I took my first bite of real Italian pizza on Oct. 24, 1988, in Sirmione, Italy: it's recorded for posterity in my travel journal. I still recall the irregular, bubbled crust and lightly strewn ingredients. And the eye-opening flavors, so different from anything I had tasted, fresh but with a hint of smokiness.
These days, restaurants with Italian-style pizza ovens seem to be popping up all over the county. Pizzeria Avanti, one of Santa Cruz's newest such spots, has something extra going for it: This Mission Street pizzeria evolved directly from Ristorante Avanti, a landmark trattoria known for its local-organic-sustainable ingredients, when the parent business moved down the street in July.
As Michele and I noticed, Pizzeria Avanti hadn't changed much in appearance since the original restaurant relocated. The same colorful Italian pottery pieces lined the natural wood walls; the same chrome bar gleamed in the front room, although with new blond wooden stools. In the kitchen, however, a new centerpiece is in place: a Marsal and Sons gas-fired pizza oven.
Choosing a table in the main dining room, we looked over the one-page food and wine menu. All 10 wines, mostly Italian, cost $8 per glass or $32 per bottle. Michele chose an Italian sparkler, NV Sorelle Bronca Prosecco ($8) that was light and pleasantly dry. I ordered a hearty local wine that Avanti has on tap, 2009 Rail2Rail Zinfandel ($8) by Laumann Family Estate Wines.
Antipasti included soup, several oven-roasted items and a trio of antipasti plates. We chose Olives al Forno ($4) and Celery Root and Potato Soup (bowl, $6), along with Frisee-Arugula Salad with Fennel and Beets ($9). For main dishes, we ordered Cannelloni with Ricotta, Chicken and Wild Nettles ($12) and a 12-inch Prosciutto-Arugula Pizzette ($15). Other items can be added to pizzas, from Calabrian hot peppers ($2) to housemade sausage ($4).
Piping hot from the pizza oven, our generous serving of various types of olives sat in a shallow pool of house-infused, herbal olive oil that begged for dipping. Luckily, we had the perfect crusty bread, a rustic pane, housemade in Avanti's gas-fired oven.
The soup seemed a little bland at first taste but it blossomed into a creamy, vegetative finish warmly tinged with truffle oil. We both appreciated the slightly rough, homey texture of this winter-friendly soup. Michele's frisée salad was simply extraordinary, its ultra-fresh ingredients -- golden beets, avocado, shaved fennel and pink pickled onion slivers -- illuminated by a brilliantly lively Meyer lemon dressing.
The flavors and freshness of our pizzette took me back to Sirmione, though this pizza was thicker than many I've had in Italy. Lightly bubbled, the tender crust was the perfect texture. It surrounded a mozzarella-covered surface decorated with succulent slices of excellent prosciutto, a peppery tangle of arugula and -- my favorite -- wonderfully sweet pieces of dry-farmed tomatoes from Dirty Girl Produce.
The ingredients of our burrito-sized cannelloni, which was served with a simple vinaigrette-dressed salad, were impeccable: toothsome housemade pasta, creamy ricotta laced with wild nettles and marinated chicken, bright-tasting marinara sauce. But the result was somehow unfocused; the subtle nettles disappeared in the mix and I longed for a pop of flavor to elevate this otherwise appealing dish.
We finished with a Housemade Gelato and Chocolate Cookie Sandwich ($5), Avanti's gourmet version of an old favorite, nicely complemented by our hearty Americano Coffee ($4).
It's not surprising that Pizzeria Avanti is notable -- just like Ristorante Avanti -- for its dedication to freshest-of-the-fresh, locally sourced ingredients and elegantly rustic presentation. After all, the olive doesn't fall far from the tree.
Ann Parker welcomes comments, feedback and suggestions about reviews for area restaurants. Contact her at email@example.com.
WHERE: 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
AMBIANCE: Same as previous Avanti's
COST: Reasonable (pizza and main dishes, $12-$22)
Read more Sentinel dining reviews at www.santacruzsentinel.com/food.
More about Pizzeria Avanti
Pizzeria Avanti, which opened mid-October, is a blend of old and new. 'Not a piece of the pottery was removed,' says manager Jeremy Federico, who started with Ristorante Avanti in 2004. 'But we did lose one table to make more space.'
The restaurant's two pizzaiole, Hugo Martinez and Rene Serna, have been with Avanti since 1989 and 1998, respectively, but the rest of the staff is brand-new. 'We started from scratch, all new employees,' says Federico.
Pizzeria Avanti's biggest change is its new double-deck, gas brick oven where pizza, bread and a number of other items are cooked. Other dishes are finished in the oven, such as the olives 'al forno' [Italian for baked].
'We use Giusto's organic flour for our pizza dough and bread "“ both are organic and vegan,' notes Federico. 'Fran Grayson (Ristorante Avanti chef de cuisine) helped develop the pizza dough. The larger 16-inch size is a little thinner because it's tossed longer.'
Paul Geise, who co-owns both Avanti restaurants with his wife, Cindy, continues to oversee the pizzeria's wine list, which includes two house wines: a 2010 Cambiata Albarino and the 2009 Rail2Rail Zinfandel.
-- Ann Parker