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Santa Cruz on the Riviera: Jessica Miller-Carstensen serves up some of Sestri's Iitalian Riviera-style dishes.

Italian by Inspiration

Sestri is dedicated to serving up 'inspired Italian' cooking in its purest form

By Jessica Neuman Beck

If the name Sestri rings a bell, it might be because the "Welcome to Santa Cruz" sign on Ocean names Sestri Levante as one of Santa Cruz's numerous sister cities, along with Jinotepe, Nicaragua, and Shingu, Japan, among others.

But as of March 29, Sestri also became the moniker for a new Italian restaurant in Santa Cruz, brought to you by the restaurateurs behind the hugely successful Left Bank on Santana Row in San Jose.

Sestri Levante, a quiet town on the Italian Riviera, is famous for its sandy beaches and private collection of drawings and prints in the Galleria Rizzi. And more importantly to John Mootz, "that's where my dad is from."

Mootz's father, Mauro Olivieri, is a driving force behind Aldo's Italian Bakery in Soquel, and co-owns Sestri along with John and his brother Joel. Olivieri and his family came to Santa Cruz from Italy in the '50s.

"A lot of the old Santa Cruz families did the same thing," says Mootz. "We wanted to feature recipes from that area, and tie it in to the Santa Cruz community."

The Italian Riviera is best known for its cafes and picturesque coastline--not unlike Santa Cruz. Mootz has done his best to re-create the Italian Riviera atmosphere in his restaurant.

"We just wanted a very soft, comfortable feeling," Mootz says. "You walk in and it's a very rich, dark wood color. We brought in Henry Banks, a local contractor, and he did some fantastic woodwork and built out our back bar."

Vintage Italian posters and paintings by local artists Suzanne and Nicole Etienne hang on the walls in the dining rooms, which were renovated and expanded to include a banquet area that can seat up to 30 people.

Left Bank Shot

Sestri's head chef is Jamie Smith, graduate of the French Culinary Institute of New York. Mootz and Smith met at Left Bank Restaurants, where Smith was executive chef.

"It was a lot of fun and a lot of work," says Mootz. "An opportunity came up for us to do something on our own and we thought that we'd make a great partnership."

Smith agrees. "I really loved the idea that we would have local history," he says, "and I'm a huge fan of the Italian style of cooking."

One of the things that draws Smith to Italian cuisine is, surprisingly, its minimalism.

"It's more a style than spaghetti and meatballs," says Smith. "The Italians, when they try to get the food from the garden to the plate, really try to get it there as fast as they can. They aren't carving vegetables to make them look like ducks."

Smith took the idea of using fresh, flavorful ingredients and distilled it to its purest form. They call it "inspired Italian cooking."

"A lot of our dishes are only going to have a couple of ingredients, so the flavors really shine through," Smith says. "One dish that's been enormously popular is our gnocchi. We make a potato gnocchi with exotic mushrooms and a light gorgonzola cream and the combination of flavors is fantastic, yet it literally has only a couple of ingredients."

Smith and Mootz agree that the fish and produce of Santa Cruz are ideally suited to Sestri's cuisine.

"We have this incredible resource from the farmers down to the south," Mootz says. "The fresh seafood and different products that we get in this area really lend themselves to the Italian style of cooking."

A balance between local items and their Italian counterparts is crucial, so they import items like vinegars, olives and cheeses. "Certain things that come from Italy necessarily have to come from Italy--that's the only way to really get that flavor you're looking for," Mootz says. "They're really complements to the produce and seafood that we have here." He adds, "We're getting some wonderful capers in that are just incredible flavor. You can almost taste the salt air in them."

The wines, too, are a mixture of local and imports. "We want the wines we get from Italy to complement the wines we have here," says Mootz. "Most of the grapes [at Santa Cruz wineries] were planted here hundreds of years ago by Italians. The flavor of the wines is going to be similar to the ones we get from Italy."

Dessert, for Italians, is practically a meal unto itself, and Sestri doesn't leave diners wanting. "One dish that is going to be a signature of our restaurant is our chocolate Amarone cake," says Smith.

Amarone is an Italian wine made with grapes that have been allowed to raisin, so they're slightly sweet. It has a rich, portlike flavor. "We reduce that wine and make a syrup out of it, and then stir it into what is a classic--or in some cases a clichéd--molten center chocolate cake. It oozes kind of like a pudding onto the plate. It's warm, and just wonderful. It takes on a very exotic and adult flavor with the Amarone wine in there." The dish is served with a Panna Cotta, which is a sweet Italian cream ice cream. "It's literally made with just cream. It's done in the gelato style," Smith says. "It doesn't have any flavor like vanilla or anything like that, and it really pairs wonderfully with the chocolate." The dessert menu also features seasonal Panna Cottas, including one flavored with saffron and served with marinated citrus. "It's really fun," says Smith. "We have a lot of very fun but very simple desserts."

Letting the food speak for itself is hardly a new concept, but it's utilized at Sestri to great effect.

"The flavors are meant to be very forward and very clear," says Smith. "You don't have to overdo the product. That's what we're really trying to accomplish here."

Sestri is located at 655 Capitola Road in Santa Cruz. Dinner is served from 5:30 to 10:30pm daily. (831.479.0200)

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From the April 14-21, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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