Dining Reviews

Fired Up at Pizzeria Avanti

Longtime chefs become owners of neighborhood favorite Pizzeria Avanti, plus Mother’s Day at Alfaro

Rene Serna (left) and Hugo Martinez of Pizzeria Avanti, with a basil pizza. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost four years since the original Avanti concept moved down Mission Street, leaving the former cozy bistro to blossom into its new identity as Pizzeria Avanti. Since that time, chefs Hugo Martinez and Rene Serna have been firing up the pizza oven and finessing nightly specials—and in the process reminding Westside locals just why they’ve always loved this little spot in the tiny Palm Street strip mall. Well, now it’s official. The two talented chefs are officially the sole owners of Pizzeria Avanti. Congratulations! It’s a tough business in any economy, but growing a restaurant, sticking with it, re-inventing the salads and pizzas every night, and adding depth to the wine list—all of this requires more than just skill. Martinez worked as chef at the Ristorante Avanti for 15 years before the transition to pizzeria. Serna cooked at Carried Away in Aptos before joining Martinez in the busy Avanti kitchen. Their chemistry as collaborators and menu creators is obvious and notable.

Whenever we dine there—at least once a month—the main dining room fills up, with some regulars at the wine bar and a steady steam of patrons coming to pick up their takeout pizza orders. The pizza specials—last week we inhaled a delicious creation of portobello mushrooms, organic asparagus, olives and feta—are always deeply satisfying.

Did I mention that not only do Avant’s pizzas showcase perfect thin crusts, but the dough itself is addictively delicious? Old World pizza made by New World experts.  

But the salad specials—always featuring what’s just come into the farmers markets—are remarkable. Beets, avocados, shaved fennel, arugula, and satiny vinaigrettes adorn my latest favorites. The lamb burger has a following, as does the remarkable lasagna and the house signature Brussels sprouts appetizer, dotted with squash, pancetta and pumpkin seeds. Last week we split a strawberry pie dessert and moaned our way through ripe berries, a cookie crust and a sexy layer of whipped cream.

Martinez keeps an eye on the house from his steamy kitchen, always upbeat and radiating energy. Service is strong and the prices are friendly. Everybody has a neighborhood spot, a go-to dining room that offers just what you feel like having, the wine you enjoy without having to think too hard, and an atmosphere that is welcoming. Pizzeria Avanti has achieved that rare balance, and chef/owners Martinez and Serna are the key to that appeal. Pizzeria Avanti, 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz. Open 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 425-1807, pizzeriaavanti.net.

Mother’s Day Wine

If your mom is like mine, she appreciates a lively afternoon in the vineyards. And so you might just consider a visit to the ever-lively, ever-welcoming Alfaro Family Vineyards this coming Mother’s Day weekend. There’s a lot to interest even the most finicky, world-weary mom. For example, there’s winemaker Richard Alfaro—a force of nature himself and a one-man tribute to living well, drinking well and dining well. But if your mom needs more than just one winemaker to make her day, there will be live music from 1-4 p.m. (on Saturday by Those Guys, on Sunday by Ken Constable). Also, seven wines poured for your mom’s edification and delight, and light snacks. All of this is free for members of Alfaro’s rapidly expanding wine club. For those not yet in the club, there is a fee for tasting and snacks. If your mother wants to extend her special day all the way to Wednesday, May 11, take her to the Shadowbrook where the Alfaros will be on hand pouring half-priced wines with complimentary hors d’oeuvres in the Rock Room Bar and Lounge. Be good to your mom!

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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