With a robust California-Mediterranean menu and buffed interior, Avanti is settling into its 21st-century identity.
New owners Jonathan and Tatiana Glass have made some attractive decisions. The side patio is now fully enclosed, lined with ferns and holds its own as a separate party room. An emerald moss sculpture stretches across the far back wall, overlooking curved wood seating, grey upholstery and white walls free of artwork. Slight-but-significant changes give the new Avanti (note, no more “Ristorante” in the name) a breezy, coastal-modern feel. And, as we discovered at lunch last week, the food has never been better,
We started with one of the special drink options, a Cucumber Cooler ($8), utterly refreshing with cucumber, elderflower and lime muddled with Seedlip n/a gin and soda. A mocktail for late summer sophisticates. With it, we shared an appetizer special of plump salmon fritters, a crunchy trio perched on house marinara with a freshly made mayonnaise dipping sauce and a wedge of lime ($13). My companion was busy taking in the details of the stonework around the windows and alcoves that give the interior distinction. Skylights keep the room suffused with soft light.
Our entrees were excellent. I always have loved one of the house classics, the confit of Liberty Duck ($19), served with roasted potatoes and a sauté of baby carrots, onions and fresh green beans, the market vegetables of the day. This dish has it all, with the sensory contrasts I expect of a classic: the intensity of duck fat and crisp, salty skin; the earthiness of potatoes; the sweetness of the beans and carrots. Terrifically satisfying.
Jack went for a gorgeous plate of lamb meatballs with red pepper-laced marinara arranged atop a trio of grilled polenta cakes ($13). A generous grating of parmigiano reggiano and chopped parsley dusted every item on the long, rectangular stoneware plate. Trying not to grin while he ate, my companion inhaled a third of this dish before he came up for air. My fork reached over and gave it a try. I started grinning, too. The sensitivity to design of the new interior was echoed by the sensitivity to textures and design of the food. The marinara sauce, pungent with fresh herbs and the depth of slow-cooked tomatoes, was almost addictive. The kind of thing you might happily put on corn flakes.
Jack approved. This is the perfect place to meet for lunch, he agreed. There are still plenty of Italianate entrées—lasagne, ravioli, pappardelle, gnocchi, even clams and linguine—to keep the old-school regulars content. Appetizers are getting creative. Lots of calamari specials and market garden salads. Checking out the dessert menu, I noted with pleasure that the insanely decadent butterscotch budino with salted caramel sauce was still available. No matter how full you are, once you’ve had a single bite of this semi-legal dessert, you cannot stop eating. So I made sure to try something new. I almost caved at the very idea of mascarpone mousse cake with nectarine glaze, or (upon the high approval rating by savvy hostess Christi Caviglia) the chocolate olive oil cake. But I decided on homemade peach pie with almond crumble and vanilla gelato ($10). Two spoons. A luxurious, pampering pie, it was plump with fresh peaches and festooned with almondy bits of crumbled butter, brown sugar and more almonds. At the side, providing contrast, was an austere, barely sweet scoop of vanilla gelato. I kicked myself that I hadn’t ordered an espresso to pair with this lavish made-for-two dessert. But of course, there’s next time…
Avanti Restaurant, 1917 Mission St., Santa Cruz. Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner nightly from 5 p.m. 427-0135, avantisantacruz.squarespace.com.