Dining Reviews

La Gioconda

DiningAuthentic Northern Italian in Soquel, plus a dessert and a pastry to melt hearts

A fabulous bowl of fat paccheri pasta—think oversized rigatoni—won our instant approval on a first dinner at the new La Gioconda on Main Street in Soquel. Through its many incarnations the craftsman-bungalow setting has retained its charm. From the personal greeting from proprietor Luca Viara—a native of Turin who was a restaurateur in Italy before establishing Seabright’s Tramonti as co-owner and head chef—at the front door to the many dishes infused by organic produce grown in the restaurant’s own garden, our visit to La Gioconda was a treat.

Armed for Italian dining with a glass of Nobile Montepulciano ($12) and another of Sant’Antimo Sangiovese ($8), we shared a memorable house salad of baby arugula ($8) laced with shaved artichokes, a Meyer lemon vinaigrette and topped with wide ribbons of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The crunch, the peppery flavor, the rich hints of cheese here and there—it was one of those addictive salads that had me wishing I could finish off the entire order by myself. But I shared with Maria, who in turn offered tastes of her carrot bisque ($8). A fennel-infused olive oil ringed the bowl of creamy vegan carrot soup. Crisp croutons decorated the top as well as salty flash-fried Brussels sprout leaves. The combination of smooth creamy soup and crisp crunchy decoration was smart and delicious.

Our entrees heightened the culinary mood. Two great pasta dishes came next, including a Piedmontese specialty of ravioli stuffed with braised beef short ribs ($19) and smothered in a dark brown short-rib gravy. The other, not as heavy, was the evening’s special pasta—plump succulent paccheri sauced with a classic Bolognese ($15). Every bite was wonderful and made with authenticity and expertise.

For dessert we sampled two unusual La Gioconda creations. Chocolate Salame? How could we not try it? And yes, studded with amaretto cookies and joined by a creamy mascarpone zabaglione, the dark chocolate creation had been shaped, and sliced, exactly like a cylindrical salame. Each bite seemed to require follow-up with another. And then another. My favorite was a spectacularly understated panna cotta infused with the bright flavor of mint (grown in the restaurant’s garden), and utterly, perfectly creamy. Seven dollars well-spent. A squiggle of dark chocolate on the plate led to a chocolate amaretto cookie. Lovely presentation on both of these desserts, which we enjoyed along with excellent espresso. After this initial sampling from La Gioconda’s organic and authentically northern Italian menu, I am making plans to return—soon. La Gioconda is located at 3101 Main St. in Soquel. 477-9254. giocondarestaurant.com.

Dessert of the Week

The salted butterscotch budino at Ristorante Avanti, over which Rita and I tried not to make a huge scene—and failed. Topped with a float of warm caramel sauce and freshly whipped cream, this dessert was sin on steroids. Seriously rich and exactly what you want when you want to color way outside of the lines and have a dessert that takes no prisoners. Abandon your diet for a day and treat yourself to this plush Italianate pudding.

Pastry of the Week

Without a doubt, that would be the insanely buttery hazelnut brown butter cake from Manresa Bread. It was one of the irresistible new Manresa pastries headlining the display case at Verve last week. Imagine a three-inch in diameter cake laced with crushed hazelnuts—chewy and intensely buttery. In the center was hidden a round knob of bittersweet chocolate ganache topped with a toasted hazelnut, more chopped bits of hazelnut and shards of rock salt. Salt, bitter chocolate cream, butter, and hazelnuts. It was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Paired with obsidian-rich dark roast, the pastry knocked me out. But then, so did the thumbnail carrot cake, like angels’ wings with naughty spices. And the moist slab of elegant polenta cake. Yes, Manresa Bread at Verve is my new addiction.


PHOTO: An arugula and shaved artichoke salad at La Gioconda in Soquel. CHIP SCHAUR

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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