A diverse clientele—couples, families, visitors, regulars—were already in fine-dining mode when we arrived at Cafe Mare last week to enjoy the air-conditioned joys of a cool Italian meal. A landmark for several decades, this durable restaurant offers generous seating, a long and unpretentious menu, a full bar and attentive service. The menu reflects the sensibilities of its Calabrian owner, and last week we enjoyed test-driving some Italian with our waiter, a young man living the good life, soccer and surfing by day, waiting tables in this downtown establishment by night.
The all-organic menu inspired us to order a sprightly salad of arugula topped with thick rounds of pancetta, cherry tomatoes and goat cheese ($16.50). We chased the exceptionally fresh, peppery arugula with our glasses of Chianti Poggio Caponi 2019 ($10) while listening to Chet Baker providing the soundtrack to the U.S. Open visible above the very well-stocked bar. White tablecloths and a laidback urban atmosphere, thanks to the below-street-level dining room, make everyone feel welcome. The long daily opening hours also make Cafe Mare a go-to favorite.
My entree of gamberoni alla diavola absolutely hit the spot. The large plate arrived with a sizable cluster of large shrimp sauteed in a spicy tomato white wine sauce laced with capers. The shrimp were joined by excellent roast potatoes and perfectly al dente broccoli crowns. The broccoli ($27.50) really won us over. Not the usual after-thought, this pretty emerald vegetable had been given some care and retained both crispness and flavor intensity.
There were more of the addictive potatoes (why don’t people think of outstanding potatoes when they think of Italian food—they should) and crisp broccoli on Jack’s plate of classic Vitello scaloppini, done piccata-style in a light saucing of wine, butter and capers ($27.50). Sometimes you don’t need a wildly innovative, designer dining experience. You just want to enjoy a dinner that tastes exactly as you want it to taste.
Our generous pours of red wine (plus a half bottle of sparkling water) kept us company throughout our meal. This place is timeless, without need for any designer statements, just a few mid-century touches like the red rose in tableside vases and the black and white photos of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in the hallways. Retro, yet with youthful energy. Definitely a nice place for dinner, even if you haven’t planned ahead.
For dessert, we split a glass bowl of tiramisu ($8) that my companion loved for its nice liquor-soaked lady fingers. I would have liked a thicker layer of mascarpone cream cheese, but it was a sweet finish to a lovely meal.
Cafe Mare, 740 Front St. #100, Santa Cruz. Open daily 11:30am-2pm, 5-9pm; 11:30am-10pm Saturday, 11:30am-9:30pm Sunday. cafemare.com.
LEFTOVERS PRO TIP
I’m one of those people who like to make a whole new dish out of leftovers. You know, shred last night’s chicken breast to top a bed of greens with some late-harvest, dry-farmed tomatoes. Add whatever else looks interesting and splash on some zesty salad dressing. From our Cafe Mare dinner we had leftover shrimp, so I picked up a couple of day boat petrale sole filets from New Leaf Market, sauteed them and topped them with the shrimp and the remaining spicy diavolo sauce. Major transformation. A whole new dinner experience. Added a salad of little gems and glasses of delicious Lubanzi South African GSM (now available in cans—very portable, easy to open and a mere $5.99 for a big 355ml picnic portion). And toasted the much-loved QEII, a remarkable woman for almost a century.