Matt Moreno and his family had felt that Santa Cruz was missing something—an East Coast-style Italian restaurant. So, in 2007, they opened Lillian’s, named after the family’s Sicilian grandma who was born and raised in Yonkers, New York.
Transitioning from working in the golf industry to restaurant owner/GM was a steep learning curve, but Moreno had Grandma Lillian’s recipes to lean on. He defines the menu as “family-friendly comfort food.”
Along with Grandma’s recipes, the fresh local fish specials and housemade black truffle-stuffed gnocchi (with gorgonzola cream sauce) keep the place packed. The char-grilled filet is another staple. Traditional cannoli and tiramisu for dessert accompany authentic New York-style cheesecake.
Moreno spoke to GT about his former life in the golf world and the woman who inspired Lillian’s.
How do golf and Lillian’s intersect?
MATT MORENO: Working for local golf courses for eight years really helped me build many friendships and relationships with pillars of our community, and now I see a lot of those same faces at Lillian’s. We really pride ourselves on being a friendly, local neighborhood spot, and our staff really goes out of their way to build personal relationships with our guests. And in golf and the restaurant industry, you often fail more than you succeed, so that helps me be patient and weather the storms that come with managing a restaurant.
What is the most Italian thing about Lillian’s?
For one, the strong family ties and aspect—we are a totally family-run restaurant. I’m the general manager, my brother Chris is the chef, and my mom and dad do the rest. Mixing business and family can often tear families apart, but it’s actually made ours stronger. It’s fulfilling and enjoyable, and it is a blessing to work every day with people you love so much. And also, it’s very lively, upbeat and boisterous here in a very New York way. It’s a family-centered atmosphere filled with wine, passionate discussions and lots of moving hands.
1148 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831-425-2288; lilliansitaliankitchen.com.