.Boldly Bantam

dining bantamNew hotspot brings wood-fired pizza and a whole lot more to the Westside

Seeking to satisfy Santa Cruz’s seemingly insatiable desire for pizza, Bantam has fired up its wood-burning oven on the Westside, just across Fair Avenue from New Leaf Market.
An hour before closing we were shown to a recently vacated table, and the only available table. The atmosphere was warm as neighbors lingered over the last of their beverages. Lively ’80s rock music and jovial banter shared the air with savory aromas. Our server Dan was welcoming, and shared in-depth knowledge of ingredients, flavors and cooking techniques.

Benjamin Sims, who owns the restaurant with his wife Sarah, got his start making pizza in the kitchen of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. At the kitchen’s helm is Melissa Reitz. The menu, which proclaims “Don’t panic, it’s organic,” is more varied than it is long, and very unique. Dan told us it changes weekly depending on what is available from the local growers, although about 60 percent of the items are always available.

The Sims built the restaurant, which was most recently a gym, from the ground up. While the kitchen and dining tables are distinctly modern, there is still a sense of rusticity. A pony wall separates the kitchen and oven from the dining area where dark tables are enjoyed from a smooth, wooden, matte black bench or chairs. Whimsical touches connect yesterday and today, such as the open beam whitewashed ceiling, rough recycled lumber siding, horizontally laid pieces of well-worn Victorian beaded wainscoting, and the cement floor, varnished over footprints of linoleum squares, as if a window into the building’s industrial past.

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Ten wines by the glass and bottle ($8-$10 and $32-$40), both Californian and European, are offered along with a selection of draft microbrews, many from California. A glass of Pinto from Sarah’s Vineyards ($9) was both jammy and spicy, perfect for the savory courses and the decadent dessert that would follow.

A handful of snacks ($4 to $5) included rosemary almonds and Pig’s Head Fritters with mustard. For the first course, ($10 to $12) there are salads such as chicory from Watsonville’s Mariquita Farms with Burrata, a fresh mozzarella stuffed with mozzarella and cream, and pistachios. The current soup was a creamy garbanzo with saffron, shallots and fried rosemary. One of the two pasta dishes was stuffed Cannelloni with little meatballs and fava beans, finished in the wood oven to brown the top.

The light and tart Citrus Salad ($10) was tossed with a preserved lemon dressing. Segments of peeled oranges, pomelo, and sweet del oro grapefruit were plated with batons of tender rutabaga and two kinds of thinly shaved radishes; red ones with striated red and white interiors, and slender white daikon.

The Rollmops ($13) were hidden underneath a sheet of fried dough, thinner than a corn tortilla. Three strips of local herring fillets were rolled around dilled crème fraîche and served with lightly cooked, knobbed, conical swirls of Romanesco broccoli and a crimson purée of beets.

dining bantamcitrusThe serving sizes were not overwhelming, enabling the two starters to whet rather than dampen our appetites for the pasta and pizza on the way.

The bowl of Spaghetti ($15) was mixed simply with oil, a bit of mint and chili, recognizable pieces of Dungeness crab, and artichoke hearts. These were not the pickled variety with tough leaves, just thin slices of the tender heart and stem.

The selection of wood-fired pizzas ($10-$16) includes smoked mozzarella and dandelion pesto, nettles from Route 1 Farms with Royal Oaks’ Garden Variety feta and Meyer lemon oil. We were torn between the sausage and pepperoni pizzas, so I compromised with the best of both worlds; a sausage pizza $16) with the addition of El Salchichero pepperoni ($3), made just down the block by Chef Chris LaVeque.

From my seat, I watched the pizza makers stretch circles of pliable dough between their fists.  The rim remains unstretched, ensuring that the perimeter would rise to pubbly perfection. They used a long-handled metal peel to rotate the pies for even cooking.

Our pizza arrived, its airy rim dotted with blackened bubbles. Its tomato sauce had been richened with a touch of cream. Chewy moons of pepperoni joined thin bits of spicy red Calabrian chili peppers, slivers of crunchy red onion and sweet house-made sausage. Grated Parmesan and minced parsley had been added just before serving.
For dessert, we had our choice of ice cream from Penny Ice Creamery or house-made Chocolate Nemesis Cake ($8). With a smooth, brownie-like mocha-colored top, the latter was sweet and rich with the dense chocolate flavor of ganache and the creamy mouth feel of mousse.

As we finished up, the staff drifted over to a long communal table in the kitchen, which had been stocked with pizza, salads, and kale. Community is also where the hearth is.     

Bantam, 1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz, 420-0101. Beer and wine. Open  Monday through Thursday 5 -9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5-9:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.
Visit Bantam on Facebook.


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