It may sound like a cliché: starting as a dishwasher, working tirelessly through the ranks and eventually becoming a restaurant owner. But the truth is that it’s a feat few accomplish. Ernesto Garcia is one of those few.
In 1982, the Jalisco, Mexico transplant was hired as a dishwasher for Ristorante Italiano. A dozen years later, Garcia graduated to prep cook. From there, he moved to line cook and then kitchen manager. In 2010, he became a head chef—and also took over as owner.
Garcia’s longtime passion for Italian cuisine is apparent in every layer of pasta, ricotta, meat and red sauce that makes up Italiano’s lasagna. Meanwhile, the cioppino (available weekends only) is a succulent seafood bounty, and the housemade tiramisu is worth making room for. Then there’s the popular frozen baked potato: an original concoction made of cookies and cream ice cream and some other sweet ingredients.
Ristorante Italiano is open 4:30-8:30pm (until 9pm Fridays and Saturdays) and closed Tuesdays. Garcia dished about his meteoric rise through the ranks and the most inspiring moment he’s had as a chef.
What compelled you to become a restaurant owner?
ERNESTO GARCIA: I started as a dishwasher and discovered my passion for Italian cuisine. When I had the opportunity to become owner, I wanted to do it because it really motivated me to share my love for food with others and just continue to make people happy. And being owner, I was also inspired to showcase my creativity and be able to include my family in my journey.
What sparks your culinary creativity?
One night when I got the opportunity to create my very own special. It was a very busy night, and it was the first time that I had gotten to put a dish on special. I chose Salmon Florentine because we had a lot of salmon that night, and I personally love that dish. I was the one cooking it throughout the night, and we sold over 80 dishes. There was something about everyone enjoying what I had made that made me feel really good. It is the feeling you get when you know you’ve made other people happy.
555 Soquel Ave., Ste. 150, Santa Cruz. 831-458-2321. ristoranteitalianosc.com.