Long Live the Linguini

dining_RistoranteItalianoCelebrating 30 years, Ristorante Italiano’s bright flavors and generous portions ensure its distinction as a local favorite

I’m fortunate to occasionally work in Branciforte Plaza, where the aroma of Ristorante Italiano’s roasting garlic wafts across the parking lot. Many reasonably priced specials grace the lunch menu, which I happily order to savor in the office. One day, as the sun set, waves of laughter emanate from the heated patio deck, where groups gather to relax after work, and families celebrate birthdays. On the building’s exterior, an extraordinary three-story mural depicting an Italian avenue adds a whimsical touch.

In the restaurant’s main dining area, where ceiling joists are painted a lively green and autographed straw-encased Chianti bottles commemorate dinners of the past, subdued lighting and romantic booths set the stage for the spectacle of Italian specialties. A ceiling fan turned slowly, barely rustling the thin leaves of a tall parlor palm in the solarium-like front room.

There’s much to savor here. Spaghetti Margherita ($7.95) with grill-marked chicken breast (add $2) is a wonderful medley of pasta tossed with olive oil, parmesan, and fresh tomatoes, green onions and basil. Topped with mozzarella and baked, this simple dish, which makes two my-size meals, is absolutely redolent of garlic. The Margherita Pizza ($10.95), in addition to fresh tomatoes and basil, includes garlic as well, but roasted to bring out its sweetness.

From a comfortable bench seat at a corner table, we ordered Clams Genovese ($12.95), the night’s appetizer special. Tender Manila clams popped easily from their shells into a memorable white wine broth thickened with cream. Four broiled sections of Parmesan-topped garlic herb bread soaked up the flavorful sauce.

Entrées are served with either soup or salad. Ristorante’s impeccable thick, dark minestrone, even better in the evenings as the flavors intensify, included two kinds of beans, elbow macaroni and soft pieces of spiced sausage. I upgraded my salad to a Caesar ($1) with classic creamy dressing and topped heartily with shredded Parmesan. Much larger than a typical side salad, the hearts and green leaves were so fresh and crisp I could practically taste the water inside.

My husband and I had just agreed that the clams and salad would have made a fine meal by themselves when our entrées arrived. Prawns Parma ($21.95) was served in an oval casserole, and appeared large enough to feed a family of three. Tubes of al dente penne pasta were tossed with thin, crisp, salty pieces of prosciutto ham, Parmesan, bright green peas that popped in my mouth, prawns, and just enough to cream to keep it moist. It was then baked to brown its topping of cheese.

From the specials board, Ristorante’s Linguini Primavera ($21.95) was enhanced with plump rock shrimp and prosciutto, tossed in olive oil and cream with mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini, crookneck squash, tomatoes and bell peppers.

There would be no room for dessert on this night, but it was still comforting to eye the cheesecake and cannoli in the display case on the way to the door.

Ristorante Italiano, 555 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 458-2321. Full bar. Serving lunch Monday through Friday, at 11:30 a.m., and dinner nightly at 5 p.m. Visit ristoranteital.com

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