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02.13.08

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Photograph by Pete Shea
Limon aides: Maitre d' Augusto Assis and chef Giovanni Di Maio show off a plate of homemade ravioli alla caprese.

The Maestro Returns

Led by chef Giovanni Di Maio, the expert team at Tavernetta Limoncello is renewing Santa Cruz's love affair with Italian cuisine.

By Christina Waters


Those vintage sepia-toned photos of the Bay of Naples have returned to the pale yellow walls. Returned to the kitchen is Italian maestro Giovanni Di Maio, a man who knows his way around fettucine pescatore and homemade tiramisu. Teamed up with a savvy staff and his co-owner and maitre d' Augusto Assis, Di Maio is knocking us out. From the opening bite of opulent, milky buffalo mozzarella to the final spoonful of limoncello cream parfait, we were in Neapolitan heaven. Like many of the chef's fans, Jack and I had mourned the closure of Caffe Bella Napoli three years ago. But sometimes lightning does strike twice, and three weeks ago Di Maio and Assis teamed up again and opened the doors of this intimate little dining room on Water Street.

The menu will doubtless undergo some fine-tuning—currently there are dozens of pastas, probably too many. Having said that, a lunch entree of baked rigatoni ai quattro formaggi—containing whispers of fontina, smoked mozzarella, gorgonzola and parmesan—was stunning. Against all odds, this rich rigatoni classic was miraculously light, with a dusting of bread crumbs on top and a layer of cream and silky radicchio at the bottom. The Limoncello wine list promises to expand from its current modest handful of mostly Italian varietals—good varietals, let me hasten to add. But the dinners that poured from the kitchen in a steady stream of operatic grandeur and heady aromas last week looked fabulous. And tasted even better. The place was packed, everybody was talking, laughing and inhaling their beautiful dinners. No plate went uncleaned, including ours.

An earthy hummus spiked with garlic and olive oil accompanied a basket of excellent focaccia. We helped ourselves as we considered the menu. Large goblets of red wine—mine a Nero d'Avola, Suaviter, 2002 ($8.50), Jack's a Primativo, Cantele, 2005 from Puglia ($7.50)—arrived at exactly the right temperature. Many restaurants tend to neglect red wines, assuming that room temperature is fine. Usually it's too warm. A perfume of cassis, cedar and something spicy, perhaps bay leaf, began to expand in my glass. Jack's ancient relative of the zinfandel grape did its big earthy thing, and we started things off with a shared appetizer of buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto ($13.50). Not since my last trip to Italy had I tasted anything this milky and creamy. Alternating with fresh basil, the thick slices of snowy white cheese made the perfect foil for the prosciutto. Zesty garnishes of black olives, huge caper berries and marinated artichokes played counterpoint. We took our time.

Next came an appetizer portion of one of the pasta specialties—veal-stuffed mezzaluna with brown butter, pine nuts and flash-fried sage ($21). Unctuous, beautifully balanced and, again, not the least bit heavy (or heavy-handed). Since it was Jack's birthday, he pampered himself with an order of veal marsala ($22). (The kitchen offers to prepare veal scallops any way you like—piccata, marsala, saltimbocca, etc.) Literally smothered with sautéed mushrooms, the veal was dreamy, tender and authentic. Fingerling potatoes and a sauté of green beans infused with ribbons of orange bell pepper and carrots were as thoughtfully prepared as the main dish. My entree of natural beef filet mignon ($28) was a brilliant creation, topped with slow-cooked onions and joined by the sensuous fingerlings and vegetables. I couldn't possibly finish the substantial, and very thick, steak—it made a great dinner the next night—so I simply enjoyed as much as I could reasonably consume. Deep crimson and juicy, it was infused with intense beef flavor.

If this chef has a signature style, it is his skilled devotion to robust flavor-intensity orchestrated with a light, sure hand. Nothing overwhelms, each flavor is allowed its own true voice. A case in point was a shared order of tiramisu we enjoyed at another Limoncello meal. Presented in a happy, free-form slab and adorned with fat blueberries and olallieberries, this ode to mascarpone was neither too sweet nor too overwrought with chocolate and coffee. Simple. Creamy. Irresistible.

To finish our birthday dinner, we split one of the house signature parfaits ($6). One tall goblet, filled with firm, chilled cream and then liberally laced with Limoncello liqueur, conquered us. We easily polished off the tangy, tart dessert and shamelessly licked our spoons. We weren't the only ones licking their spoons at Limoncello that night.



TAVERNETTA LIMONCELLO

Address: 503 Water St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.427.0998

Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; 5:30pm-close nightly Mon-Sun


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