The Star Bene family offers Old World hospitality with its Italian recipes
quartet of old friends discussed business and life over dinner, joined later by a woman and young boy. The table then erupted in excitement as Grandmother made her entrance. As is characteristic of European neighborhood restaurants, it was from this table that Sergio Di Sarro, an owner of Star Bene, arose to welcome us into his dining room.
On this particular mid-week evening, the back patio was empty. Inside the home, plastered walls with rounded corners were faux-painted in delicate colors, and were romantically illuminated by numerous lights. A bottle of Sangiovese, one of our favorite varietals, miraculously decorated our table, which was also stocked with crayons for adorning the clean white paper tablecloth covers.
Strips of focaccia were served first with a plate holding samples of three condiments. Tomato purée, dark minced olive tapenade and gently-roasted garlic were all drizzled with olive oil. We then proceeded to enjoy a trio of flavorful appetizers.
The crisply-toasted Bruschetta ($5) was topped with chopped tomatoes and flavorful feta-style cheese. A plate of thinly-sliced smoked Atlantic Salmone Affumicato ($11.95) was dotted with tart capers and held a dollop of thick, white mascarpone and a sprig of fresh dill. The creamy cheese spread nicely on the focaccia, which we then topped with folds of pink fish, capers, and thin leaves of dill.
Although Star Bene has both a small Caesar Salad ($6.95) and a larger version with grilled chicken breast ($9.95), the Star Bene Insalata ($8.95) was enticing. Fresh mozzarella was wrapped with prosciutto and baked until mostly melted, topped with a spoonful of basil pesto, and served atop lightly dressed green and red-veined lettuces.
My favorite pasta here is Farfalle Alla Russa ($16.95). Bowtie pasta is tossed with soft smoked salmon in a tomato-vodka cream sauce. The vodka's alcohol is instrumental in delivering some of the tomatoes' otherwise undetectable flavor compounds.
On this visit we tried two different dishes which were both served in ample shallow bowls. Fettuccini Alla Diavola ($16.95), which refers to the devil, featured both tiger prawns and shrimp with thinly-sliced mushrooms, garlic, and marvelous house-made flat noodles. The spicy bite of the light marinara sauce left the palate pleasantly aglow.
The generous mountain of Spaghetti Puttanesca ($14.95) was swirled like a tornado. Coated in a light marinara with chopped tomatoes, it included thin strips of greens, capers, kalamata olives and pieces of tuna fish.
From the colorful dessert menu we couldn't resist Dark Chocolate Profiteroles ($7). Three small cream puffs were filled with Chantilly cream, a sweetened and flavored whipped heavy cream. They were then covered with rich, soft, fondant-like chocolate, sprinkled with cocoa powder, and served with another soft cloud of Chantilly cream.
Star Bene Ristorante Italiano, 21245 East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, 479-4307. Beer and wine. Serving dinner nightly 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Visit star-bene.com
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