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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Safe Harbor: It may have been expanded and renovated, but Aldo's can still be trusted to carry on a family tradition of Italian food.

Preserving the Pasta

Even after its remodeling, Aldo's is all about Italian traditions passed down through the generations

By Steve Billings

It's all about family. I realized this immediately when speaking with Joe Mootz, manager of the recently remodeled Aldo's Restaurant, and grandson of patriarch Aldo Olivieri.

Though Joe currently runs this harbor location, the Olivieri creation story dates from mid-20th-century America, after the end of World War II. Joe says that when Aldo Olivieri arrived in Santa Cruz, by way of Sestri, Italy, in 1950, the bank wouldn't loan him the money he needed to get started fishing.

"His whole motivation was to feed his family," says Mootz. "They just came from war-torn Italy. He knows how to fish, he knows how to bake, and he wants to fish and get out there and the bank goes, 'We're not going to loan to you.' So he goes to this beach right here [pointing toward harbor lighthouse], collects wood, builds a boat, goes out and fishes and here we are. If there's passion and inspiration, there it is right there. In a nutshell, that is our family."

That was 1950. In 1963, Aldo received the first lease in Santa Cruz harbor at the foot of Atlantic Avenue and opened a bait shop. The family was selling bait, renting boats and running a successful business. Fast-forward to 1977, when Joe's uncle, Walter Olivieri, gets the idea to open a restaurant in conjunction with the bait shop.

"My father Mauro was working in the restaurant business in San Francisco in the '70s and he came down here and everybody, as a collective, threw this restaurant together," says Mootz. "The intention was to run it as both a restaurant and a bait shop, not knowing it was going to be this gem of a location."

A gem it is. The building's vast outdoor dining area soaks its feet in the harbor's water. Patrons have views of the channel clear to the harbor mouth and the bay beyond as sounds of sailboat rigging and kids fishing from the docks complement the busy yet peaceful surroundings.

And once the weather turns, you'll still be able to enjoy the impeccable views from the inside, as the remodeled space can now accommodate about 50 people, compared to a modest 15 before the overhaul.

But just because it has remodeled, don't expect Aldo's to stray from its roots as a reliable venue for your morning omelettes, homemade raviolis, fresh seafood and equally fresh fugasa, an olive oil-based pan bread served with almost everything. Joe's uncle Walter still gets the salmon and Mauro (his dad) makes the ravioli and sauces, while the bread and other pastas are done at Aldo's Bakery.

That's not so different from how it worked back in the day.

"Aldo, Walter and later I would fish for the restaurant, bring it in, march it right across the deck, cut it up and serve it," says Mootz. "We had the salmon and the calamari and my grandfather would make enough ravioli for the day."

The menu may have expanded a bit since then, but the fare is what you'd expect from an Italian fishing family's restaurant. The focus is on the pasta dishes and the fresh seafood, which receives a simple, straightforward treatment from the kitchen as a way to maintain both consistency and quality when faced with hordes of summer diners.

"I like to keep the menu simple," says Mootz. "There's days when we're doing eight to nine hundred meals, and when you're doing that, you know, you want to keep it good and simple."

Enough said. This commitment to tradition and simplicity has earned Aldo's a reliable clientele, many of whom having been coming here from locations in the Central Valley for three generations. You get the idea that if the menu changed or got too fancy there might be some kind of twisted tourist revolt.

"We have families that come down here from Sacramento, from the Central Valley," says Mootz. "Now they're on their third generation of kids that are coming in that tell us stories of fishing on the deck and oh my parents used to bring me here, and this is where they'd come."

And outside of a face-lift and a new kitchen, they would probably tell you that not much has changed.

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From the July 28-August 4, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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