Nestled neatly on the corner of Soquel and Ocean avenues in beautiful Surf City, Santa Cruz, California is an unassuming Italian restaurant, right on the end of a small outdoor shopping plaza. We can see an open patio with powerful heaters and signs proudly welcoming canines to join their masters. The blue and red “open” light was beckoning us to come in a give it a try. We had found Caffe Lucio, a true Italian treat featuring made-from-scratch meals using local organic farms and wild fish. This Lucina Italiana goes beyond just serving amazing, mouth-watering food; they also host a family-style party atmosphere with a one of a kind chef staff and a proud, welcoming owner, Lucio himself.
Before getting our first peek at the menu, we noticed it was happy hour. Peroni on draft, in tall, frosted glasses and a rich chocolate martini were our first round, and it was hard to change the order. The caffe has a full bar and very talented bartenders, who mixed up an Italian margarita between martinis.
For appetizers, we tried the Carpaccio, Gamberi alla Lucio, and fresh Mussels. We were also surprised with a simply delicious treat from Lucio himself; whole, marinated imported-from-Italy green olives. I personally am not an olive fan, but these were so flavorful, not over-salted, and a perfect start to our meal. The Carpaccio is razor-thin slices of filet mignon that have been drizzled with olive oil and capers, served with a half-lemon to squeeze over the meat. This was unique, tasty, and some of the most tender meat you’ll ever try. The Gamberi alla Lucio are very large sautéed prosciutto wrapped prawns served in a lemon-white wine-butter sauce. This sauce will have you asking for more bread to sop it all up- the perfect blend of citrus with butter and a most carefully selected wine. The Mussels were also served in their own butter-wine sauce and were cooked to perfection. They were tender, flavorful, fresh and juicy.
Caffe Lucio offers a wide variety of Italian favorites and authentic pasta dishes, featuring their own house-recipe sauces taking you strait to an Italian café overlooking a cobblestone street. They also have nightly specials, of which we could not resist the lobster and ricotta filled pasta sacks in a creamy tomato sauce. This sauce in itself leaves you craving spoon-fulls of its creamy, rich tomato flavor blended seamlessly with just the right seasonings. After cleaning his plate, our editor boasted “this is the best lasagna I’ve ever had!” The use of local, organic ingredients and carefully developed recipes truly shines through just how amazing their food is. We also had their spinach and ricotta filled manicotti with the house red sauce; al dente tubular noodles stuffed with succulent ricotta cheese and fresh, organic spinach. We were in heaven.
As we drifted further into our own food Utopias, Lucio was zipping around getting the party going for the night. The lazers were fired up, the fog machine started to spew fog, the music was bouncing and Lucio was entertaining a young bambino assisting her doll into a high chair. “I love the bambinos!” he exclaimed to us, shortly after his interaction with a very happy young girl. Caffe Lucio is proud of its family-style atmosphere and happily welcomes children, even featuring simpler items on the menu to suit even the pickiest eaters.
The time of magic had arrived: dessert. There were several tempting options, but we settled on the Tiramisu and a rich chocolate cake made with Nutella. They did not disappoint. The table was silent as we all savored the spectacular treats placed before us. Everything down to the plump, perfectly ripe strawberry was wonderful. The tiramisu was creamy, with a pleasing texture and spot-on blend of brandy and coffee. The cake was everything one could dream for from a nutella-infused chocolate cake from the kitchen of such amazing chefs.
Ah, the chefs. Now at any given moment during your dining experience, they will be up to something. With an assortment of hats, sunglasses, and great attitudes, they periodically make a little noise and entertain the diners. Whether they’re showing off their skills, making jokes, or dancing, the chefs are a unique addition to the usual dinner night out. They cook with an open kitchen and seem to enjoy the closeness with their diners.
Swaggerjack would like to thank the crew at Caffe Lucio and Lucio himself, for some amazing dinners and wonderful hospitality! It’s not often that you can visit a new restaurant thousands of miles from your home and feel like a regular that comes twice a week. If you are ever driving through or visiting Santa Cruz, put this treat on your must-do list. The only real challenge is only going once…