Santa Cruz Good Times

Nov 30th
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Worth the Wait

dining_LilliansLillian’s Italian Kitchen celebrates its second birthday
In a nightly ritual, anticipative patrons relax in wooden folding chairs outside of Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, the darling of the Seabright neighborhood. Voted the best new restaurant by Good Times readers in 2008, it is the hospitality extended by patriarch Joseph Moreno, son Matt and the servers up front, along with home-style Italian specialties marvelously executed by son Chris in the kitchen that has garnered this cozy eatery a loyal following. With service so unique that you can enjoy a cocktail at one of the neighboring establishments: your cell phone will ring when your table is ready.

The air here is often thick with jovial conversation. The wine list, although not large, includes local favorites. The menu is a mix of Chef Chris’s grandmother Lillian’s recipes and his own.

During most of the restaurant’s first year, I alternated between three favorites. Sunday Gravy ($9.95), the family’s slowly simmered tomato-based sauce, was loaded with meat and spiced sausage. Perched on a thick, piping hot pedestal of polenta (or pasta), it bestowed homey comfort. Lasagna ($12.95) layers the same sauce high between wide noodles with whole milk ricotta and mozzarella. Plump prawns swam in the wonderfully spicy Diavola sauce ($13.95), served over linguini, penne or polenta.

Recently, I’ve become more adventuresome, and have never been disappointed. Sausage and Peppers ($11.95), over penne or polenta, featured fat half-moon slices of well-seasoned sausage and toothsome roasted red pepper ribbons in bright herbed marinara.  Plump orbs of Gnocchi ($14.95), stuffed with cheese and richly flavored with black truffle oil, is served with your choice of melodious white wine pesto, gorgonzola or tomato cream sauces.

Vegetarians will enjoy Penne Margherita ($8.95) with basil and mozzarella, and Penne Primavera ($11.95) with choice of sauce.

Lil’s Kitchen Special ($12.95), topped with cheese and baked, featured penne in juicy marinara, baby spinach, and crimini mushrooms, roasted to bring out their earthy nuances. I splurged, adding charbroiled New York steak ($6), tender and cooked to medium-rare perfection.

It’s a challenge choosing between soup and salad ($2.80) with an entrée or sandwich.  Fresh greens were piled high, topped with red onions, shredded carrots and halved grape tomatoes in balsamic-pesto vinaigrette. The filling bowl of thick Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta Fazool) soup, with cannellini beans, salad macaroni and kale, ensured I would have enough of the main course left over to make a meal later.

The specials are always a treat. A Caprese appetizer of green-striped chunks of heirloom tomatoes and soft, fresh mozzarella with chiffonade of basil were marinated in olive oil. Wild Alaskan salmon was served with delicate risotto, brightened with asparagus and zucchini.

Fresh bread and desserts are delivered daily from Hoffmann’s Bakery. Whether it’s cheesecake or tiramisu, you won’t be disappointed. However, you will need to wait a few days to visit the Moreno family. Lillian’s will re-open on July 5 following a much-deserved vacation.

Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, 1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, 425-2288. Beer and wine. Serving lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2 p.m., dinner Monday through Friday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Take-out orders welcome.

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