1711 Mission Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
I recall that the brilliant food writer Jonathan Gold once wrote that he’s been to Campanile in Los Angeles hundreds of times. When I read that maybe 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn’t even fathom such a concept. But now the combination of steady employment and living in one place for a good chunk of time has conspired to generate a small handful of places that I’ve been to so many times and with which I have such a relationship that it’s less a business and more an annex of my own home. One of them is Ristorante Avanti, owned and run by Cindy and Paul Geise for over twenty years and still going strong.
What leads me and the many other regulars to return so often? I suspect it’s the combination of well-executed food with a menu that has both dishes that I know will be available when I’m in need of something tried, true and delicious, and a rotating list of daily specials that ensures there’s always something new and exciting to try.
But more than anything, the people and the space exude an overall sense of comfort and welcome that allows the trials and tribulations of the day to be left behind or at least in an out-of-sight corner for a while.
At Avanti, it’s the front of the house staff who turn it from a restaurant that serves excellent food to a great neighborhood place – I’ve claimed in the past that Avanti is an extension of my own kitchen, at least in a psychological sense. It’s not just somewhere I go to eat, but where I catch up on the goings-on in the community, get a sense for the pulse of Santa Cruz and enjoy convivial conversation with friends or fellow patrons when sitting at the bar. It’s one of the first stops I make when I get back from a long trip, part of the ritual of returning home.
Avanti abides by the philosophy of the esteemed Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (indeed chef Ben Sims is one of many alumni of this venerable and still outstanding Berkeley institution): local, in-season, and organic, in this case informed mainly by Italian sensibilities, with occasional detours to France and Spain. It’s a great philosophy of food, though easier said than done if one lives somewhere where year-round agriculture is impractical, but this is a long topic for another day. It does mean that sometimes the fantastic, perfectly-fried calamari isn’t available since the fishermen didn’t catch any from Monterey Bay in the past couple of days.
[I don't like to interject - but I do have to say, this calamari, fried in clarified butter, is the best fried calamari i've had anywhere in the world - foodosopher]
When “winter” arrives in this part of the world, the seasonal rains follow and provide mushrooms that can be foraged throughout the Santa Cruz mountains. Pasta and mushrooms (and, yes, butter) go together so well that I can hardly be persuaded to do anything else with chantrelles when I get my hands on them.
The rarer, early-season cocorra mushrooms are meatier but equally subtle in that delicious umami kind of way and were shown off nicely when combined with linguine, tomatoes and spinach.
A special of lamb leg was one of the best lamb dishes I’ve ever had anywhere – spot-on medium-rare local lamb served with an earthy risotto and a radicchio and fava bean pesto that provided lovely balance.
Even if there’s no room for a full dessert, there are gratis delicate butter cookies that ensure the meal ends on a sweet note.
I’ve eaten so many meals at Avanti that it’s hard to review just a few dishes. I can say that over the countless visits, I’ve found the food to be consistently very good to oustanding. The wine list is eclectic, interesting and well-chosen to complement the food. The spirit and charm make Avanti a place I choose to spend more time in a restaurant than I could have imagined all those years ago. I understand that my personal equivalent to Cheers isn’t what others would necessarily choose. Whatever one’s preference, however, there’s something universal about the sense of belonging and community that makes having such a haven one of the pleasures in life.