If you drive North up Route 9 out of Santa Cruz, one of the first towns you come to is Ben Lomen. Tucked into the redwoods on the southern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this little town is a classic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet on the way to Big Basin, or Boulder Creek, or one of the other better-known attractions in the area. Which is unfortunate, Ben Lomen is also the home of a first-class Italian restaurant, Casa Nostra, which serves absolutely top-drawer cuisine in an incredibly unlikely location.
A little local color: Casa Nostra is located in what used to be the legendary Ciao Bella, a restaurant noted for really, really bizarre behavior and décor in a region that’s legendary for it. Apparently this included a kind of transvestite floor show, parking spaces reserved for “Superman” and “Batman”, and décor that included things like plaster casts of pregnant women, mangled Barbie dolls and so on. Although (very) occasional reminders of this weirdness remain, if you look for them, Casa Nostra has now, apparently, calmed down, grown up, and focused on serving up really, really good Italian food. Which, it does.
La Casa Nostra is on Route 9 in Ben Lomond, on the left as you head north. It’s past Felton, and past Henry J. Cowell Redwoods State Park. There’s a parking lot with plenty of parking, so that’s not a problem.
Address: 8219 Highway 9, Ben Lomond, California 95005
Phone: (831) 609-6132
- Mon-Fri 1100 hours - 2100 hours
- Sat-Sun 0830 hours - 2100 hours
It’s magical. There is an outdoor serving area tucked into a redwood grove, including seating inside a circle of mature trees. Inside, there’s a main dining area, which is elegant and nice, a front porch, with umbrellas and tables, and a pleasant little bar. The entire effect is peaceful, sophisticated and really pleasant.
Service is great. Servers tend to be young people from the nearby mountain towns – our waitress was from Boulder Creek – and although they’re a little unsophisticated, they know their menus, they’re friendly, and they’re really enthusiastic.
Not inexpensive -- $52 for two, including a glass of wine and an appetizer. Portions are adequate, but not large.
The food is outstanding – complex, expertly made, and authentic. Whoever is the chef really knows what he’s doing.
We started off with an order of Octopus Carpaccio. This is an unusual, visually fascinating twist on the classic beef Carpaccio familiar in Italian menus. Basically, this is boiled octopus, thinly sliced and dressed in herbs, oil, vinegar and spices. It was amazing – light, flavorful and visually lovely. We also had an order of bruschetta – grilled bread topped with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, and topped finely diced tomatoes and herbs. It was flawless, and really good.
For our main course, we chose lasagna – that old, school cafeteria standby. This preparation was a revelation. It was rich and complex, with many layers, and a number of different unique ingredients combining to a really nice effect. For instance, along with the usual meat, there were also mushrooms. These can be tricky to combine in one dish, but this one succeeded – admirably.
We also had Orecchiette con la Salsiccia. This is a hearty pasta dish – a kind of stew, really – with leeks, sausage, garlic, mushrooms and broccolini. This dish requires combining several pretty heavy ingredients, along with a healthy dose of olive oil. Inexpertly done, it could have been a real mess, frankly – heavy pasta, sausage, olive oil. However, at Casa Nostra, it was amazing – rich, deep and delicious.
The whole meal was like that. La Casa Nostra is serious Italian food, prepared in a really unlikely, but lovely setting – an old mountain house, basically, with a redwood grove as a second dining area. Sunlight filtering down through the leaves. Friendly servers, and the feeling that you’ve found a place that combines wildly disparate elements, with great success. It’s a restaurant that’s full of wonderful surprises. Highly recommended.Published On: Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013