Parmesan Meets Pico de Gallo

dining_mexitalianPart Mexican, part Italian and sometimes a fusion of both, MexItalian Restaurant offers a bright array of fresh options

Jean-Pierre (JP) Iuliano, co-owner of Café Mare, and Fernando Vasquezmatias who hails from Oaxaca, Mexico have worked together since their days at Star Bene. Their new endeavor, MexItalian, combines Old and New World ingredients and recipes in unexpected ways.

The Water Street restaurant’s interior is relatively unchanged from its previous incarnation where glass tops protect brick red fabric tablecloths. In the cabinet, shakers of Parmesan and oregano share the shelves with bottled hot sauces. The menu includes a number of vegetarian and gluten-free options, and Vasquezanatias said everything is made from scratch.

For an appetizer, three fresh corn tortillas were stuffed with garlicky bites of shrimp and deep-fried as Empanadas de Camaron ($7.50). They were served with a timbale of charming fresh roasted jalapeño and lemon salsa.

For a basic vegetarian sandwich, the Oaxaqueño ($6.50) featured a soft Mexican roll stuffed with quesillo—like string cheese but tastier—tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, pickled jalapeños and spread with bean paste, which I thought could have been more abundant and flavorful.

The al Pollo Panino ($7) is sure to be a longtime winner. A six-inch loaf of francese bread held nicely seasoned, butterflied grilled chicken breast with red onions, tomatoes, avocadoes and quesillo. It was dressed with an extraordinarily flavorful, rich, smoky chipotle mayo.

Typically, a plate full of fries is all that remains of my lunches, but not at MexItalian. The hot, crisp quarter-inch fries were lightly seasoned with a house blend of spices, including paprika, and were good ‘till the last stick.

On my second visit, I was looking forward to one of MexItalian’s unique salads, but with the daily special, a bowl of Chantrelle Mushroom Chowder ($5), which was also served in a house-made bread bowl ($7), I switched gears. The creamy parsley-topped soup, flecked with minute bits of colorful carrot and loaded with meaty mushrooms, was the perfect cure for a cold, rainy day.

A fusion entrée, Parmigiana Mexicana ($10), was served with rice and beans. The server mentioned it was kind of hot. Thin layers of tender fried eggplant were topped with fresh salsa that by itself bordered on diabolic, but was mellowed by the earthy, Parmesan-laced vegetables. I topped it with more Parmesan. The seasoned rice was moist, and soft whole pinto beans were sprinkled with fresh cheese.

The MexItalian Salad ($7.50) is a take on caprese with kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onions, soft, fresh mozzarella and nopalitos cactus strips all drizzled with rich basil pesto.

A selection of ten-inch pizzas is also available including the Margherita ($7) with cheese and marinara, and a kid-friendly Pizza Americana ($8.50) topped with sliced hot dogs and French fries. The thin and crisp-crusted MexItalian ($10) is a hot sausage-lover’s special. Spicy marinara was topped with mozzarella roasted red bell peppers, bits of nopalitos, red onions and chili-studded sausage.

Pizadilla ($6.50) is like a quesadilla, layered with ham, tomatoes, red onions, mozzarella and pickled jalapeños.

MexItalian, 503 Water St., santa Cruz, 425-1213. Beer and wine. Open daily 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. Visit MexItalianSantaCruz.com.

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