. Larry chose an organic salad topped with thick slices of smoked salmon, though he kept eyeballing the pizza. Donna's cannelloni was made with fresh pasta wrapped around a seafood mixture and dressed with tomato cream sauce. If we hadn't been in public, I suspect she'd have licked the plate.
My house-made artichoke and cheese ravioli were dressed with fresh sage and butter and topped with marinated artichoke hearts. Nobody offered to share their dishes, which said a lot about how happy we were with our choices.
Dessert? Oh, yeah! We dug into torta di nonna -- a luscious lemony tart -- and an ice cream bombe, and mini cream puffs dressed with chocolate mousse. But the real hit was the tartuffo, an ice cream ball with hazelnuts covered with chocolate. Yowza!
Caffe Lucio is open for lunch and dinner every day. For reservations, call 427-0164.
The Prince of Pasta
The creator of Al Dente lends his genius and his name to Caffe Lucio
Have you ever played the either/or game: Pepsi or Coke? Boxers or briefs? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? It's an entertaining diversion and an opportunity to rib your friends about their taste (or lack thereof) and maybe glean more insight into each other's moral compasses. On the menu, it's: fish or chicken? Hot fudge sundae or hot new bikini? Farmed and eco-problematic or wild and mercury-laden?
I've spent a couple evenings at Lucio Fanni's new restaurant, Caffe Lucio, and had to make some tough choices. The former owner of Al Dente on Seabright is back with an all-new menu in an expansive new home, and the offerings are marvelously tempting.
On my first visit, I passed through the front door and immediately spied Fanni, arms akimbo, sputtering orders to his new charges, a shock of tresses asserting a corona around his face. All about him the energy hummed as the waitstaff buzzed around the room. I was pleased to see that Fanni has added several cooks to the line; some were in training that very evening. I noted a decently appointed bar in his new scene as well, which gives even more seating and dining options, and I'm glad we again have a full view of the kitchen action from our tables. The yellow interior, coupled with the long palisade of windows, brings a brightness and cheer to this eatery at the corner of Soquel and Water streets, which has seen more incarnations than Madonna has hairstyles.
My friend Helayne and I enjoyed a glass of Pietra Santa Zinfandel ($8.50) while we studied the menu, noting immediately that it is lighter on the pasta options and more focused on grilled meats and fish. I came with pasta on the brain and was rent by indecision. Our waitress brought the carpaccio ($12), a platter generously covered with razor-thin slices of beef fillet, drizzled with olive oil and dotted with capers. It was mildly flavored and nothing I lost my senses over.
Helayne ordered the pollo con prosciutto di Parma ($18); the waitress offered her a choice of salad or a pasta side ("Lucio's choice," she said). Helayne opted for the mystery pasta, and I settled for the rigatoni Bolognese ($17). Helayne's chicken breast was a little dry, but the prosciutto and mozzarella, along with the wine and sage sauce, helped bring around the flavor. I directed the waitress to shred more than a fair share of parmesan over my pasta, which resulted in some unfortunate oversalting of my dish. The biggest hit was the mystery pasta, a classic fettuccine Alfredo--rich, creamy, savory and decadent, everything an Alfredo should be.
On my next visit, I came alone and sidled up to the kitchen counter, the better to see Fanni in action. Again I ordered a Pietra Santa from the well-balanced wine menu, this time a pinot grigio ($8.25). I watched as bistecca alla griglia ($23) and agnello scottadito ($23) from the grill menu slid by and realized that maybe the grill options would be the most inspired. I decided to try the lamb chops on another visit--they looked lovely--but succumbed to the sea bass ($22) in a wine caper sauce from the special menu, along with the pasta surprise. Would it be the gnocchi with pesto, capellini al pomodoro or some other delight that awaited me? At least I wouldn't have to make any tough decisions about it.
I was left alone with my fantasies while I watched Lucio work his magic. I love the way his whole body jerks and skips back as he tosses the pasta in the saute pan. I love the way he has taken the new chefs under his wing, generously sharing his talents. I love his passion and his drive. I don't love his temper and impatience with the very promising waitstaff, the way he admonishes them in front of the rest of us. We have other places to go, customers and staff alike.
By the way, the sea bass was absolutely divine. Tender, moist and full of the flavor and the passion that is truly brilliant cooking. Decisions can be hard to make, but at Caffe Lucio, there's always a reward.
The Second Coming of Lucio
By Alastair Bland
At Caffe Lucio (381 Soquel Ave.) you can't help but notice that owner Lucio Fanni is a dead ringer for Albert Einstein. As soon as you walk in the door you see him, across the spacious interior and over the fine polished decor, standing at the bar with his electric shock of gray hair glowing like a light bulb.
Then you notice along the wall a lineup of framed photos, alternating between Lucio and the great physicist himself: Lucio over a flaming grill, Einstein on a bicycle, Lucio nursing an espresso, Einstein sticking his tongue out. This chef looks like Einstein, and he knows it.
Anyway, the restaurant opened at the end of June, a year after Lucio sold his previous establishment, Al Dente to new owners. There, the specialty was pasta. Caffe Lucio, meanwhile, features more meats, poultry, seafood, light vegetable entrees and some fantastic lunchtime panini, with most dishes running between $6 and $14.
"A lot of people a-like-a-to cut corners with expensive ingredients," Lucio says. "Ninety-nine percent of a-customers don't understand a-good food. They just-a say 'Feed me, feed me!'"
But Caffe Lucio is no fodder trough for gluttons. Lucio is dead set on excellence, and the entrees carry nuances of freshness and quality that elevate this place almost to the point of elegance-but not quite.
"It's-a casual, right between a-modern and roo-stic-o. So far, people like. People like-a-da place."
Lucio's accent and sing-song cadence are a charm. Ham it up with him when you go. At my visit I enjoyed a piece of salmon ($21), which comes with a side of salad. The lettuce crunched freshly between my teeth and melted in the creamy, tart dressing while the salmon, fresh and excellent, arrived solo on a plate so vast that, like the solar system, much of it remained untouched by the endeavors of man. Or was the piece of fish just a little small?
Pondering, I looked outside. The traffic moved along Soquel at a snail's pace. The sun stood at its zenith. I glanced at my watch. Had I only been here five minutes? Theoretically, at this rate my salmon would last forever. Or was this just special relativity at work? It's a question for Einstein.
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